Katyń at Cambridge? The cognitive dissonance created by situating one of the most notorious atrocities of the Soviet regime to an idyllic old English university town is striking at first.
Yet, with the launching of the three-year transnational interdisciplinary research project ‘Memory at War: Cultural Dynamics in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine‘, of which the UT is an institutional partner, the site of Katyń and the related ‘events’ of memory were at the heart of the inaugural workshop of the project held at the beautiful premises of King’s College, Cambridge early June this year.
The project (shorthand: MAW), generously funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), seeks to understand the conflicts and controversies of modern memory in the former Soviet space. It sets off to explore why it would be the case that while Russia, Poland, and Ukraine all share tortured memories of World War II and Soviet communism, they are nonetheless actualising their post-traumatic energies in remarkably different ways.
The international team of Cambridge, Bergen, Tartu, Helsinki and Groningen scholars aims to trace the traffic of these often conflicting uses of memory in the three target countries across the new media, the politics of history and memory, international relations, literature and film.
The workshop’s focus on Katyń could have hardly been more pertinent and timely. After the Polish president’s plane crash at Smolensk this April, killing a good part of the Polish political and military elite on their way to commemorate the 1940 NKVD massacres of Polish officers and intelligentsia, the wound of the so-called Katyń syndrome in Polish-Russian relations was ripped wide open again.
Some Polish politicians, such as the deceased president’s brother Jarosław Kaczyński and the former president Lech Wałęsa added fuel to fire by calling the accident a ‘crime’ and labelling it ‘Katyń II’. This was hardly surprising considering the enormous weight of the Katyń massacre and many Soviet lies surrounding it on Polish national consciousness.
Yet, the tragedy also marked quite an unexpected rupture in bilateral relations towards the positive. After the Smolensk crash, the current Russian administration that has otherwise been hardly famous for its tendencies towards apologetic genuflections for the crimes of the Soviet regime, publicly recognised the criminality of the mass killings of Polish nationals on the secret orders of Lavrenti Beria in 1940.
The Katyń movie
Andrzej Wajda’s painful movie Katyń (2007) was premiered on the Russian TV channel Kultura (even a few days before the crash!), reaching thus first a mass audience in Russia where public knowledge of the crime had thus far tended to appropriate the deed to Nazis even after the revelations of the glasnost and the consecutive collapse of the Soviet regime.
Not only have we been recently able to witness the incredible sequence of symbolic politics by Medvedev and Putin trying to outdo each other by acknowledging the controversial legacy of the Soviet era (even though with many important reservations), but the director of the film Katyń has even been awarded one of the highest decorations of the Russian Federation – the Order of Friendship by president Medvedev.
Hence the heated full-day panel discussion about the multiple meanings and symbolic ‘afterlives’ of Katyń in the otherwise oh-so-otherworldly and ivory-towery Cambridge. Princeton historian Piotr Kosicki presented first a comprehensive review of the narrow and broad meanings of ‘Katyń.
He pointed out that while the term originally served to mark the event and site of a concrete massacre of Polish prisoners-of-war (i.e. the Katyń forest in Russia where roughly 1/5 of the 22,000 victims of the systematic killing campaign against the Polish political, military and cultural elite were executed), the term ‘Katyń’ has now come to embrace the overall extermination operation of the Poles by the NKVD, thus being used as a shorthand for the Kharkiv and Tver-Mednoye killings as well.
While there were an estimated 3809 killed in Kharkiv and 6311 in Tver-Mednoye massacres, these sites were not revealed until 1990 and not entirely exhumed before 1991-93.
Katyń as a symbol
The scandalous war-time discovery of the Katyń massacre site and the enormous amount of propagandistic noise surrounding it, followed by the the long-time Soviet denial of responsibility, helps to explain why ‘Katyń’ has become the synonym of the criminal policies of the high-Stalinist regime and the symbol of the Polish tragedy in World War II in general.
This evokes an analogy to Auschwitz that has become the symbol of the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews in the Western consciousness, even though victims’ number-wise, there could have been better candidates for the symbolic codeword, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder has convincingly shown.
Matilda Mroz, a young film scholar at Cambridge, shared some insights of the cultural reverberations of Katyń in Poland. Her account of Wajda’s acclaimed movie about Katyń was quite critical, especially as regards to the alleged usage of classical horror-film tactics in the cinematic recital of this tragic event.
The audience of the workshop was struck by the revelation that the music behind the long and horrendous execution scene of the film is identical to the anxious tunes accompanying a scene in…Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror piece The Shining (1980).
Rory Finnin, Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at Cambridge, provided a summary of the after-effects of Katyń in Ukraine in his turn, while the MAW project leader and Reader in Russian Literature and Cultural History at Cambridge, Alexander Etkind concluded the seminar with an analysis of the Katyń syndrome in Russian politics.
He remained, along with the other panellists and discussants, rather sceptical about the substantive shift in the recent conciliatory approach of the current Russian administration towards acknowledging the misdeeds of the Soviet wartime leadership. Suspicions still loom large that it might be just another democratic ritual without much substance. Time will tell, surely.
What we can maintain with undeniable certainty today is the fact that the sixty-year old mass murder of Polish officers and intelligentsia, along with the decades-long denial and silence about its true perpetrators has a remarkably intense after-life in current international affairs, as paradoxic (or even cynical) as it might sound.
About the author: Dr Maria Mälksoo is a Senior Researcher of International Relations at the Institute of Government and Politics. Her research is funded by the Estonian Science Foundation MOBILITAS postdoctoral programme and HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area).