In the shadow of Katyn

Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Prof. Wojciech Materski about difficult matters, historical politics and distortion of history as well as the Russian myths and TV serials.

Wieslawa Lewandowska: – Professor Materski, can we say that in the contemporary world, in which we so eagerly escape from politics and history, it is politics that creates and shapes history and history shapes politics?

Prof. Wojciech Materski: – If politics shaped history it would be terrible! When the so-called historical politics tries to shape history we simply call it manipulation. In this sense Russia has been conducting the classical form of historical politics since the first term of Putin: they select several facts, which are considered as useful for the image of the country and focus all anniversaries, commemorative publications on these facts. They also support the authors that interpret history in the proper spirit. I would rather say that politics does not shape history but tries to prey on it. Through the so-called historical politics it tries to create such an aurora around the authorities that one can have the impression that the nation voted for the optimally best authorities who understand the past, traditions and national interest well.

– President Lech Kaczynski was eager to talk about historical politics and he justified it by Poland’s present situation.

– But it was something completely different from preying on history! On the contrary, it was criticism of this preying. As I understood the historical politics of Lech Kaczynski, first of all as the President of Warsaw, and then the President of Poland, it was the policy of vindication of those chapters of the Polish history that had been forgotten unfairly or manipulated. The historical politics of President Kaczynski was in no way an instrument of political practice. After all, the Polish presidency does not realise such tasks as the presidency in Russia where the presidential system can impose directly the direction of interpreting the past.

– The Russian historical politics does not restore remembrance and the true chapters of history?

– I would say that it is on the contrary. The historical politics conducted by Vladimir Putin is active, manipulative and dangerous.

– ...And its sting is often directed against Poland. Consequently, we have the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Issues...

– The idea to create such a group originated in 2002 but the first meeting of this Group was held in June 2008, after the visit of Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Moscow. Its fundamental idea was that the Group would council both ministries of foreign affairs. The council should concern difficult issues that relate to the unknown, falsified, unsaid, tragic chapters of history. A list of such issues embracing the period of 1917 – present days was made… The collective works entitled ‘Polska – ZSRR, biale plamy w historii stosunkow wzajemnych’ [Poland – USRR, White Spots in the History of Their Relationships] have been written. It is a synthesis in several volumes; each will be in two versions: one version written by a Polish specialist in politics or a historian and the other – by a Russian one. It is as if a ‘road map’, showing the range of problems and solutions.

– Which problems have been recognised as the most urgent ones to be explained?

– Naturally, we have discussed the issue of Katyn in the most sincere and deepest way. And in principle, we reached full understanding. There was no controversy on this matter within the Group, which will be seen in the publication. The Russian version was written by Natalia Siergiejewna Lebiediewa, a well-known historian dealing with the subject of the Katyn massacre, whereas the author of the Polish version is late Andrzej Przewoznik who lost his life in the plane crash at Smolensk.

– You are speaking about full understanding concerning the Katyn massacre? It is really unbelievable!

– I am speaking about full understanding within our Group, i.e. between experts, which does not mean the final solution of this most difficult issue. Problems begin where the Russian historical politics enters. There is hardly any place for Katyn in this politics.

– And that’s why if the massacre is not negated it is at least belittled and marginalised…

– Yes, it is. The politics of Putin-Miedvediev is to create a myth of a great power that was victorious in World War II and now wants to set the global perspective of development of international relationships. Russia, aiming at regaining its role as a world power, must draw from her whole historical past what strengthens it. In fact, it has not got anything to draw from since her whole history is either crimes or degenerations… What remains is the myth of the great conqueror in the Great Patriotic War. This myth cannot have any shadows like the Katyn Massacre, Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, deportations, dawdling of the Red Army in Central Europe, especially in Germany in the years 1944-45. These issues have not been discussed at all or only a little.

– However, these facts have been discussed by the Group for Difficult Issues…

– Yes, they have and they are not less difficult than the Katyn massacre. First of all, they concern home problems, evaluated by the second party, e.g. the matters of the political system in pre-war Poland – whether there was dictatorship or not – they concern the Munich conference, the Polish action in Zaolsie. It was during the first session of the Group that the Russians proposed to begin the origin of World War II from Munich and Zaolsie! The difficult matters include many post-war issues, e.g. the continuous controversy whether we were supported by the Soviet Union or whether we supported the Soviet Union; whether we were drained or helped…

– …And today it cannot be stated unambiguously what happened?

– The answer is not simple since arguments can be selected freely in both ways. I want to remind you only one thing when in the years 1946-47 there was a great hunger in the Soviet Union but transports of grain were sent to Poland for political reasons. In turn, for ten years Poland had to sell the Soviets coal and glass at scandalously low price, draining her own economy and giving up the possibilities of trading in the world. If Poland had developed like an average democratic Western European country after World War II our place in the economic map of the world would have been different.

– And perhaps it is worth calculating carefully the material losses Poland suffered because of her submission to the Soviets… 

– It would be very hard to do so. And besides you could face a propaganda counteraction… I want to remind you how Viacheslav Molotov calculated how much we gained when our Eastern border was moved westwards… We lost actually half Poland but as the Soviets argued those were poor Eastern lands and we gained the industrial lands instead…

– …and completely plundered…

– Of course, Molotov forgot to add that the industry was devastated because the Soviet „trofiejszczycy" [Red Army units] plundered everything they could, even the electrical tractions and railway rails; they dismantled factories… We received a burnt land!

– We received what we deserved – the post-Soviet anti-Polish propaganda says today because we ‘allied with Hitler.’ This absurd thesis was presented, e.g. in the documentary ‘Sekrety tajnych protokolow’ [The riddles of top secret protocols], broadcast on the Russian television last year.

– This subject has also been described in a book and there have been numerous journalists’ programmes. This documentary must have been based on the book published in August 2010. It was entitled ‘Sekrety polskiej polityki’ [The secrets of the Polish Politics]. These documents were selected to prove the thesis that Poland was an ‘accomplice’ and to be blamed for the outbreak of World War II, that the Polish politics was always anti-Soviet and aggressive, undermining the international situation. The commentary to these documents speaks about it whereas the very documentation of the thesis does not justify it. However, it is interesting because it shows that the Polish defensive had a very wide network in the East and in the West, that the Polish intelligence services collected very much important information. When one puts aside the malicious and bias introduction this publication enriches the historical literature of this period very much. And besides, it shows one more thing what we did not realise completely: how deeply the Soviet intelligence service penetrated Poland, what high positions the Soviet spies had in the hierarchy of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs!

– Can one unambiguously say that in today’s Russia we deal with distortion and falsification of history for the use of current politics?

– I would not formulate such a thesis. The Russian historiography and historical journalism is very varied today – from excellent authors, good books to extremely aggressive ones. There are numerous publications that tell obvious lies concerning history. The valuable publications about history have 500 printed copies whereas the propaganda nonsense is printed in 40,000-60,000 copies or more.

– One can say that it is only the consequence of the freedom of speech...

– Russia really aspires to be a democratic state that does not forbid the freedom of speech but if the state Russian television broadcasts the serial ‘Bierlinskij ekspres’ [Berlin express], with the very popular actor Viacheslav Tichonov as the main character, which again promotes the thesis that has been refuted many times, that Poles murdered the Russian prisoners of war in 1920, the lack of any reaction of the Russian authorities seems very alarming. We know that such serials shape the public opinion more effectively than the best scientific books, e.g. the book worked out by some Russian and Polish historians ‘Krasnoarmiejcy w polskom plenu’, which shows the historical truth about this subject.

– What is the truth?

– First of all, there was no massacre of the Russian prisoners! This publication shows that the living conditions in the camps were really horrible; there were epidemics and huge death rate. But it was not 80,000-100,000 deaths but several thousands Russian prisoners died. Unfortunately, there was only several hundred copies of this book; they are in bookstores and nobody is interested in them…

– In the meantime the Russians officially demand Poland to give them back the documents concerning the Russian prisoners of 1920.

– Last year during the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, celebrated at Westerplatte, Putin generously declared to open the Russian archives concerning the Katyn matter but… on the principle of reciprocity. But then it was known that the materials about the prisoners of 1920 had already been available and even worked out by the Polish and Russian historians and sent to Russia in the year 2004!

– Didn’t Vladimir Putin know about it?

– Maybe, but hard to believe. The issue of the prisoners of 1920, known as the ‘matter of anti-Katyn’, was taken from the top secret circular of Mikhail Gorbachev in which he addressed many central institutions with the following request: if we are to admit our responsibility for the Katyn massacre, find something in the history that would testify badly about Poles. They did their best to find something. The anti-Katyn affair was created in the late 1980s. The interesting thing is that in the pre-war period when both countries were decisively hostile nobody thought of accusing Poles of killing the prisoners because it was known that such a fact did not happen. Only during the term of Gorbachev some information was prepared and this myth was spread to neutralise the hatred to plead guilty for the Katyn massacre, which happened on 13 April 1990. Thus the ‘great democrat’ Gorbachev has the big merit as the leading manipulator and creator of historical falsity.

– Has any Russian leader dealt with the Polish-Russian affairs in a more reliable way? Perhaps Jelcin…

– I would support the thesis that Jelcin fought for the truth and that’s why he revealed the Katyn massacre. Jelcin fought first of all with the communists. He fought to recognise the Bolsheviks and later mutations of the party, including the Communist Soviet Party, as criminal organisations. He needed suitable arguments to conduct ‘the Moscow process.’ An excellent argument that the communist party was criminal was the Katyn massacre. In this context he revealed the Katyn documents, which he had received from Gorbachev. He held them for a year and did not reveal them. He did it at the convenient political moment. Only then the ‘packet 1’ was given to Poland – in October 1992.

– Almost 20 years have passed and the transmission of the Katyn acts is slow, under duress.

– Indeed, we are not still receiving the important documents; the procedures are slowed down. We keep asking about the justification of discontinuance of the investigation concerning the Katyn massacre in 2004… Undoubtedly, we are dealing with conscious Fabian tactics. They might have wanted to avoid legal rehabilitation of victims since it could lead to reparation procedures. Recently there have been proposals of compromise solutions. Several months ago it was publicised but now there is silence about it – the Russians proposed some moral rehabilitation that the Russian Parliament would pass some act but not a legal one so that there would be no reparations. It is an imperfect proposal, legally unsatisfactory, but could be acceptable in the context of what the Katyn Families say that they want the truth, moral compensation and not money.

– Is the Polish-Russian reconciliation, which the Polish politicians declared so eagerly just after the plane crash at Smolensk, possible?

– I think that today Poles could have good relationships with the Russians. But it is naive to speak about it in the context of the state politics; there are too many issues on the way… It seems optimistic that the Group for Difficult Issues managed to involve the two big Churches into dialogue. Both the Polish Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church helped the work of the Group very much, especially in political rapprochement. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz was very effective in the process. Both Churches favour this reconciliation very much; it is some distant parallel to what the Polish bishops proposed to Germany in the 1960s…

– In Polish homes, in the Internet, there are still such opinions that Russia has been an existential threat for the Polish nation.

– One cannot accept such a decisive opinion. It is true that for ages we have lived in the ominous neighbourhood and having that experience we must watch Russia carefully. However, we should very seriously reflect on what this threat could be. It is hard to accept that we are facing a threat of invasion and slavery. We rather fear gas problems or some cyber attack…

– One way or another, Poland is doomed to be rather a client than a partner of Russia?

– If the ‘Baltic pipeline’ is constructed – and it is being constructed – we will be, unfortunately, a client of Russia. Today, we have some minimal possibilities to oppose… But what can we do? I think that the difficult Polish-Russian issues should be settled by the European Union. We should not conduct a direct dialogue with Russia in really difficult matters concerning politics as well as the contemporary and long-term economy. We must more decisively convince the Union that our interests are identical with the EU ones.

"Niedziela" 39/2010

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