As a gesture of goodwill following the Smolensk crash which claimed the life of President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other influential Polish leaders, the Russian government decided this week to declassify some historical archives relating to the role of Josef Stalin and the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. The documents are being published online for all to see, and there is talk of going even further and opening up more documents from the era. (See the scans of the original documents here, although the page is overwhelmingly clogged with traffic right now).
The documents, which clearly show Stalin’s personal signature on the orders for the execution of some 22,000 Poles, were first provided in part to the Polish government by President Boris Yeltsin in 1992, but this is the first time the documents have been made available to the public. Clearly this decision to finally get transparent about the war crimes from 70 years ago faced a lot of opposition within the Russian government, but it seems that President Dmitry Medvedev finally gathered enough muscle to push it through. “Let people see it, let them know who made the decision to kill the Polish officers,” the president commented during his visit to Copenhagen, the first Russian state visit to Denmark in 45 years. “It’s all there in the documents. All signatures are there, all the faces are known.“
Medvedev’s unequivocal and commendable stance makes it seem as thoughthere has always been an international consensus regarding thismassacre, which contrasts sharply with statements made by Vladimir Putin(even when he became the first prime minister to attend a memorialservice, his message was two-sided)and many other members of the Russian government. Given the repeateddenials, attempts to pin blame for the murders on the Nazis, or otherdissimulation, Medvedev’s publication of these documents comes off as astark (but welcomed) confession.
I am in agreement with many others that this may represent a dramatic moment of change, depending on how it is handled inside Russia. It is an acknowledgment of many years of lies, a difficult challenge to the breezy historical revisionism of recent years which has cast Stalin as the “effective manager” who made Russia great. It opens many huge questions, not least why we have had to wait so many years to see these documents, or perhaps why groups such as Memorial, who used to work on getting such Soviet archives declassified, have been cowed into submission and criminalized.
Tony Halpin at the Times of London has published a thoughtful piece on the meaning of the public release of these documents, and what it may mean for the future: “If they understand how Katyn poisonedrelations with Poland, what reason is there not to examine the causes ofbitterness in the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estoniatowardsthe Soviet occupation? Or of the present-day anger in western Ukraineoverthe extension of the lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea?(…) Russians indeed have many reasons to take immense pride in thesacrifices madeby their grandparents to defeat Hitler, but a full accounting of historyhasyet to take place here.”
It is undoubtedly a very positive development if this is a sign that Russia is about to undergo a national dialogue about its own history, even if it is coming many years too late. It certainly seems like something out of a novel that the accidental death of a Polish president could have the force to change history, however it is difficult to be optimistic that a true reckoning is forthcoming when so much of the modern power structure is wrapped up in these great narratives of nationalism – lies and crimes against humanity included.
For Russia to be honest about Soviet history, a new conception of the individual’s relationship to the state will have to be negotiated and innovated, and with so many invested in these ideas of the past, such a shift will be painfully resisted.