There were 6,295 Polish prisoners held captive at the monastery when the order came to “unload” the camp. It took a month and a half to kill all of them.
The prisoners were mostly military officers, police, gendarmes and landlords, rounded up as a dangerous “bourgeois” elite when the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in the run-up to World War II. The following year, 1940, the Communist Party decided to eliminate them.
Prison directors began to send the men by train, a group at a time, to the provincial town of Tver, then called Kalinin, about 100 miles northwest of Moscow. There, in the basement of intelligence headquarters, the prisoners were executed: a single bullet to the head from a German pistol, historians here say.
The executioners worked through the spring nights, loading bodies into trucks and carting them nearly 20 miles to this pine glade that once encircled a rest house for the NKVD, the feared precursor to the Soviet KGB. They threw them into deep trenches. Even the truck drivers were ordered to take part in the slaughter, to ensure their silence.
“The situation is normal,” the prison camp commissar wrote to his superiors in Moscow. “The Polish officers are not guessing anything. They think they’re being deported back home. Even those who are sick try to pretend they’re healthy so they can go too.”
It was a bloody spring. The same fate was unfolding for Poles held in other camps throughout the western flank of the Soviet Union.
It’s an old story among many old stories, pooling at the bottom of Russian memory long before it was articulated officially or publicly. And yet the mass executions of the Polish prisoners remain a potent issue today for Russians as well as Poles.
There was a time, roughly between the collapse of communism and the rise of Vladimir Putin, when the Russian government began to dig into the uglier aspects of Soviet history. Investigators arrived at this sleepy forest and unearthed thousands of corpses, the remains of some of the Polish prisoners systematically killed by Stalin’s executioners in the operation now shorthanded as the Katyn massacre. (Katyn forest contains another Polish mass grave.) As many as 22,000 Poles were killed.
Today, lawyers, Polish families and human rights organizations are calling on the Russian government to establish the victims’ innocence by “rehabilitating” the Polish prisoners. They are also pushing for the declassification of documents and recent decisions about the probe into the massacre.
The requests are meeting stiff resistance from Moscow. Appeals to the courts have failed and investigations have halted. The government has progressively curtailed access to intelligence archives, where historians believe more evidence may lie.
Some critics say Putin, who has called the Soviet collapse the “geopolitical disaster” of the last century and cut his teeth working for the KGB, is the intellectual product of the same system; that the powerful prime minister who previously served as Russia’s president could not be expected to undertake any reexamination of history.
Others say the current government is harking back to a more powerful time, using Soviet nostalgia and allowing a resurgence of Stalin’s popularity as a bulwark against dissent and growing economic woes.
Whatever the reason, the Polish case remains shrouded in what Yelena Obraztsova, research director at a memorial site in Mednoye, calls “a syndrome of half-truths and lies.”
State newspapers have started to backpedal to Stalin-era propaganda about the Polish prisoners, recycling the claim that it was in fact the Nazis, and not the Soviets, who killed the men and dumped them into mass graves.
In October 2007, Russia’s most popular newspaper published, without a dissenting view, a Soviet general’s denial of the Soviet Union’s hand in the death of the Poles. He termed the mass graves “a German provocation.”
“The Germans destroyed them,” Valentin Varennikov, who died this month, was quoted as saying. “And then at gunpoint the same Germans forced several Russians to write statements that the Poles were allegedly shot by the NKVD.”
This plays out against a backdrop of marked defensiveness over the Soviet role in World War II. The government has recently discussed criminalizing any criticism of Soviet tactics during the conflict, known by Russians as the Great Patriotic War.
Many Russians feel keenly that the millions of deaths their country suffered to squelch the rise of fascism are little remembered, let alone appreciated, by the West.
Holidays such as this month’s Victory Day celebrate the bygone glory and moral rectitude of the World War II era. Tanks and warplanes stream along Moscow’s main boulevard, leafy parks sway with orchestra music, and young women slip into 1940s frocks to waltz with stooped veterans.
Details such as the mass extermination of Polish prisoners undercut the sense of righteousness, some say.
“There is a general trend that we should be proud of our history,” said Yan Rachinsky of Russia’s Memorial human rights organization. “And it’s very hard to be proud of war criminals.”
A slight woman with a cloud of black hair and clear blue eyes, Anna Stavitskaya, a lawyer for Polish descendants, has been ushering the pleas of the Polish families through Russia’s various courts for years. Having exhausted her appeals all the way up to Russia’s highest court this year, she is preparing to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
Some Russian courts have ruled that since no criminal case was filed against the Poles, there was no proof of repression; and since many of the bodies were never identified, the victimization of specific people was impossible to prove. Others simply ruled that the executioners were all dead, and therefore there was nobody to blame.
“It boils down to the idea that, although mass graves were found, since nobody was identified, nobody was executed,” Stavitskaya said. “I can’t find the logic. I can’t grasp it with my mind.”
She is disappointed by the verdicts, she says, but not surprised. She had always viewed the Russian courts as a formality to be dispensed with before taking the case abroad.
“Everybody considers this a political case, and I knew on a political case the result couldn’t be different,” Stavitskaya said. “It couldn’t be resolved in Russia.”
Some observers point out that, in seeking a reckoning and an admission of guilt, the Poles are asking for something that even Russians haven’t demanded of their own government.
“Even [Russian] people who sat in prison 10 years, totally innocent, are very cautious when they talk about the repressions,” Obraztsova said. “They say, ‘There were so many enemies and saboteurs that I was repressed accidentally.’ Even people who lost their relatives, lost parents, they’re not really angry.”
Today, all that remains of the Polish prisoners is an incomplete trail of paper and the forest grave sites. Stalin’s signature still shows on the Central Committee of the Communist Party order to execute the captives. There are also documents indicating that all the men had been transferred to the killing sites.
There is the testimony of the local NKVD chief who in the 1990s described the obliteration of the prisoners. There is a secret letter the KGB sent to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, warning that the registration cards from “former bourgeois Poland” should be destroyed lest they shed a negative light on the Soviet Union.
“Some unforeseeable accident can lead to the exposure of the completed operation with all the undesirable consequences for our state,” the letter warns. “It appears expedient to destroy all the registration cards.”
In the 1990s, Polish authorities tried to dig the corpses out of the earth at Mednoye and return them to native soil.
But medical authorities said that would be too unhealthy. The sandy, muddy soil had preserved the bodies well; they were still rotting.
The small museum perched on the edge of the memorial site draws just a few dozen visitors a month. There wasn’t supposed to be a museum here at all, but the historians cobbled it together, piece by piece, digging relics from the earth and documents from the military archives in Moscow. They did it because they thought it was important, Obraztsova says.
There was a time, she says, when the Russian government became sheepish, and launched more ambitious plans. This grove of pines, after all, shielded the bones of about 5,000 Russian purge victims, as well as the Polish graves. So Moscow decided to build a memorial park of its own, which would stand alongside the towering crosses wrought from pig iron that were erected by the Polish government in memory of the slain prisoners.
The same architects overseeing the renovation of Moscow’s iconic Bolshoi Theater were commissioned and drew up plans. There would be a “memory gate,” a “road to eternity” and an underground museum space and film-viewing parlor covered over with grass to symbolize the buried memories and lives.
But in 2001, not long after Putin became president, construction was abruptly stopped. Funding was pulled.
Today, alongside a lovely and somber Polish memorial, the Russian side stands half-done.