First on Etkind and Finnin and Blacker and Fedor and Lewis and Mälksoo and Mroz, 'Remembering Katyn'

Alexander Etkind, Rory Finnin, Uilleam Blacker, Julie Fedor, Simon Lewis, Maria Mälksoo, Matilda Mroz
Joshua First

Alexander Etkind, Rory Finnin, Uilleam Blacker, Julie Fedor, Simon Lewis, Maria Mälksoo, Matilda Mroz. Remembering Katyn. Cambridge: Polity, 2012. xxviii + 185 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7456-5577-2.

Reviewed by Joshua First (The University of Mississippi) Published on H-Genocide (September, 2014) Commissioned by Elisa G. von Joeden-Forgey

The Katyn Massacre and Post-Communist Historical Memory

Emerging from the recently concluded Memory at War (MAW) project at Cambridge (, Remembering Katyn explores the explosive politics in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine (with some additional forays into Belarus and the Baltic states) surrounding the commemoration of the execution of almost twenty-two thousand Polish prisoners of war (POWs) ordered by Joseph Stalin during the spring of 1940. Only the largest of the grave sites, Katyn, a forested area near Smolensk, Russia, has come to signify the whole process of killing Poland’s “pride and promise” (p. 3) during its brief stint of independence in the interwar period. Poland’s conservative president from 2005 to 2010, Lech Kaczyński, declared “Katyn” an act of genocide, and the parliament has been urging other governments—Russia, in particular—to do likewise (p. 134).[1] While genocide does not figure very prominently in Remembering Katyn, the authors implicitly link the event to genocide with the claim in the introduction that “Katyn stands as one of the first coordinated transnational mass murders of foreign prisoners by a totalitarian state” (p. 2).

Under the direction of project leader Alexander Etkind, a team of seven professors, postdocs, and graduate students authored Remembering Katyn to demonstrate the effects of recent “memory events” on Poland’s relations with its eastern neighbors. The volume concerns both the use of history and its evasion for political purposes. A core concept for the MAW project, a “memory event” is a “revisiting of the past that creates a rupture with its accepted representation” (p. 10). Memory events acquire their significance, according to Etkind, only through dialogue (or “trialogue”) between competing parties to the memory, in this case Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.[2] Thus, while Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn (2007) was certainly a major event in the commemoration of the 1940 massacre, it became a profoundly more significant memory event after screening on Russian television in 2010. Most notably, 1940 made international news again when the Polish president and many members of the country’s elite died during an airline crash en route to Smolensk for the opening of the Katyn memorial on April 10, 2010. Solidarity leader and Poland’s first democratically elected president Lech Wałęsa even referred to the crash as “Katyn-2” (p. 132). These examples demonstrate not only how memory events function, but also how the “software” (books and films) and “hardware” (monuments) of memory interact to keep Katyn alive in contemporary eastern Europe.

East European memory studies have come a long way since Nina Tumarkin wrote The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (1995), which examined and deconstructed the Soviet myths of the Great Patriotic War of unified suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany (no special narratives for Jews or other nationalities) and asymmetrical heroism (the Russians were the best). Since glasnost, ruptures emerged in this narrative, not only in Russia but most especially in the other former Soviet republics, and countries behind the iron curtain. Ukrainians now struggle with questions of whether the Famine of 1933 was an act of genocide by the Stalinist regime on par with, and similar to, the Holocaust, and of how to treat the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist paramilitary briefly allied with the German occupation that fought the Red Army.[3] Was the Soviet Union no different from Nazi Germany, and could a group that advanced an ideology similar to fascism—and who instigated acts of ethnic cleansing—be celebrated as heroes of a broader struggle for Ukrainian national liberation? The fall of Communism also has allowed Poles to celebrate different heroes from the war, such as the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), and to examine their own roles as perpetrators in the Holocaust, alongside their roles as victims of Soviet political violence.[4] 

Katyn was a singular event in prewar Soviet history, in that all other acts of mass repression were conducted against Soviet citizens. Since the formation of the People’s Republic of Poland, however, the ruling Polish Workers’ Party clung to the explanation that the Nazis did it. In 1941, after Germany had taken Smolensk, the SS conducted excavations after hearing rumors about what the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) had done; they found the bodies and, in the words of Joseph Goebbels, used Katyn as “anti-Bolshevik propaganda” (p. 5). The Soviets in turn blamed the Germans for the atrocity, and, in what became known as the “Katyn lie,” claimed that the 1940 massacre actually happened in 1941. This notion of a “monstrous Nazi atrocity” dominated any discussion of the event during the Communist period, and even mention of the year 1940 was grounds for imprisonment in Communist Poland (p. 5). Nonetheless, émigrés and dissidents kept alive the truth that it was a Soviet act. Collections of oral testimonies and documents circulated among people opposed to the regime, and individuals erected Katyn-40 monuments under the cover of night and threat of imprisonment.

Although the fall of Communism destroyed the Soviet-sponsored Katyn lie, with the Russian state even offering Poland documentary evidence that the NKVD performed the massacre, it was not until Wajda’s Katyn was released in 2007 that the issue became part of Polish popular culture. Chapter 2 of Remembering Katyn examines what this film was trying to do, and the effects it had on the commemoration of the event. Katyn the film was a national event, presented to a Polish public as direct history, even though, as Etkind points out, the historical fate of the twenty-two thousand was never specifically known. In drawing on the work of Jay Winter, the authors argue that the problem of Wajda’s film was its use as a historical record rather than as the highly emotional attempt to consolidate collective memory that it was.

A primary feature of Katyn memory that Etkind and his coauthors highlight involves the use of metonym and metaphor. On the one hand, Katyn functions to advance the trope of Poland as a martyr nation, along with the whole of Eastern Europeans’ suffering under Communism. On the other hand, Katyn as metaphor becomes a way for groups and individuals to claim the suffering that Poles experienced for themselves, or as a way for Poles to compete with others who also claim victim status. Katyn itself frequently becomes relativized. In chapters 3-6, the authors explore this process in Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Russia. In each of these cases, nationalists and other post-Communist elites searched for “their own” Katyn, either as a means to compete with Polish claims of victimhood, or to appropriate such a successful method of nation building. President Viktor Yushchenko, for example, after viewing Wajda’s Katyn, claimed that it “shed light on a part of our history too,” despite the fact that the film made no mention of Ukraine or Ukrainians (p. 54). Even though one of the sites of the 1940 execution was near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Ukrainians more often than not point toward the 1940 Vinnitsa massacre when using the term “Ukrainian Katyn.” In the Baltic states, Katyn signifies the similarity between the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, and their repressive history under both, but more important, the treatment that Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians experienced under the much longer Soviet occupation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has adopted two different strategies for relativizing Katyn—first, by placing it within a broader history of Stalinist repression, most of which was nationally neutral, and second, by rationalizing it as revenge for Soviet POWs executed by the Polish Republic during the war of 1919-20.

Barring Belarus, however, each of the leaders of these countries has made attempts to deal with Katyn on its own terms, examining its specifically and uniquely Polish dimensions. In Ukraine and Russia, leaders used the commemoration of Katyn to mend old wounds in their relationships with Poland. And, as the authors point out, President Dmitri Medvedev expressed genuine shock and sympathy with Poland after the crash of 2010. Nonetheless, the general thrust of the book’s argument concerns the cynical manipulation of memory: nationalists in each of these countries alternatively downplayed Katyn or opted to commemorate it, but in both cases did so for their own opportunistic motives. Russia, different from the other countries examined, faced the question of whether its leaders should apologize for Katyn. If the Soviet legacy had passed to Russia, then Russians could either apologize or continue to deny Katyn, but if Russia refused that legacy, then Russians could join Poles in commemorating Katyn as co-victims of Soviet repression. As the Russian state did more broadly,  this case it vacillated between adopting that legacy and refusing it. Hence, as the authors argue, the Russian response to Katyn has been simultaneously commendable, awkward, and reprehensible. And the Polish leadership too has fought bitterly about the meaning and significance of Russia’s response. In the best chapters, Remembering Katyn has captured these issues with an eye for the details, and manages to provide a theoretically sophisticated analysis of recent memory battles in eastern Europe. Chapters 4-5 on Katyn in Belarus and the Baltic states, respectively, however, bog the work down with additional details that accomplish very little for the overall argument, and I might have wished that the authors focused more on the memory battles between Poland, Ukraine and Russia.


[1]. “Senate Pays Tribute to Katyn Victims,” The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Canada,

[2]. See Alexander Etkind, “Mapping Memory Events in the East European Space,” East European Memory Studies, no. 1 (October 2010), 4,

[3]. See the work of Tatiana Zhurzhenko, which includes “Polyphonic Dichotomies: Memory and Identity in Today’s Ukraine,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 21, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 241-269; “Heroes into Victims: The Second World War in Post-Soviet Memory Politics,” Eurozine (October 2012),; and “'Capital of Despair’: Holodomor Memory and Political Conflicts in Kharkiv after the Orange Revolution,” East European Politics and Societies 25, no. 3 (2011): 597-639.

[4]. On the former, see Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), which caused a firestorm in Poland for its assertion that a village’s Christian population rounded up its Jewish population and burned them all in a barn, in advance of the German invasion in 1941. Many of the Polish responses to Gross’s book were translated and collected in Antony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic, eds., The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). In 2005, Polish-American historian Marek Chodakiewicz published a book-length response to Neighbors entitled The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, After (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), where he disputes many of Gross’s main claims.

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Citation: Joshua First. Review of Etkind, Alexander; Finnin, Rory; Blacker, Uilleam; Fedor, Julie; Lewis, Simon; Mälksoo, Maria; Mroz, Matilda, Remembering Katyn. H-Genocide, H-Net Reviews. September, 2014. URL:

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