The Katyn Syndrome
A plane carrying the leaders of the Polish Government crashed in Russia on the way to a joint commemoration with the Russian Government at which it was expected that the Russian leadership would give an explanation or apology for the execution of Polish officers in Russia in May 1940 in the Katyn Forest.
The Irish Times carried an editorial on the Katyn executions on April 9th:
"In among the birch and pine trees of the Katyn forests of Smolensk lie the bodies of thousands of dead, anonymous victims of Stalin's brutality Specifically honouring the 20,000 Polish officers massacred there 70 years ago, Vladimir Putin on Wednesday became the first Russian prime minister to admit the role of his predecessor's secret police in the killings. In doing so he took a significant step, as Polish Prime minister Donald Tusk acknowledged at the joint ceremony, towards patching up the tense relationship between the two countries.
But in also drawing attention to the many Russian casualties of the purges who also lie there Putin carefully sidestepped the necessity for what many Poles believe is overdue, an official apology. “In this ground lay Soviet citizens burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repression of the 1930s; Polish officers shot on secret orders; soldiers of the Red Army executed by the Nazis”, he argued.
Mr. Putin, who has yet to sanction full access to the files to Polish historians, condemned the “cynical lies that have blurred the truth about the Katyn shootings”—notably, of course, Russian insistence for half a century on Nazi responsibility. But he insisted that “it would also be a lie and a manipulation to place the blame for these crimes on the Russian people”.
That the Russian government should not want to shoulder responsibility for the crimes of the Stalinist era is understandable, but Mr. Putin's words will strike many Poles as deeply disingenuous. His own political power base rests on his articulation of a strong Russian nationalism that is busy reclaiming the country's “glorious” history from the “foreign” naysayers. In the process it has played on deeply ambivalent attitudes to Stalin's role among many citizens.
His government has sponsored history textbooks describing Stalin as “the most successful Soviet leader ever” and an “efficient manager”, and Mr. Putin told history teachers in 2007 that “all sorts of things happen in the history of every state. And we cannot allow ourselves to be saddled with guilt. . .” He has brought Soviet flags and songs back into public life. And although he has often expressed sorrow over Stalin's victims Mr. Putin has also described the destruction of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
As the Russian historian Mikhail Gefter once wrote, it is no good blaming everything on Stalin, when the real power and legacy of his reign of terror was “in the Stalinism that entered into all of us”. Mr. Putin, included.
If Stalinism has entered all of them, British Imperialism has equally entered all of us. Russians live in the civilisation brought into being by the Communist Party during the period of Stalin's leadership, and we live in the civilisation of the British Empire.
It was impossible to live in Russia from the mid 1920s to the early 1950s and not be part of the constructive effort that is called Stalinism. And it was impossible to live in Britain from the mid-19th century (at the latest) and not be a participant and beneficiary of British Imperialism, and this applied to Ireland only a little less than to Britain.
The business of civilising is a messy and painful business. It involves much destruction, much regimentation, and the encouragement of certain ways of living by the purposeful infliction of pain. We thought the way Saddam Hussein was civilising Iraq was evil—didn't we? Isn't that why we went in? And look at all the mayhem we have brought about—because we are perpetrators in this matter, if only little ones—in a mere six years, with no end in sight to the killing we instigated.
Iraq is a minor episode for Britain, which has done this kind of thing a hundred times, and intends to carry on doing it as the occasion presents itself. But it should be a big issue for us. We are new to it.
Stalin civilised Russia in much the same way as Britain civilised Kenya in the 1950s, with the difference that Stalinism was an internal Russian civilising process, conducted entirely by elements of Russian society in a purposeful work of economic construction, while British action in Kenya—in which it is reckoned that a third of a million Kenyans were killed—was an external operation conducted on Kenya for an external purpose.
We cannot recall any Irish Times editorials on the Kenya atrocities when survivors have tried vainly to bring the perpetrators to court. British Imperialism has become part of us.
The Stalinist terror constructed the state which brought Nazi Germany to book, when Britain, after supporting it for six years, made war on it ineffectually.
If we take the word 'criminal' seriously as a legal term, that brings up the Nuremberg Trials at which the Germans were indicted for Katyn. We are not suggesting that the Germans did it. But the American and British Governments agreed that the Germans should be charged with it. And it must be presumed that Britain knew very well that the Russians did it, when agreeing that the Germans should be charged with it.
If the Germans did it, it was a crime: if the Russians did it, it wasn't. That was the rule in the system of international law established on the defeat of Nazism.
The Russian state presumably had a reason for executing these soldiers. We do not know what it was. Britain had a reason for the fire-bombing of the undefended city of Dresden in 1945. We do not know what that was either. But if one is going to speak emotively of "crimes" in connection with these things, without any reference to any system of law under which they might be dealt with as crimes, then the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the undefended city of Dresden at a time when the defeat of the German state was certain, was at least as much a crime as the killing of a lesser number of Polish military officers in Russian captivity.
We know what the purpose of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was—or was said to be. It was to speed up the surrender of Japan by killing Japanese civilians en masse, and saving the lives of American soldiers. And that is something that the Geneva Convention said absolutely must not be done.
But it was not a crime, because the Security Council system of the UN has precedence over all else, and the killing of undefended civilians to save the lives of soldiers could only be criminalised with the consent of the US Government.
And, as to the opening of archives: sections of the British archives relating to Irish affairs twenty years before Katyn remain closed and are not listed for opening for another generation.