WASHINGTON — Russia should apologize for the 1940 Katyn massacre of nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war, the chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission said Wednesday.
"Russia needs a clear and unequivocal apology to the Polish people for what was done 70 years ago," said Benjamin Cardin, who is also a Democratic U.S. senator from Maryland. Cardin made the remarks at a conference of scholars, experts and analysts from Poland, Russia and the U.S. who met at the Library of Congress to discuss Katyn's significance and the future of Polish-Russian relations.
Cardin also called on Russia to fully disclose all of its archives and records about Katyn.
"It's important to be able to document exactly what happened 70 years ago" using original documents, Cardin said. In the spring of 1940, nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed one by one with a shot to the back of the head by Stalin's security police. The bodies were dumped into mass graves in a forest near Smolensk, Russia. When German soldiers announced their discovery of one such grave in 1943, the Soviet government blamed them for the crime and continued to do so until Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet guilt in 1990 and disclosed the location of the remaining graves.
The unreleased Russian documents are key to the process of defining Katyn as a war crime or as a crime against humanity, according to Russian scholar and Katyn expert Alexander Guryanov, a representative of the Russian human rights group Memorial. If designated a war crime, there is no statute of limitations, he said.
When Gorbachev admitted Soviet responsibility in 1990, a Russian investigation into the massacre was opened. But the investigation was halted in 2004. Those materials were re-classified by a top Russian government agency. Guryanov noted that Russian law does not allow information about violations of human rights and violations of the law by state agencies and their employees to be classified.
Instead of being defined as a war crime, the Katyn massacre is defined as a criminal act in Russia, he said. As such the statute of limitations has expired. The 1990 investigation lists those who carried out the crime only as "individuals from the leadership" of the USSR or Soviet security police.
Guryanov believes that the killings amount to "a genuine act of state terrorism."
Clear steps must be taken to declassify those and all materials on Katyn, Guryanov said. He said the stalled investigation must be resumed and a comprehensive listing of all those who were shot should be created. That listing is crucial, according to Mark Kramer, director of Harvard University's Cold War Program, and should include not just the victims but everyone who carried out the operations at all levels. "It's especially important for the memories of the victims to be able to establish the full registration of those who were responsible for the massacre," Kramer said, so that the crime can be placed in its proper historical perspective.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said that Katyn occurred in the midst of "the worst war that humanity ever experienced. It was a war pregnant with crimes."
On the scale of World War II, he said, Katyn wasn’t that large — especially compared to the Holocaust or to the hundreds of thousands who died in Germany, Japan, Poland, Holland, France and Britain.
"The reason that Katyn was so indelible and so morally intolerable was that it was a murder, shrouded by a lie, institutionalized globally," Brzezinski said. "And the lie was globally accepted on the whole."
In Poland, families of victims were forced to accept the official Soviet line that the Katyn executioners were German — or be suspected as being anti-Soviet and anti-communist.
"You had to lie about something that was to you a personal tragedy," Brzezinski said.
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Jablonska, a graduate student in journalism from Chicago, covers foreign policy.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY Culprits in World War II massacre become clearer Russia, Polish leaders to mark Katyn massacre of 1940 Obama to seek major increase in nuclear weapons funding What happened to Raoul Wallenberg? Group uncovers new details Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington