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The Duma’s Recognition of Katyn Deserves Praise

katyn2120110.jpgWriting on the New York Review of Books Blog, Timothy Snyder comments on the recent motion passed by the Duma on Friday which declared Joseph Stalin’s responsibility for the massacre at Katyn, Poland.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Poles have been able to say what they like about Katyń, and now the basic facts of the matter are no longer in doubt. Yet many Poles believed that even after Poland joined the European Union in 2004, western allies failed to understand the particular cruelty of Katyń, and the more complex history of wartime suffering that it illustrates. The point is not just that Poles suffered more than most others during the war, although of course they did. The Holocaust, an event on an entirely different scale, often obscures this. A Polish Jew was fifteen times more likely to die during the war than was a non-Jewish Pole–but the latter was still about twenty times more likely to die than an American. The point is that acknowledgement of Katyń has not so far led to a reconsideration of the history of the war which would permit the observation that the Soviets were aggressors before they were liberators. (…)

The declaration of the Russian parliament deserves great praise, and the political acknowledgement of Katyń might affect Russia’s own discussions of Stalinism. It invites Poles into a conversation about history that heretofore has focused on Russia’s own wartime heroism and martyrology. Presumably, it won’t be long before a Russian or Polish historian points out that Stalin’s Great Terror, remembered as the great crime against Russians, in fact specifically targeted ethnic minorities such as Poles. However that may be, the declaration confirms a basic reality of our age of globalized commemoration: national history is becoming inseparable from foreign policy.