Cold war on remembrance

Wiesława Lewandowska talks to Prof. Wojciech Materski about the Russian and Polish prisoners of the 1920 war, Stalin's hatred and the need of the myth of anti-Katyn.

WIESLAWA LEWANDOWSKA: - For several years, despite the insistent acts of good will of the Polish government, we have been dealing with a Polish-Russian war on remembrance, on history. It is even hard to say when this war began…

PROF. WOJCIECH MATERSKI: - Indeed, one can define the present condition of the Polish-Russian relationships in this way. We have a Polish-Russian war and earlier, we had the Polish-Soviet war, war on remembrance. I would trace its beginnings to the late 1980s when under the pressure of new information and discovered archival materials Mikhail Gorbachev realised that the truth about the Katyn massacre could not be kept secret any longer. This great democrat and reformer sent in a ruthlessly cynical way a secret circular to the main state institutions, archives and the prosecutor's office asking them to find something that would historically burden Poles.

- Something that would counterbalance the Katyn massacre and turn attention away from it?

- Yes, to soften the shock after admitting that the Russians committed this crime. It was then that the so-called anti-Katyn affair, i.e., alleged mass murder of the Red Army soldiers who were prisoners of war in the Polish camps in the 1919-20 war was contrived. In 1990 Russia began a ruthless action to falsify history through over-interpretation of some historical aspects. However, one should stress that historians refuted that anti-Katyn, created by Gorbachev, in some reliable publications.

- Including the Russian historians?

- Yes. A large volume of documents, the effect of collaboration between the Polish and Russian historians, contradicted these accusations completely. The volume entitled 'Krasnoarmiejcy w polskom plenu' [Red Army Soldiers in Polish Captivity] was published in Moscow in 2004.

- Why is it quoted in current discussions so rarely?

- These materials have not been simply spread. As far I as know apart from a small edition the books are still in storehouses and not for sale.

- Due to their uncomfortable truth?

- Certainly. These documents show that accusing Poland of murdering the Soviet POWs in 1920 was falsity. They state that death rate in the prisoners' camps was very high, even up to 18,000, which resulted mainly from epidemics, bad sanitary conditions, bad food and lack of medicaments. But with all certainty, these were not death camps as some units of the Russian propaganda suggest.

- In the Russian Wikipedia there is the term 'Polish concentration camps'…

- This is obviously a big misuse but it is true that in 1920 the term 'concentration camps' was used referring to the collecting points of prisoners of war before they were transported to other camps. The place in Bialystok was called a 'concentration camp' and particular army units directed prisoners of war there. But using the term after the experiences of World War II is out of place and can testify about evil intentions.

- However, the Russian propaganda says straight that the POW camps in 1920 were death camps in the Nazi understanding of the word an some publicists as well as some Russian historians claim that the number of prisoners in those camps were many times bigger than the number given in the volume published in 2004.

- The number of the dead in those camps is fairly precise and confirmed by the research of serious scientists. But the fact is that after the myth of anti-Katyn was created there was a kind of bidding. Some historians e.g., Irina Michutina, Nikolaj Nad, Mikhail Mieltiuchov and others gave new assessments, bigger numbers of prisoners held in Polish camps. They compared the numbers with the registration of those who were released and thus they increased the numbers of those missing. These assessments were followed by accusations that the prisoners were killed by Poles… And the truth is that there were ca. 110,000 Soviet prisoners of war in Polish captivity. Out of that number 66,000 returned to Russia on the basis of prisoners' exchange after the war ended and the treaty of Riga was signed. Ca. 25,000 refused to return. So one can conclude that ca. 18,000 prisoners died in the Polish camps: they were not shot in their heads but they simply died of emaciation, diseases and wounds.

- The Russian sources, on the basis of the Polish documents, say that there were over 200,000 prisoners of war and not over 100,000. Where does this discrepancy come from?

- From the imperfect scientific methods and from the fact that some Russian historians consciously use obvious falsities, resulting from the reconstruction of the number of prisoners on the basis of reports from particular army units. When one sums up the reports of the Third Division of the Polish Army we have a huge number of prisoners - over 200,000! But it resulted from the commanders' desire to show off before their superiors. The same case was during the campaign of the Red Army after 17 September 1939. As Prof. Czeslaw Grzelak examined all the reports of the Red Army we get ca. 450,000 Poles taken as prisoners, and this number is doubled.

- In 1920 Polish soldiers were also captives in Russia. This fact has been strangely avoided in the accounts. Why?

- Exactly! And we should speak about it since we forget completely that up to 130,000 Polish prisoners of war, including 35,000 prisoners from the war against the Bolsheviks, were in the Soviet camps during that period. The rest found themselves in the Russian captivity during the period of the Russian empire and then the Interim Government as soldiers of the central countries. The Polish prisoners of war were directed to labour camps, i.e. strict discipline camps where the conditions were horrible and the death rate was high. We forget that ca. 26,000 Polish prisoners returned from this captivity!

- Can the Siberian camps be compared with the Polish ones?

- The essence of the Russian camps was that their inhuman conditions were planned and premeditated by the Soviet administration whereas in our camps the misfortune resulted from poor organisation of the state; there was an administrative chaos, lack of money, medicaments, food, due to, unfortunately, embezzlement of the camp commanders, but no one shot the prisoners in their heads…

- In the Polish Wikipedia we can find the international opinions of the visitation of the prisoners' camps in 1920 by Edgar Vincent D'Abernon, 'Poles regard the prisoners of war rather as unhappy victims than as hatred enemies. I saw they eat healthily and are fed well and most of them seem to be happy that they are living safely and far from the front.' But was it really so good?

- It is a false account. The truth is that in general the situation in camps was very bad and sometimes catastrophic.

- The dramatic letters of General Zdzislaw Hordynski-Juchnowicz, the head of the sanitary department of the Ministry of Domestic Affairs who in December 1919 reported to his superior about the situation in the distribution station in Bialystok, are closer to the truth, 'I dare address you describing this horrible situation that each of us who comes to the camp, must confront. The barracks are crowded and among the healthy there are many sick. In my opinion, out these 1,400 prisoners no one is healthy.'

- It is a decidedly true picture. In fact, there were many reports that the situation in camps was horrible and that a civilised country should not have let that happen… But one should remember that this country was just created and was to be broken any time, that the Red Army was approaching the Vistula - one could think about a civilised attitude towards prisoners only later. The most important thing was to save the state at all costs.

- Today the Russians are eager to refer to the Polish critical documents of that period to prove their thesis of 'murdering' the Russian prisoners…

- We do not conceal these documents. They are available in our archives. But to have some balance it is worth remembering the testimonies from the Russian prisoners' camps presented by those who survived, e.g., Stanislaw Bohdanowicz. During that time, in the Polish labour camps in Siberia, in equally bad sanitary and living conditions, the prisoners were destroyed by inhuman work conditions… The interesting thing is that in that period both parties showed as if understanding and consent to such behaviour, historical necessity… In the 20 years between the wars when the Polish-Soviet relationships were generally bad no one in Russia spoke about the bad conditions in prisoners' camps; there were no accusations that the Red Army soldiers were murdered in those camps. Nobody would have thought about it since the memory of the war was fresh. It was only artificially created at Gorbachev's order after 70 years.

- And earlier - as some historians say - Stalin allegedly was to explain that Katyn was a response to 'Polish wickedness' in 1920.

- The thesis that Katyn was Stalin's revenge for the 1920 war is really popular. But in my opinion it is not the whole answer to the question why it was in March 1940 that he took this cruel decision in some unclear way since there was nothing to force that decision then. The fact is that Stalin was generally against Poles. In 1935-40 ca. 140,000 Poles having the Soviet citizenships were murdered in the USSR. They included almost all leading communists. That number was huge considering the fact that during Word War II ca. 130,000 Poles were killed in the East… Stalin did not attack particular social strata but the nation as a whole, the nation he did not like. It was a typically genocidal attitude. But the thesis that the Katyn massacre ordered by Stalin has some connection with the war of 1920 has not been proved although it has been eagerly used by certain politically involved historians-amateurs.

- Mainly to intensify the anti-Polish propaganda in Russia on the occasions of the Katyn anniversaries. It is hard to understand the last, rather not typical, raising of the theme using the commemorative tablet in Strzalkow…

- It is not known why and who concocted this action at this moment… Is it a provocation or some manifestation of badly understood Russian patriotism? I do not exclude that similar actions will be repeated. However, I do not think that such events were directly inspired by the Russian authorities. It is rather the mood that built this event, creating and supporting anti-Katyn, that is to be blamed. The Russian authorities seem not to care for the objective truth so that it can find its way through in our common awareness although the Russians do not deny it themselves (the speeches of Putin and Medvedev).

- The Russian tablet glued to the obelisk in Strzalkow was not only to remind us of the alleged cruelty of Poles committed 90 years ago but it was also a kind of revenge for the Polish tablet in Smolensk?

- This is going too far. The Smolensk families did not put their tablet secretly. It was done in the light of cameras, with the participation of the Polish consul and observers of the Smolensk authorities. They did it very openly. And what is more important, they had the moral and family reasons to do it. Whereas in Strzalkow we dealt with a well-prepared action conducted during the day but the perpetrators are not known. In Smolensk we have a very painful issue which affects the Polish families whereas in Strzalkow we have some cynical manipulation, which is hard to understand.

- Many factors show that the anti-Katyn action initiated by Gorbachev is fairly faithfully continued by his successors. Putin declares, 'The remembrance cemeteries in Katyn and Mednoye, as well as the tragic fates of the Russian soldiers, who were captives during the war in 1920, should become a symbol of common sorrow and mutual forgiveness.' How should we understand these words?

- It seems that Vladimir Putin, as a man of the security organs responsible for the Katyn massacre, has fundamental difficulties concerning this problem… Although he knows that the Katyn massacre cannot be hidden, he is considerably less determined to present this issue than President Medvedev. The latter cuts himself off decidedly from the past crimes and says that they should be unambiguously termed and condemned. Although Putin admits that the Russian crimes did take place he relativizes them, always stressing the need of mutual forgiveness but he never wants to finish certain things.

- Why?

- Because he must have admitted that Katyn was a crime having the characteristics of genocide and its victims must be vindicated.

- Why is it so difficult?

- It seems that besides the hurt imperial pride, besides the shadow that must have fallen on the great victory of the Red Army in World War II, the essential thing is the fear of compensation procedures that would concern 22,000 prisoners' families and Polish prisoners and ca. 700,000 Russians exterminated on the basis of the same article 58 of the criminal code. This would have opened possibilities for legal proceedings of compensation by Russia's own citizens, too.

- And this could have been a deadly blow for that empire that desires to be restored?

- Perhaps that's it. And that's why we can see this pressing postponement of uttering these several simply words.

- How can the Polish attitude towards this war on remembrance be evaluated? It seems that we are dealing with a certain vagueness of real politics…

- Indeed, one can see certain vagueness as far as the orderliness of our relationships with Russia is concerned, which must have had to do with Realpolitik - huge difference in potentials. The Group for Difficult Matters has worked out common recommendations concerning the definite closure of the historical themes, their negative influence on the present times. Centres for Dialogue are to originate in Poland and Russia. At the beginning of June the Group for Difficult Matters is having a session in Riga and probably the Group will be transformed into a scientific council related to the Centres for Dialogue. A Polish proxy to organise such a Centre was appointed, too. So we have institutions in which views can be exchanged so that in the future the historical aspects will not spoil the present relationships and will not burden the future.

- It is a very idyllic picture, Professor Materski!

- It can look so if both countries intent to act on their good wills. Poland has good will for sure.

- But instead of Russia showing her good will we are still facing the Kali logic [if somebody takes Kali's cow it is a bad deed but if Kali takes somebody's cow it is a good deed]?

- So far we have not seen any hope that these historical events will stop burdening mutual relationships and that they are solved according to the historical truth, i.e., in a satisfying way for Poland. Cautious hopes can be connected with the presidential elections in Russian next year. If there is a confrontation between Putin and Medvediev and the latter wins, although I do not overestimate him, I think that we can approach the Polish-Russian relationships with some optimism in the next years.

"Niedziela" 23/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: