Logo

Historical Perspectives on Russia’s War Crimes in Ukraine

Polish struggles to remember Soviet atrocities in World War II provide lessons for today's conflict

Share
Historical Perspectives on Russia’s War Crimes in Ukraine
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

In the 2007 film “Katyn,” directed by Poland’s acclaimed Andrzej Wajda, a young woman in wartime Krakow tries to sell her hair to raise money for a headstone for her brother, who has been murdered and buried in an unmarked grave by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She finds a buyer in a local theater, an actress who survived Auschwitz and lost her own hair. The actress watches as the woman’s long braids are cut off in the theater dressing room and recites the following lines:

So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved. And if my present deeds are foolish in thy sight, it may be that a foolish judge arraigns my folly.

In case the audience doesn’t recognize the reference, a poster for Sophocles’ “Antigone” can be glimpsed on the wall in the background — a poster advertising the play that is currently being staged in the actress’s theater. In the ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone defies the order of the tyrant Creon that her brother’s body be left to rot on the battlefield and instead buries him with dignity, for which she herself faces a death sentence.

The scene speaks to wounds that affect many societies that have lived through war, occupation and oppression: the trauma resulting from an inability to bury one’s dead.

In Poland’s case, World War II was particularly horrific from this perspective, with countless victims of both the Soviets and the Nazis left untraced and unburied. At Katyn, the scale of the brutality and also the fanaticism with which the Soviets attacked the memory of the victims caused the massacres to stand out. In 1939, after invading Poland, the Soviet Union took prisoner more than 20,000 Polish soldiers, border guards and policemen. For reasons that remain unclear (the act brought little real benefit to Josef Stalin) these men and one woman, a lone pilot, were shot by the NKVD at various sites throughout the Soviet Union. The most infamous location was the Katyn Forest, near the city of Smolensk in western Russia, though others were murdered near the Russian city of Tver and near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, as well as in prisons throughout Belarus.

The murders at Katyn and elsewhere were carried out under conditions of strictest secrecy. Not long afterward, the Soviets killed most of the executioners themselves; after all, perpetrators are witnesses of a sort. The bodies were hidden in forests and, in some cases, the killers tried to dissolve the corpses with chemicals. Relatives and Polish officials were lied to by the Soviets. When Stalin was asked about the prisoners’ whereabouts by General Władysław Anders, who was gathering a Polish army in Soviet-controlled territories to fight the Nazis, the dictator played dumb. Perhaps they had all escaped to Manchuria, he suggested. The painter and writer Józef Czapski, who had spent time in prison camps with the missing men but had been released before the massacres, was tasked by Anders with finding his comrades. He was led on a wild goose chase that took him across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, an experience he recounted in a memoir with the telling title “On Inhuman Land.”

Today, in Ukraine, where Russia is currently waging a brutal, neo-imperialist war, we are seeing historical parallels with the events of WWII, including the cold-blooded murder of defenseless prisoners and the elaborate deflection of blame.

In late August 2022, when the Ukrainian Armed Forces drove the Russians out of Izium in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, they discovered the horrific legacy of the occupation: Hundreds if not thousands of bodies were buried in hastily dug graves in the forests around the city. The causes of the deaths were not clear, though many bore traces of torture and execution. Before Izium, there was Olenivka, a Russian prison camp in the Donetsk region that the Russians deliberately bombed in July 2022, killing at least 53 prisoners and wounding 75 more. Russia refuses to provide information to relatives on the status of the prisoners and has barred international observers from the site. Moscow blames Kyiv, though investigations have concluded that responsibility lies with the occupiers.

As Ukrainians exhumed decomposing bodies from trenches, striking similarities with the Katyn Forest became apparent. Across newly liberated areas of Ukraine, relatives have been unable to achieve the closure that comes with a respectful burial. Like the relatives of the Katyn massacres, and like Antigone, they are unable to mourn properly. Now, as then, the Kremlin is denying culpability, determined to maintain an illusion of moral superiority over its enemies despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Once again, the Kremlin is deploying a combination of terror, brutality and psychological violence against the population it hopes to subjugate, while deliberately destroying the border between truth and lies in order to deceive and confuse audiences both domestic and international.

Although the dead at Katyn accounted for only a fraction of the overall number of Stalin’s Polish victims, they became emblematic of Polish suffering under Soviet terror. Poles had been oppressed by Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, when Russia controlled most of Poland. In 1919, the Bolsheviks made a brutal attempt to sabotage Polish state-building attempts. For many Poles, establishing the truth about 1940’s Katyn was about more than the horrific crime itself: It was about asserting the right to know and speak the truth about their own history and having the basic right to mourn their dead.

In this sense, the Poles’ struggle for truth was an inspiration to other societies facing similar histories of trauma and silenced grief under Soviet rule, not least in Ukraine, which had been an additional setting for the Katyn drama. Around 4,000 of the Poles taken prisoner in 1939 were held at Starobilsk in eastern Ukraine. The vast majority were murdered at Piatykhatky on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Józef Czapski was one of the few released before the executions; Andrzej Wajda’s father, Jakub, was not so lucky. In the Cold War era, Ukrainian emigrant and diaspora communities often invoked Katyn when campaigning for recognition of their own suffering and saw the Polish model of “memory activism” as an example to follow.

Inside the Soviet Union, Ukrainian dissidents suffered severe punishment for decrying official lies about the fate of the Polish servicemen. In post-Soviet Ukraine, successive governments made Piatykhatky, where many Ukrainian victims of Stalinism are also buried, a locus of Polish-Ukrainian solidarity and common mourning. A Polish memorial complex was opened there in 2000. In March 2022, it was damaged by Russian shelling, in what Polish journalists investigating the site believe to have been a deliberate attack. Because Poland is one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies in the war with Russia, it is hardly surprising that a site of Polish-Ukrainian unity in the face of Kremlin terror should be a target for the Russian army.

The presence of Polish victims in the graves at Kharkiv was not confirmed until the 1990s, however. In the post-WWII decades, the story of the search for the truth about Katyn unfolded slowly and in a convoluted way, thanks to the elaborate Soviet disinformation campaign.

The bodies in the Katyn Forest were first discovered after the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. The Nazis seized on Katyn as an opportunity for a propaganda assault on Stalin, announcing the discovery in early 1943 and inviting the International Red Cross to observe the macabre exhumations. Later that year, the Soviets retook the territory and launched their own so-called investigation, involving hasty exhumations and a semblance of international observation. They concluded the massacre had been carried out by the Nazis. This was the beginning of what became known in Poland as “The Katyn Lie.”

The Soviet position was inconsistent. After pinning the massacres on the Nazis, they attempted to have them included in the charges against the Nazis at Nuremberg. Their lie was flimsy and the American and British judges dismissed the charges as weak. After WWII, Moscow preferred to just keep the whole business quiet. In communist Poland, the topic was strictly taboo. The murder sites in the Soviet Union were off limits, and memorials were not allowed anywhere.

For more than four decades, many Poles played the role of Antigone. Secret organizations were formed to collect evidence and publish information, testimonies such as those of Czapski, and historical research in the underground press. They established lists of the victims’ names, the details of their final days, and the places where they might have been buried. They preserved the relics of the victims: the diaries, letters and belongings recovered from the pits during exhumations. They faced intimidation, interrogation, imprisonment, beatings or even murder for their activities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, acts of militant commemoration became increasingly audacious. In 1980, for example, a group of activists installed a stone cross about 12 feet high in Warsaw’s Powązki military cemetery. It bore the telling date of 1940, the true year of the murders, even though the Soviets as well as the Polish communist government claimed the murders had been carried out in 1941 under German occupation. The cross stood for less than 24 hours, but it was the defiant act of commemoration itself that counted more than the physical object. Only in 1989 was the cross recovered and then, in 1995, reinstalled in the cemetery, where it still stands.

The fight continued outside Poland as well. The writer Józef Mackiewicz (who attended the initial German exhumations and was then forced to flee Poland on charges of collaboration) compiled testimonies, maps and other evidence. American Poles secured a U.S. congressional investigation that concluded Soviet guilt. Applications by the Polish diaspora in the U.K. to build a monument in central London were refused repeatedly by the British government for fear of offending the Soviets. When permission was finally granted in 1976, London forbade the use of the true date. The Soviet lie in the shape of the 1941 date falsely implied German culpability. The date was only corrected, at last, after 1989.

As the decades passed, the struggle for the truth about Katyn became something more than just establishing facts: It turned remembrance into a form of resistance. The freedom to mourn was seen as nothing short of a fundamental human right.

In 1917, Sigmund Freud wrote that the process of mourning, while painful, allows us to accept the loss of our beloved ones, separate ourselves from them and move on. When mourning is not possible or is incomplete, melancholia ensues: an inability to accept the loss, which then effects an obsessive cycle of denial, shame and self-blame. This idea that incomplete mourning leads only to unproductive melancholy, however, could be disputed. Freud had not counted on the political dimensions of mourning. Injustice is painful, but the anger it produces is also a powerful motivator. When the injustice applies to something as intimate as grieving for a loved one, the strength of motivation is amplified.

The Katyn campaigners who fought for the memory of loved ones for decades, often risking their own lives, managed to achieve a great deal. In the end, Poland and the world found out the truth. The lies inscribed on monuments were corrected and new monuments were built. In the early 2000s, a large complex was even built at Katyn itself, although Russian members of parliament have recently called for it to be destroyed in response to Poland’s removal of Red Army monuments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Frustrated mourning also developed into a rich source of inspiration for Polish culture and artistic expression. The Soviet erasure of the truth (the elimination of traces, documents and witnesses) had made it very difficult to establish what exactly had happened to the Katyn victims. Literature or film that dealt with the atrocities of the mid-20th century, whether the Gulag or the Holocaust, often used quasi-documentary forms, relying on testimony and adherence to fact in order to avoid fictionalization or aestheticization. With Katyn, however, there was a gap in knowledge, a lack of direct testimony about the precise details of the crime. Little was known about exactly how the prisoners had died. The result was that, for the critic Wojciech Lipowski, as he wrote in 2005, Katyn represented “a great absence” in Polish culture.

This verdict was not entirely fair. True, no Polish writer was able to write the definitive Katyn novel. Instead, the writers approached the topic obliquely, not reconstructing events in fiction, but exploring what it means not to know, to be unable to mourn, to remember without the right to commemorate. Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Buttons,” which describes how the soldiers were identified as Polish by the brass buttons from their uniforms, is one of the best-known texts in post-WWII Polish literature. For Herbert, the button is not merely a motif of something lost but “a powerful voice of silent choirs,” a symbol of the dormant power of memory and the potential of testimony.

Włodzimierz Odojewski, one of post-WWII Poland’s most important prose writers, returned to the topic repeatedly. His works are full of unreliable witnesses, partial testimony and second-hand rumors. His protagonists are journalists, academics, forensic scientists and lawyers obsessed by their inability to pin down the truth, sometimes persecuted for their pursuit of it. In one story, an academic investigating Katyn is given an incomplete tape recording of an interview with a man who, during WWII, encountered a partisan who claimed to be a survivor of the massacre. In the end, the search for the truth through partial and questionable testimonies simply produces layers of uncertainty and more questions than answers. In another of Odojewski’s novels, the brother of one of the victims visits the German exhumations but is too overwhelmed by the experience to take it in. Odojewski’s prose (often compared by Polish critics to that of William Faulkner) reflects psychological breakdown in the face of horror, rather than closure.

This approach irritated some critics, who demanded a full cultural exposure of the crime in all its detail. Literary debates over how, or whether, to directly represent an atrocity that was so shrouded in confusion became heated. Odojewski himself, for example, was originally tasked with writing the screenplay for Wajda’s “Katyn,” but the director rejected his script. It circled around the tragedy too much; Wajda wanted a more direct approach. His decision to represent the killings in a long, brutal final scene was welcomed by many as a long-awaited revelation of the truth, though others found it too explicit. Yet, even with this ending, most of his film cannot help but focus more on what it means to pursue the truth, to fight for the right to mourn — to focus on the experience of being in Antigone’s shoes.

The history of Ukraine, of course, is no less littered with atrocities and mass graves than that of Poland. The Stalinist famines and repressions of the 1930s and the Nazi and Soviet atrocities of WWII are all present in Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian literature, however, was even more tightly controlled by the authorities than Polish literature in the post-WWII decades, and overt explorations of these problems were difficult to publish. The theme emerged in the work of emigrants in the postwar decades, but not in Ukraine until after 1991, in works such as Oksana Zabuzhko’s epic cross-generational novel “Museum of Abandoned Secrets,” with its central theme of the damaging effects of repression and forced forgetting on individuals, families and societies.

At the same time, there may have been no single event in Ukrainian history that could focus collective grief on a set of unmarked graves in the way Katyn did for Poles. Perhaps the Ukrainian experience of 20th-century totalitarianism was both too overwhelming and too dispersed.

The problem of the impossibility of mourning the dead of Russia’s 2022 invasion will be an acute one in Ukrainian society for decades to come. The Polish experience of harnessing the political and creative power this experience affords is instructive. Once again, orders have come from the Kremlin to destroy the traces of both the lives and deaths of the victims. Moscow withholds information, leaving relatives in painful limbo. Acts of violence are compounded by acts of psychological torture that resonate from the lives of families outward and are felt by all of society. The struggle to recover the traces of the dead, to compile a list of their names, to recover their bodies and bury them properly will be a long and tortuous ordeal.

It seems unlikely that Ukrainian society will collapse into melancholic denial and self-blame, as Freud might have us believe. Cathy Caruth, a psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud, wrote the following, referring to Freud’s case of a man haunted by dreams about his dead child:

To awaken [from the traumatic dream] is thus to bear the imperative to survive: to survive no longer simply as the father of a child, but as the one who must tell what it means not to see, which is also what it means to hear the unthinkable words of the dying child.

Ukrainian writers have already begun to respond to this “imperative to survive.” Whether in Natalia Vorozhbyt’s dramas about life on the front lines, in novels about the experience of occupation by Serhii Zhadan and Andrii Kurkov, or in the personal war memoirs of Olesya Khromeychuk and Artem Chekh, this very problem has been at the heart of Ukrainian literature since armed conflict began in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

Since February 2022, it has been the poets — the artists best positioned to respond quickly to breaking events — who have been particularly important. A recent poem by Iya Kiva, who is originally from Donetsk and was forced to flee to Kyiv after 2014, contains the chilling image of those living under dictatorship as sewing “a huge red flag … to cover those killed in gullies, ravines.” The poem ends with the warning of tyranny’s mutilation of truth and reversal of meanings: “work makes free my little one / we’re bringing peace to all people / a black sun shines even in the dark.” In a poem written after the February invasion, fellow Ukrainian poet Iryna Shuvalova describes the poet’s duty “to convince yourself / to testify / the way a broken carafe testifies / to the existence of water.”

This duty is a burden, and the process of testifying can be traumatic. It will, without doubt, test the resolve and ingenuity of Ukrainian society, and its writers, to the limit. Ukrainians will need to come to terms with the fragmented nature of their knowledge about Russia’s crimes, which may extend to the precise whereabouts of the remains of the victims. The shards of a vessel must be gathered, despite the knowledge that it is broken and the water has escaped irretrievably.

As the Polish example shows, however, the injustice of withheld mourning and the urge to testify in the face of forced oblivion can be powerful, uniting factors. Czapski described the will to discover the truth about Katyn as “an invisible chain” that bound Poles together. As the world has seen, Ukrainians, too, are more than capable of uniting in the face of injustice. They shirk neither the imperative to survive nor the duty to testify. Proof of that can be found in the work of the Kyiv-based, Nobel Prize-winning Center for Civil Liberties which, under its indefatigable head Oleksandra Matviichuk, has set itself the task of documenting human rights abuses and war crimes since the beginning of Russia’s war in Donbas in 2014. The Center continues to be crucial in exposing what has happened at places like Izium and Olenivka. This is a task that may strike many as daunting, even impossible. But attempting the impossible has been a defining feature of life in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began.

Some in the West thought Ukrainians’ rush to defend themselves against a supposedly superior enemy was foolish. But, as Antigone’s example shows us, sometimes seemingly foolish acts of resistance actually demonstrate that it is not those who resist who are foolish but, rather, those who seek to sit, unelected and illegitimate, in judgment over the lives and deaths of others — over who has the right to remember and who has the right to mourn.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy