Katyn: Little guilt, no honour

The ECHR has criticised Russian authorities' reluctance to recognise the reality of the Katyn Massacre. What should the rest of us in modern Europe make of it?

Relatives grieve for fallen victims of Soviet secret police
Charles Crawford
On 17 April 2012 11:30

The Katyn Massacre is still with us:

The Court accepts that the mass murder of Polish prisoners by the Soviet secret police had the features of a war crime….

… The Court is struck by the apparent reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognise the reality of the Katyn, to which the applicants’ relatives had fallen victims …The Court is struck by the Russian authorities’ continued complacency in the face of the applicants’ anguish and distress, especially as they are becoming more and more fragile by virtue of their age … the Russian authorities demonstrated a flagrant, continuous and callous disregard for their concerns and anxieties.

These are extracts from the important new judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought against Russia by some Polish relatives of the victims of the Katyn Massacre. The court ruled against the applicants on some counts, but held that Russia had been in breach of important international law obligations in the way it had handled its investigation into Katyn.

After you’ve read the judgement, read too this interesting piece by The Philosophers Beard on National Responsibility and Historic Crimes. It makes (boldly, but not altogether convincingly) the argument that it is better to move away from ideas of criminal guilt:

The standard way of thinking about national responsibility for historic crimes is to reach for the model of criminal guilt. This has two parts: national identity in which we establish that the country standing before us is the same one that did the crime; and collective responsibility in which we establish that the people of a country can be jointly accountable for their county's actions. Both are deeply problematic….

Instead of Guilt, the author suggests a new focus on Honour:

Put simply, when we put on the dress of our national identity can we look ourselves in the mirror? Or must we look away in shame and horror?

… citizens should not only be motivated to want to honour their vision of their nation, but that they should want that honouring itself to be honourable. True honour cannot be bought or obtained with trickery - that would be like a soldier lying to get a medal - and in the same way true national honour is not compatible with deliberate self-deception. That self-deception will itself become part of one's national identity, yet it is not something that one can be proud of.

How might this approach be applied to the Katyn massacre of 1940 (in fact a series of killings of over 20,000 Polish prisoners of war in different locations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus)?

Moscow, under current management, has a problem. In other policy areas Moscow has insisted that it is the legal continuation of the USSR. Russia accepted responsibility for Soviet-era international debt and, of course, kept the Soviet Union's place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However, it also insists that Russia can not be held responsible for the crimes of the Stalin period, of which the Katyn killings were a particularly monstrous example. In part because Moscow wants to show that there has been substantive political and moral discontinuity between the USSR and the New Russia. In part because it fears unending law suits over Katyn and other WW2 war crimes. Indeed, the Russian state has never accepted that Katyn even was a war crime.

You might think that insisting that Russia does not want to be seen as responsible for USSR war crimes might make it easy for Moscow to throw open the whole ghastly story. You’d be wrong. By keeping secret its extensive Soviet archives on Katyn and, as the Court convincingly argues, by ducking and weaving in an odious way in response to requests from relatives of the victims for further information, the Russian state has taken firm moral and legal ownership of this issue. The ECHR rightly came down heavily against Moscow on this score.

Since the collapse of the USSR Moscow has made important efforts to come to terms with Katyn. First and foremost, after all the decades of the highest-level Soviet lies on the subject, President Yeltsin revealed that the killings had been carried out not by the Nazis but rather by Soviet forces operating under direct orders from Stalin and the top Soviet leadership. Significant archival material was handed over to Poland. Then it all got stuck again until the 2010 Smolensk air disaster in which President Lech Kaczynski died en route to a Katyn memorial event. This helped create the political climate in Moscow for a strong State Duma resolution:

Published documents, kept in classified archives for many years, not only revealed the scale of this horrific tragedy, but also showed that the Katyn crime was carried out on direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet officials … official Soviet propaganda attributed responsibility for this villainy, which has received the collective name of the Katyn tragedy, to Nazi criminals

It is important not to be facile about these problems. The ungraspable enormity of the disaster which the Soviet Union represented for its own people and many of its neighbours means that it is hard to know where to start even talking about it in meaningful moral or legal terms.

On the other hand, the continuing evasiveness by the Russian authorities on the Katyn question, even if driven by non-trivial concerns about endless litigation, suggest that Guilt is somehow qualified even now, and that Honour is not (yet) an important consideration.

Back in 1995 I had a meeting in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to talk about the then noises coming from Moscow linking Russian energy supplies to the problems faced by Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. I pointed out that the newly independent small Baltic republics took a dim view of Moscow’s support for Russian-speakers in these countries: most families in these countries had had relatives deported to Siberia under Stalin.

”So what?”came the studied reply. “Most families in Moscow had relatives deported to Siberia under Stalin”.

Final thought. Even if the Russians struggle to come to terms with the Katyn war crime, what should the rest of us in modern Europe make of it?

My final telegram from Warsaw to the FCO back in 2007 pointed out that it was unlikely that we all would accept Srebrenica being named Mladicgrad in honour of the leading Bosnian Serb commander presiding over the massacre there in 1995. Yet we seemed oddly nonchalant about another part of Europe being named after a war criminal.

Mikhail Kalinin was nominal leader of the Soviet Union when Katyn took place, and his name is on the decree signed by Stalin approving the mass killings. Up the road from Poland is part of Russia named in his honour. Kaliningrad.

Truly we are all guilty - and without honour.

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

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