Zessin-Jurek 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
Lidia Zessin-Jurek

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 Lidia Zessin-Jurek (Imre-Kertesz Kolleg, Jena) Published on H-Memory (June, 2014) Commissioned by Catherine Baker

In March 1940, at Katyn, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) coordinated the mass murder of around twenty-two thousand Polish prisoners of war (POWs), officers, and civilians who had been held in captivity since the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. Remembering Katyn recounts the lengthy story of this massacre's coming out of erasure, describing the process as a landmark of public memory not only in Poland but also in the area to the east of the Polish borders. Along these lines lies the main thesis of the book, which pinpoints Katyn as holding a prominent place in the recent memory culture of the region by being a "referential touchstone and descriptive shorthand for other lesser-known sites of past savagery in Eastern Europe" (p. 2). As a site of memory or lieu de mémoire, Katyn has been viewed for the most part through national lenses--as the iconic Polish national tragedy and, secondly perhaps, as a problem for Russia in settling accounts with the Soviet past. Little attention, however, has been paid to the wider impact of the legacy of Katyn on memory cultures in the area. This multiple-author volume, being an outgrowth of the Memory at War Project carried out at the University of Cambridge under the leadership of Alexander Etkind, hopes to answer the calls to overcome "methodological nationalism," which sees cultural processes as restricted to the nation-state and, instead, to study the memory of Soviet atrocities as a more universal phenomenon (somewhat similar to the cosmopolitan memory of the Holocaust) (p. 12). This puts Katyn into a new, broader perspective.

The first two chapters of the book introduce the subject matter and its Polish background, and the next four are dedicated to the effect of the persisting Polish remembrance of Katyn on the memory of Soviet crimes in present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. In terms of concept and organization, this structure of chapters, providing separate case studies that could be read independently, inevitably leads to the repetition of some threads and motifs. It is most evident in the case of the so-called Katyn Lie motif; discussions of Andrzej Wajda's film Katyn (2007); the national identity of the victims; and above all, the Polish president's 2010 airplane crash, which is introduced on several occasions and always as if it were being mentioned for the first time. This element of the authors' style, which some may find disturbing or even simplistic, in fact provides a clear thematic exposition and arranges readers' attention around the key components of the Katyn memory.

One of these components, probably bearing most consequences, was the Katyn Lie, or the Soviet authorities' attribution of the crime to the Germans. The decades-long and state-enforced criminalization and discursive cleansing of the memory of Katyn, together with a campaign of falsifying evidence, created the situation of a specific "no memory," with no witnesses and no possibility to grieve for the victims (p. 13). This was further aggravated by the obligation of postwar Poland to honor the victimizer, which mobilized a part of Polish civil society to connective memory and memorial militancy that spanned over half a century. Their efforts included awareness-raising campaigns in the West and initially illegal, later official, commemorative acts at home and in Russia, and had their heyday during the screening of Wajda's Katyn in 2007.

Wajda's film revolves around the Katyn Lie and at the same time serves, as the authors of the volume see it, as a national funeral, a cathartic event, offering the viewer "the role of the witness that never was" (p. 53). The chapter of the book that is entirely devoted to the film explores the extent to which a memory event (such as a movie screening) may reboot cultural memory. Moreover, going far beyond an informative overview of the opinions of critics, it diagnoses the problem of the scarce presence of the Katyn theme in narrative art. Discussing the problem, the authors point to relevant interpretations of the crisis and the way in which mass crime is represented in art in general. Art's inability to find a proper language to present the tragedy has produced two main strategies of signification, the iconic and the indexical. The first one makes audience witnesses to the crime through its direct presentation whereas the second, "rather than reconstructing events, dwells on their material and human traces and on the memories of those affected by them" (p. 37).

According to the authors, the great popularity of the movie in many Eastern European capitals asserts the position of Katyn as a cultural metaphor, giving birth to a new language of mourning and inspiring national soul searching. This also relates to the Soviet POWs who perished in Poland in 1920. Still, first of all, this innovative perspective presents Katyn as a powerful catalyst for the memory of Eastern tragedies at the hands of the NKVD: massacres (Vinnytsia for Ukraine, Kurapaty for Belarus), the liquidation of the bourgeoisie, dekulakization, artificial famines, ethnic cleansings, mass deportations (to the Gulag), and others. However, in such different countries as Belarus, Lithuania, or Russia, Katyn remembrance has navigated memory in unexpected, sometimes opposite, directions. In fact, some of the book's most interesting pages are devoted to those divergent external reactions to the Katyn memory campaign: from comparative to competitive victimhood (Ukraine), from the revival of martyrological narratives (Lithuania) to the overcoming of them (Estonia), and finally from improving transparency in memory policies to perpetuating old selective strategies and denials (Russia and Belarus).

Undoubtedly, the high point of the book is the question of Russia's recurrent, yet never consistent, acknowledgment of the guilt since the times of Mikhail Gorbachev. The authors attempt to explain it by referring to the Russian leaders' failure to disentangle themselves from Soviet legacies. The second, less convincing rationalization on which the book insists, is a somewhat puzzling argument that those leaders were inhibited by their own struggle to make sense of the massacre committed on people who would have become Joseph Stalin's allies only one year later. Reservations about this unsupported argument notwithstanding, the authors compellingly reenergize many other familiar topics in their chapter on Russia. Attentive to discursive complexities, they shed new light on the usage of the term "genocide," the arguments of the Russian deniers, the role of Katyn remembrance as a "litmus test" (p. 95) of Russia’s commitment to democracy, and he "humanization" of Russia through its spontaneous reaction to the Smolensk catastrophe.

In chapter 7, Katyn is approached as a physical site of commemorative rituals, which are not free from mnemonical negotiations, tensions, and compromises. They arise, among others, from the fact that Katyn was a multiple killing and burial field. As much as it serves as a symbol for many dispersed places where Poles were executed and buried in 1940 (e.g., Kharkiv, Miednoe), it is also a mass burial place of victims of other nationalities (including Russian). This, together with the impotence of archival evidence that leaves the victims in the shadows of anonymity--making even their number, though high, still not entirely known--has severely complicated various memorialization projects.

One may have an impression, however, that the authors take the success of the Polish Katyn memory campaign on the international arena perhaps too much for granted. Having this success as a point of departure, the book does not elaborate on more external factors behind it, including important changes in the climate of global memory culture. Among these are the growth of a victims-centered approach, the politics of regret, transition from triumph to trauma, the spectacular quantitative rise in the presence of Holocaust remembrance, and the discussion on the singularity of the Shoah, recently complemented by Michael Rothberg's "multidirectional memory" argument.[1] Similarly, the authors point for instance to the importance of religion as a factor influencing regional mnemonical attitudes without however fully exploring this interesting slant (by more systematic analysis of the memory cultures in Catholic Poland, Protestant Estonia, and Orthodox Russia).

The last chapter, revolving around the Polish president's airplane crash and provocatively titled "Katyn-2," as the president was en route to commemorate the Katyn victims, may be by some perceived as the least satisfying part of the book. The authors had to go through an extensive and steadily growing literature on Poland and Russia after Smolensk to provide their own concise interpretation. It may well be that the reader's elevated expectations, which cannot be fulfilled by such a brief analysis, constitute the main problem here.

On the whole, the book prepared by Alexander Etkind, Rory Finnin, Uilleam Blacker, Julie Fedor, Simon Lewis, Maria Mälksoo, and Matilda Mroz is an innovative collective endeavor, where its seven authors effectively weave together multiple perspectives, presenting competing political leaders and their political stakes that led to shaping divergent memory policies. It reminds the reader about many significant but somewhat elapsed facts, such as President Boris Yeltsin's kneeling in Warsaw (in 1992) or U.S. President Bill Clinton's homage to the Belarusian victims of Kurapaty (in 1994). The few reservations mentioned earlier arise mostly from the feeling that the reader could have obtained even more from this comprehensive study, one of the first of its kind dealing with Eastern European memory.


[1]. See Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=38179

Citation: Lidia Zessin-Jurek. Review of Etkind, Alexander; Finnin, Rory; Blacker, Uilleam; Fedor, Julie; Lewis, Simon; Mälksoo, Maria; Mroz, Matilda, Remembering Katyn. H-Memory, H-Net Reviews. June, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=38179

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