Last month the National Archives of the United States released to the public a massive corpus of newly declassified documents related to Katyn, the massacre of nearly 22,000 unarmed Polish prisoners by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. Obscured by one of the longest and most extensive cover-ups in history, Katyn has been for decades a sodden field of unanswered questions. Among them: did the Allies know during the Second World War that the Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany, was responsible for the crime?
Many of the documents made public on 10 September 2012 shed light on this question. They offer evidence that the Roosevelt Administration likely knew of Stalin’s guilt as early as 1943, when the Katyn site was first discovered, and subsequently suppressed that knowledge in order to maintain a fragile wartime alliance with the Kremlin.
For historians, these archival disclosures offer no new bombshell revelations. They merely confirm long-held suspicions about what the Allies knew and when they knew it.
For many others outside the discipline, however, the newly declassified documents are reinvigorating and reshaping public memory of Stalin’s emblematic mass murder. News reports from Warsaw to Moscow have cast the White House alongside the Kremlin as an enemy of the truth, reshuffling the conventional dramatis personae of the Katyn tragedy. Appeals have been made for an official apology from the US government.
The release of these Katyn documents constitutes what my co-authors and I call a ‘memory event’ – a revisiting of the past that creates a rupture with its accepted representation – in our new book, Remembering Katyn.
In contrast to Pierre Nora’s ‘sites of memory’ (lieux de mémoire), which ‘stop time’ by simulating eternity in space, memory events ‘start time’ by endowing the past with new life in the future. They are deterritorialized and temporal phenomena, moments of agitation and transformation in the public sphere that spring from a diverse array of genres and contexts to change the way we commemorate the past.
Our book explores a series of memory events – including the 2010 plane crash that claimed the lives of Poland’s leaders en route to Katyn – which have kept the massacres a highly fluid, dynamic and contested subject of memory politics in Eastern Europe and beyond.
To understand why Katyn is a central front in a European ‘memory war’, we map its legacy through the interconnected cultures of seven countries: Belarus, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic States. Mobilising our collective disciplinary and linguistic competencies, we pursue connections between Soviet and Russian political identities, Ukrainian and Belarusian cultural processes, Polish and Estonian historical narratives, and much more. This transnational methodological approach is critical to an understanding of the full reach and scope of Katyn, which literally and figuratively touched the entire region.
In fact, we now know that the majority of its victims perished far from the forest in western Russia that gives the tragedy its name. They were shot outside of Kalinin (today’s Tver) in northwestern Russia, near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and in secret prisons in cities such as Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Today the remains of these victims – the pride and promise of the Polish people – are buried in mass graves throughout Russia, Ukraine and, most likely, Belarus. They lie alongside Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian artists and civic figures; Jews, Catholics and Orthodox; men and women known and unknown. All of them were murdered by the Stalinist regime.
What we offer the reader in Remembering Katyn is a journey through the contested past and volatile present of a region that we define as Europe’s future. We hope that our uniquely transnational study of cultural memory will open up new vistas for students and scholars across the humanities and social sciences.
Rory Finnin is Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies and Chair of the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Cambridge. He co-authored Remembering Katyn with Alexander Etkind, Uilleam Blacker, Julie Fedor, Simon Lewis, Maria Mälksoo and Matilda Mroz.