The Katyń Issue: International Aspects 1940 – 1943
by Witold Wasilewski
The August 23, 1939 Moscow pact between the Third Reich and the
Soviet Union paved the way for central Europe’s partition between
them. In result of the German and Soviet invasions of Poland
(respectively on September 1 and 17, 1939), over half of then
Poland’s territory and over ten million of its citizens came under
Soviet rule. More than 250,000 soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces,
including thousands of officers, found themselves in Soviet captivity,
either as prisoners of war or in result of arrests. Because of practical
difficulties with the Poles’ internment some of the enlisted men
managed to escape, some were also released. Those who came from
territories now occupied by the Third Reich were handed over to the
German ally. The remained, among them a small group of officers who had
concealed their rank, were detailed to labour camps.
From the very beginning the officers were treated in a way which did
not augur well for their future. Placed under the jurisdiction of a War
Prisoner Board under the People’s Commissariat for Internal
Affairs, or NKVD, most were sent to three special camps in Kozielsk
(about 4.5 thousand), Starobielsk (close to 4 thousand) and
Ostaszków (several hundred). Also imprisoned in the
Ostaszków camp were several thousand Polish policemen, border
guards and members of other uniformed services. In all three camps were
also small groups of Poland’s then civilian elite. Those of the
military who escaped placement in these camps landed in prisons in
western Ukraine and western Belarus, then parts of Soviet-occupied east
Poland, where they joined thousands of Polish civilians. Some of
Poland’s higher-ranking officers (among them General Władysław
Anders) were incarcerated in Moscow’s Lubyanka and Butyrki prisons
still in 1939.
Relatively few of the officers died during the first months of their
imprisonment and only a select few were put on trial and sentenced to
hard labour in the depths of the USSR. The vast majority survived until
the fateful spring of 1940.
Katyń 1940: Communist Genocide
In 1940 People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria
sent an official motion to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist
Party in which he suggested the extermination of 25,700 Polish
prisoners. In the motion, personally addressed to Stalin, Beria proposed
to ordain the NKVD of the USSR to review under special procedures and
with application of the highest penalty – execution by
firing squad – the cases of 1) 14,700 persons, former Polish
officers, officials, landowners, policemen, security agents, settlers
and prison personnel incarcerated in prisoner of war camps, and 2)
11.000 detainees (…) incarcerated in prisons in the western
districts of Ukraine and Belarus. Beria’s motion was passed by the Soviet
Political Bureau on March 5, 1940 and signed by Stalin, Kliment
Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan. Next to the
signatures was a written remark that the motion had also been passed by
Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich. This heinous decision was filed as
Resolution of March 5, 1940/144. Case NKVD USSR in Protocol 13
from sittings of the Soviet Political Bureau. By this one decision the
Bureau condemned to death 25,700 Poles imprisoned in camps in Kozielsk,
Starobielsk and Ostaszków and prisons in western Ukraine and
Political Bureau and NKVD documentation on the Katyń massacre remained
unrevealed until the early 1990s.
NKVD carried the executions through over April and May, 1940, leaving
the Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostaszków camps strongly
underpopulated. When the executions began at the turn of March and April
Kozielsk numbered 4,599 prisoners, Starobielsk 3,895 and
Ostaszków 6,346. Ninety-seven percent of them died, the only
survivors were 395 prisoners whom the Soviets planned to use later for
their own political ends. Unfortunately, Soviet indoctrination proved
quite successful with some of this group, as witnessed by the case of
As for the others, the Kozielsk inmates were executed near the
village Katyń, and their bodies buried in Katyń Forest. The Starobielsk
prisoners were killed and buried in Kharkov and those from
Ostaszków were shot in Tver and buried in Mednoie. Simultaneously
executed were the Polish prisoners in west Ukraine and Belarus.
According to KGB head Andriej Shelepin’s note of 1959 to General
Secretary of Communist Party of Soviet Union Nikita Khruschev, NKVD
squads — basing on the Resolution of 5 March, which was fulfiled
by NKVD “special three-man” — executed
21,857 persons including 4,421 in Katyń Forest (Smoleńsk District),
3,820 in the Starobielsk camp near Kharkov and 6,311 in the
Ostaszków camp (Kalinin District). 7,305 persons were executed in
other camps and prisons in western Ukraine and western Belarus.
Professional and reserve officers made up the majority of the Katyń
victims. The brutal and swift extermination – on the strength of a
single ordinance – of over eight thousand officers resulted in the
greatest rank shortage the Polish army had ever experienced –
incomparable with even the most enormous combat losses. The Katyń
killings took the lives of almost all Polish officers incarcerated on
Soviet territory. The sudden disappearance of thousands of people could
not be made up by the survival of several hundred inmates of the
Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostaszków camps and some officers
in secluded parts of the Soviet Union unembraced by the Political
Bureau’s execution order (many of whom concealed their rank).
There were incomparably fewer survivors than victims and even after the
Soviets’ admission to the special camps of several thousand Polish
POWs from Lithuania and Latvia (in the summer of 1940) they and the
Katyń survivors together numbered less than the execution victims.
The Soviets managed to conceal Katyń quite well in the months
following the hecatomb. Letters to prisoners, including mail sent via
the Geneva Red Cross, was confiscated or returned as misaddressed.
Taking avail of the fact that they had practically no relations with the
Polish authorities, the Soviets staunchly avoided any official mention
Hitler’s Attack on the USSR and the
Soviet-Polish Treaty of July 30, 1941
The situation changed when the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union
on June 22, 1941.
The incarceration of Poles on Soviet territory was taken up by
Poland’s Sikorski government following the German invasion of the
USSR. Shortly after the attack Sikorski sent a curt note on the matter
to centres in occupied Poland and his own diplomatic service, on the
following day, June 23, he mentioned it in a radio speech. On radio Sikorski
approached the prisoner issue right after postulating the restoration of
the pre-September 1939 status quo. He did it in the form of the
following rethorical question: Still today thousands of Polish men
and women are suffering in Russian prisons for love of their nation,
freedom and honour. Hundreds of thousand are exposed to a slow death
from emaciation and hunger. A quarter of a million prisoners of war are
wasting away in camps. Would it not be just and necessary to return
these people their freedom? With these words Sikorski gave to understand that
freeing the Poles was a pre-condition of Polish-Soviet relations.
Interestingly, Sikorski’s statement acquired its final form only
90 minutes before Sikorski actually said the words – owing to
interventions by British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, on whose
request Sikorski toned down the original version, which he had read out
earlier to his ministers: and hundreds of thousands, including three
hundred thousand [the figure was changed – W.W.] prisoners
of war, are exposed to a slow death from emaciation and hunger in forced
labour under the most horrendous conditions, as modern-day,
annihilation-doomed slaves. Eden’s request, in which he supported himself
with references to Winston Churchill, was a clear sign that British
policy at the time was mainly focused on not irritating the Russians.
And this was something Polish politicians seeking to normalize relations
with the USSR had to take into account when dealing with their British
Polish-Soviet negotiations launched under British mediation at the
turn of June and July, 1941. The biggest bone of contention were
guarantees for Poland’s eastern frontier. On July 3, 1941
Władysław Sikorski informed Anthony Eden in writing about Poland’s
position at the talks, underscoring the necessity to return to
“pre-September, 1939 conditions”. In his note to Eden
Sikorski also demanded the release by Russia of Polish war prisoners
and of the many hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens deported to
Central Russia. On the same day the Soviet Government decided to sit
down to talks with Sikorski. A telegram announcing this to the Soviet
Ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, contained the following statement on
the prisoners: For your own information I declare that there neither
have been nor are now three hundred thousand Polish prisoners in the
USSR. Their number is only twenty thousand (...). These words, which
contested figures on the prisoners provided by the Polish side, heralded
something that was to recur frequently during the talks: the Soviets
staunchly refused to accept any figures on Poles imprisoned in their
country – high or low – provided by Poland.
On July 4, 1941 Maisky relayed the Soviet government’s position
on the issue to Eden,  and personally advised Eden against treating Polish
data on the prisoners as reliable. Eden immediately passed the information on to
Britain’s Moscow envoy Stafford Cripps and the U.S. Ambassador in
London, John Winant; this is how he commented on the Polish prisoner
issue in his account of his conversation with Maisky: In fact there
are not as many as General Sikorski told me, they only number twenty
The British Foreign Secretary, the main architect of the Polish-Soviet
agreement, accepted the Soviet version of the prisoner figures with
surprising ease considering there was no convincing evidence to support
it. In reality, the Soviet-declared figure of 20,000 Polish prisoners
would have roughly answered only the number of Soviet-imprisoned Polish
officers – and this provided there had been no Katyń and together
with officers taken over from the 1940-annexed Baltic states after the
massacre. The Polish POW count on Soviet territory was in fact much
higher. On the other hand the Poles, who declared figures between 200
and 300 thousand, were unaware of certain facts: the handing over to the
Germans of tens of thousands of noncoms and … the slaughter of
thousands of Polish officers. The discord which resulted from the
Poles’ ignorance of these events and their deliberate concealment
by the Soviets very evidently only served the latter side’s
Still on July 4, 1941 Sikorski, invited for talks with Eden following
the latter’s conversation with Maisky, outlined the Polish
side’s main demands in the talks with the Soviets. Among others,
he asked for the release of prisoners of war, other prisoners and
deportees to the Russian hinterland. Military personnel and regular
troops may be formed into a sovereign Polish military force to fight the
Germans. Sikorski also contested the prisoner figures Eden had
received from Maisky. Quoting a 1939 edition of the Moscow communist
daily Pravda, he stated that the number of soldiers detained in
“concentration camps” amounted to 190,000, including over
The prisoner issue came up in July 5, 1941 talks between Maisky and
Sikorski in the presence of the Polish Foreign Minister August Zaleski
and Secretary of State in the British Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan,
who protocolled the meeting. Maisky asked Sikorski what he meant by
“Polish war prisoners in the Soviet Union”. Sikorski replied
that recent Soviet statistics stated their number at around 191
thousand, including about 9 thousand officers in military concentration
camps east of the Volga, who he suggested be reformed into an
independent Polish army on Soviet territory. Maisky did not contest the
prisoner figures and the talks moved on to methods of commanding a
USSR-formed Polish armed force. At the Sikorski-Maisky meeting the
Polish side set the Soviets several demands as a condition for further
talks. One of them was the release of Polish military and political
prisoners. In response, Maisky asked if the Polish government was ready
to sign an agreement with the Soviets, which Sikorski affirmed, adding
that the accord would have to include regulations on the Polish armed
forces and the release of Polish prisoners.
No more mention of prisoner numbers was made at this meeting, both
sides remaining in their original positions – which put off the
Soviets’ regulation of the Polish prisoner problem until a later
date. It must be noted that the talks did not concern POWs alone, who
appeared only as one of the groups of Soviet-incarcerated Poles. Also,
neither the Poles nor anyone else had any possibility of verifying the
Polish POW count in the USSR as – contrary to standards observed
in e.g. German POW camps – the Russians allowed noone to contact
their prisoners (not even the Red Cross).
After July 10, 1941 the Polish and Soviet positions in the agreement
negotiations were relayed between both countries’ governments by
British diplomats. Battles over the prisoners and deportees took place
in the final phase of the talks.
Contrary to its to-date adherence to July 5 decisions, the Soviet
side in a July 11 proposal surprisingly omitted to include clauses on
releasing the Polish prisoners. This was very badly received by the Polish side, which
in its reply on July 12 demanded the inclusion in the agreement of
clauses on releasing Soviet-imprisoned Poles, with the detainees divided
into four categories: political prisoners, deportees, Red Army recruits
– and sont internées dans des camps de
concentration comme prisonniers de guerre, in other words prisoners
of war interned in concentration camps. In their use of the term camps de
concentration the Polish side wanted to leave no doubts in
the Soviets’ minds that they meant the camps in Kozielsk,
Starobielsk and Ostaszków, and others like them.
The effect was a stalemate, the Soviets pressing for exclusion of the
prisoner issue from the agreement and the Poles for its inclusion as a
major point of the act.
Finally, after lengthy negotiations entailing exchanges of Polish and
Soviet diplomatic mail and British-Soviet talks in Moscow (including a
July 26 meeting between Stafford Cripps, Molotov and Stalin), the text
of the Polish-Soviet agreement was accepted by both sides. Regulations
on Polish POWs and other Poles in the Soviet Union were contained in a
draft protocol attached to the agreement, which read: With the
restoration of diplomatic relations the Government of the Union of
Socialist Soviet Republics will grant amnesty to all Polish citizens
currently incarcerated on the territory of the Union of Socialist Soviet
Republics either as prisoners of war or for other pertinent
On July 30, 1941 Poland’s Prime Minister Władysław Sikorski and
Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky signed the agreement in the presence of
Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, which meant that in keeping with the
draft protocol attached to it Soviet-interned Polish officers had
regained their freedom.
Poland Asks About Its Officers
The July 30, 1941 Polish-Soviet Agreement known as the
Sikorski-Maisky Treaty, resotored relations between both countries,
brought amnesty to all Soviet-interned Poles and enabled the formation
of a “Polish military force in the USSR.” A Polish Embassy
was opened first in Moscow, later in Kuybyshev. General Władysław
Anders, recently freed from Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, was put in
command of the Polish forces in place of the murdered Stanisław Haller.
The legal basis for the release of Poles from Soviet camps and other
places of detention was an August 12, 1941 Decree of the Presidium of
the Supreme Council of the USSR on Granting Amnesty to Polish Citizens
Interned on Soviet territory. Signed in the Kremlin by Mikhail
Kalinin, one of the authors of the Katyń massacre, it ordained, the
granting of amnesty to all Polish citizens currently deprived of freedom
on Soviet territory as prisoners of war, or for other pertinent
reasons. The term
other pertinent reasons left room for arbitrary interpretations
of release criteria with regard to some of the detainees. One category
towards which the treaty left no interpretation freedom were prisoners
of war – in Soviet terminology voyennoplennye – in
this case Polish soldiers and other uniformed functionaries.
Despite some infringements of the agreement by the Soviets, from
September 1941 thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians exhausted by
internment in this “inhuman land” reported for service in
the Polish armed forces, whose command and auxiliary command were
located in Buzuluk in Asia.
Not among them, however, were the officers taken from the Kozielsk,
Starobielsk and Ostaszków camps in the spring of 1940.
The Soviet officers detailed to help in the formation of the Polish
army brushed off queries about the missing men from the head of
the Polish military mission in the USSR, General Zygmunt Bohusz and the
commander of the Polish force, General Władysław Anders, claiming the
matter lay beyond their jurisdiction.
In this situation the Polish
government decided to seek information about the whereabouts of the
officers through diplomatic channels. The first mediator in these
strivings was chargé d’affaires Józef Retinger,
later replaced by the Polish Ambassador in the USSR Stanisław Kot.
Władysław Sikorski, at the time Poland’s Prime Minister and Chief
Military Commander, personally asked the Soviet authorities for
clearance in the matter.
Already on August 22, 1941 Retinger sent a note to Molotov demanding
the immediate release from imprisonment and labour sites of all
On August 28 Retinger in a conversation with the Soviet
Deputy Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Andrei Vyshinsky voiced doubts
whether the amnesty decree really embraced all Soviet-detained Poles, he
also gave Vyshinsky a short list of persons, including military, whom
the Polish side had been unable to locate. At no time did Retinger actually mention POWs
(among whom were not only officers but also policemen and border guards)
or NKVD camps for war prisoners.
The Soviets’ written reply on August 28, 1941 communicated
progress in the matter and promised reviewal of other issues mentioned
by Retinger in further proceedings. The Soviet side saw no need to refer directly to
the missing prisoners as in earlier talks Retinger had approached the
matter with utmost reserve and had omitted to mention it at all in his
On August 28, 1941 Stanisław Kot, Prime Minister Sikorski’s
designate for Poland’s Ambassador in the USSR, received an
Instruction for the Ambassador of the Polish Republic in the USSR
in which the government ordained him to launch steps aimed at the prompt
release of all Poles interned in Soviet prisons and camps. To this end
Kot was to establish close relations with the Soviet authorities and
hold regular bi-lateral consultations. At this stage the Polish side stated the
official number of Soviet-imprisoned Polish officers at over 9 thousand,
which was less than about 15 thousand interned between 1939 and 1941 but
more than the numbers claimed by Maisky. English historian George
Sanford’s claim that the Polish side accepted the
“Soviet” figure is too fargoing as for one the Soviets never
named one prisoner figure but constantly changed the statistics around
and, secondly, the figures they did provide were far too low;
nonetheless the fact remains that the Polish side rather surprisingly
accepted a compromise between the true prisoner count and the figures
suggested by the USSR.
This seemingly strange move is explained by the Poles’ reluctance
to annoy the Russians at this point – it was hoped that the
“disappearance” of some of the prisoners would make it
easier for the Soviets to regulate the issue. It also meant the Polish
side knew that some of the prisoners may have not survived their Soviet
After his accreditation in Moscow on September 9, 1941, Stanisław Kot
raised the subject of the Sikorski-Maisky treaty and its amnesty rulings
during September 20 talks with the Soviet commissar Vyshinsky. On
September 27 Kot followed the matter up with a note to the Soviet
foreign ministry. Like
Retinger, Kot – a staunch supporter of the Sikorski-Maisky
agreement and rapprochement with the USSR – pursued the matter in
a plaintive rather than demanding tone and without direct reference to
imprisoned officers. In all, until October, 1941 Polish diplomatic
strivings in the matter were limited to restrained queries to the
Soviets, with no intention of putting the matter on a razor edge and a
general reluctance against more decisive words or action.
In 1941 the Polish side’s caution
regarding the Sikorski-Maisky accord was dictated by the Anglo-Saxon
powers’ policy towards the Soviets. When in August, 1941 Britain
and the U.S. outlined their basic political strategies in the Atlantic
Charter they were not very intent on monitoring Soviet adherence to the
principles on which they planned to found post-war reality. As
political, economic and military allies, Britain and America after June
22, 1941 decided to concentrate on building an alliance with Stalin and
aiding the USSR in its war effort against the Germans. Roosevelt and
Churchill decided not to burden Stalin with additional demands,
especially those which concerned third countries. In Britain’s
case the “third country” whose demands were ignored was
Poland – an earlier (albeit weaker) British ally than the USSR.
The best example of this policy were talks on the Lend-Lease project,
especially a late-September, 1941 meeting in Moscow between the U.S.
President’s envoy William Averell Harriman, Britain’s
Minister of Supply Lord Max Beaverbrook and Stalin. At this meeting the
sides agreed on the details of an aid programme for the USSR but –
unlike in debates on aid for Russia during World War One – omitted
to specify the conditions on which this aid was to be forwarded. Thus,
Britain and the U.S. launched a policy of unconditional aid for Russia
to which Stalin responded with a “take and run” policy.
Despite Polish efforts the conference did not discuss U.S. armament
supplies for Polish forces in the Soviet Union, leaving the matter
entirely to the Soviets. Harriman recounted later that this was largely
due to Beaverbrook’s stance at the talks. In result of failing
British support for Sikorski the Poles’ voice lost weight in the
eyes of the Soviet leadership. Under such a policy any moves towards freeing
Soviet-imprisoned Polish POWs by Washington or London were unthinkable.
It must also be noted that in 1941 official Polish agencies put no
pressure in this respect on either the British or the Americans. In a
September 24, 1941 statement in connection with the British-U.S.
conference and signing of the Atlantic Charter the Polish government,
besides expressing contentment over the solidarity displayed by the
world’s great democracies and staunch assurances that the Poles
will battle the Third Reich until its end, asked about the aims of the
war. The Polish side underscored the need to ensure law and order in
post-war Europe and safe borders for Poland – but omitted to
mention the Polish prisoners in the USSR. Failure to take the matter up resulted not only
from the Polish statement’s very general character but also the
Polish belief that it was pointless to address the case. The 1941-sealed
alliance between Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union left no room for
inquiries into the officially missing (and in reality slaughtered)
Polish officers, and in effect the matter was internationally sidelined.
In the latter half of 1941 the ‘big three’ character of the
British-American-Soviet alliance was unconducive to any pursuit of
Polish interests in relations with the Soviets and restricted Polish
efforts to resolve the POW issue.
However, as of October, 1941 the Polish side began to undertake more
energentic steps in the matter.
On October 13 Ambassador Kot sent a note to the Soviet deputy foreign
affairs commissioner Vyshinsky, in which he voiced several justified
objections regarding the Soviets’ failure to adhere to their
treaty obligations. In the note Kot also mentioned the USSR’s
non-fulfilment of amnesty promises, and as an example named groups of
Poles still incarcerated in Soviet camps. However, he again made no
mention of the officers. Kot’s clearly sharper tone was a sign that
the Poles were getting fed up with their repeated failure to achieve
anything in the matter. The prisoner issue came up again during
Kot’s meeting with Vyshinsky on the next day (October 14). The
Soviet commissioner presented figures stating the number of
Soviet-interned Poles which again made no account of the officers. Kot
contested the figures and stuck by the Polish count – 9,400. Kot
had again lowered the official prisoner count but could not accept the
Soviets’ omission of the missing officers in their statistics. In
result, as sources say, the talks continued in a “highly
nervous” atmosphere. Kot’s note and the later talks with
Vyshinsky signaled a turnaround in the Poles’ approach to the
A real change, however, came with an October 15, 1941 letter from the
Polish Prime Minister to the Polish-accredited Soviet Ambassador in
London Andrei Bogomolov. In the letter Władysław Sikorski wrote: The
fate of several thousand Polish officers who have not returned to Poland
nor were located in Soviet POW camps remains unexplained. Most probably
they were dispersed in the northern regions of the USSR. Their presence
in Polish military camps is an absolute necessity. With this
Sikorski showed that he was vitally interested in the officers’
whereabouts. The letter’s effect was heightened by its brevity
– it consisted of a single page. This was the first time the
officer issue was accentuated in official Polish-Soviet relations and
Sikorski began his letter in a rather mild tone: I hereby
request you to relay to the Soviet government our assurances of
the Polish government’s appreciation of the good will displayed by
the Soviet government in the execution of the Polish-Soviet agreement of
July 30, 1941. However, we are currently faced with difficulties which
are rather unrelated to any difficulties caused by warfare.
The phrase “rather unrelated” carried a determined note
and pointed to the Soviets’ responsibility for the fate of the
prisoners and ill will as the only feasible reasons of their reluctance
to free them. Totally unexplainable were the Polish side’s
suggestions as to what might have happened with the imprisoned Poles
(dispersed in the northern regions of the USSR), which only
showed that the Polish authorities knew little or nothing about their
fate and made it easier for the Soviets to cover their tracks.
Regardless of the drawbacks in Sikorski’s letter to Bogomolov,
it certainly marked a new phase in inquiries about the missing POWs
– a phase marked by repeated Polish queries and
interventions in the matter – and appropriate responses from the
Soviet side (of which some could doubtless be of great interest to not
only historians but politologists, culture anthropologists and even
October 14, 1941 saw a meeting in the Kremlin between ambassador Kot
and Stalin, during which Stalin gave a display of his renowned political
theatrics. Following initial niceties and a review of international
affairs and Polish-Soviet relations (mainly the formation of Polish
forces in the Soviet Union), Kot signaled that he wanted to touch upon
another topic: Mr. President (Stalin was not the Soviet President
– W.W.), I have taken up so much of your precious time,
but there would be one more thing I’d like to bring up. May I?
The matter Kot had in mind were the missing Polish officers. Kot went
on: We have names and lists. For instance General Stanisław Haller
hasn’t been located yet, we are also missing officers from
Starobielsk, Kozielsk and Ostaszków, who were taken away from
these camps in April and May of 1940. 
During the several-minute exchange that followed Stalin got up and
began pacing around a table smoking a cigarette, but continued to listen
attentively and replied to questions. Then he approached a telephone on
Molotov’s desk and began to dial.
Seeing this Molotov rose, went up to the telephone, threw a switch
with the words that’s how you connect, and sat down again
at the conference table.
After connecting Stalin asked into the telephone: NKVD? Stalin
here. Have all the Poles been freed? Following a short silence
during which he appeared to listen to a reply, he added: because
I’ve got the Polish ambassador here, who tells me than not all
were freed. Then he agasin listened to the other side’s
response, and hung up.
After a further exchange, during which Kot replied to Stalin’s
rather impatient queries as to where and when the Poles intended to
fight the Germans, the Soviet leader (according to a Polish stenogram)
got up at the sound of the telephone and most probably listened to
the reply to his question about the Poles of several minutes ago. Then
he put the receiver down and returned without a word.
In his memoirs Kot claimed that Stalin also added softly, as if to
himself: they say they’ve all been freed.
Kot had to content himself with Stalin’s silence and
above-quoted mumbled commentary. The Soviet leader showed a personal
interest in the fate of the Polish officers, whom he had earlier
ordained to death; today it is difficult to tell if he really telephoned
NKVD or whether he and Molotov, the co-architect of the Katyń massacre,
were just playing games.
The most spectacular example of the Soviets’ falsehopod and
evasiveness in the matter was a December 3, 1941 Kremlin meeting between
Stalin, Sikorski, Kot and General Anders, at which Stalin, asked
point-blank about the Poles, suggested that they had probably fled
Of course the Soviets’ blunt denials in the matter stemmed from
their wish to conceal their responsibility for the killings. The
Soviets’ evasiveness and barefaced lies put against
information from survivors had to make the Poles realize that the
prisoners from Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostaszków were
irretrievably lost. Not everyone, however, suspected mass killings. Some
(like Anders) believed the officers had been moved to special detention
centres in the Russian far north (Kolyma, Novaya Zyemlya) and left there
to perish. Doubtless
suspicions of mass murder were in the minds of those who had survived
the Soviet hell, but such thoughts were easier to harbour than
articulate, neither was it easy to formulate any accusations against the
responsible side. Moreover, nobody possessed any decisive evidence in
the matter and the Polish side lacked the will to pursue it.
1942: Armed Forces Evacuate to Mideast, All Hope Lost
Over late 1941 and the first half of 1942 the Polish side repeatedly
queried the Soviets about the Polish POWs, and even provided them with
name lists of some of the missing officers. In a March 18, 1942 conversation on the subject
with Anders, Stalin declared rather foggily that he had ordered all the
Poles to be released, that he did not know their whereabouts, that there
were no reasons why they should be kept in further detention, finally
suggesting that perhaps they were scattered on territories occupied
by the Germans…. Countered by Anders’ companion
at the meeting, Polish Chief of Staff Colonel Leopold Okulicki, who
assured that this was impossible, we would have known about
that, Stalin changed the subject. The Soviet authorities brushed off other queries
about the officers in a similar manner – either with silence or
absurd and self-contradictory assurances that they knew nothing about
the Poles’ fate, that they were scattered somewhere and that all
Soviet-detained Poles had been released.
A simultaneous search for the prisoners in the USSR, ordered by
General Anders and conducted by Captain Józef Czapski (himself a
survivor from the Starobielsk camp), in whose course Czapski repeatedly
asked Soviet functionaries on various levels about the Poles, also came
up against a wall of silence. However, the search operation helped
unearth data which distinctly pointed to the prisoners’ tragic
The situation changed between March and August, 1942. Constantly
hampered in its recruitment and harassed in many other ways, the Polish
Armed Forces in the USSR, now counting about 80,000 troops (including
numerous civilians), finally evacuated to Iran in the Mideast.
Consequently, the Soviets banned further recruitment to this
Polish-government-faithful force and began to form a marionette Polish
army under Zygmunt Berling. After the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR
(now to be known as the Polish Army in the East) left their Soviet
prison, Polish-Soviet relations deteriorated from cool to icy and Soviet
policy acquired a distinctly anti-Polish tone.
With the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR off to the Mideast, by the
end of 1942 the chances of finding the officers practically equalled
nil. However, awareness of what had happened to them was increasingly
distinct. On January 15, 1943, the Polish government received a Soviet
note which stated that the Sikorski-Maisky treaty signified recognition
of the Soviets’ 1939 annexation of east Poland. Moods in General
Anders’ army rock-bottomed. Sorrow and despair was what Polish
soldiers felt when the Soviet government issued the note, which
proclaimed that all inhabitants of eastern-Polish territories taken over
by the Red Army after September 17, 1939 had now automatically become
Soviet citizens. The soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the East,
most of whom came from the eastern territories, realized that they had
lost their country. Even more tragic was the fate of those Poles who
remained in Soviet Russia. The note meant the Soviets’ open denial of
Polish state frontiers, their rejection of all cooperation with the
Polish government, and a definite stop to the evacuation of Poles from
the USSR – to say nothing about clearance of the officer issue,
which the Soviets now considered closed.
The crisis in Polish-Soviet relations whose culmination was the
January, 1943 note, failed to inspire the Polish authorities to a
propaganda campaign against the Soviets’ treatment of Poles
– especially the annihilation of thousands of POWs who could have
been used to battle the Germans. Not only did the Polish government not
consider gathering data on the Soviet-interned Poles’ fate a
priority, but it obstructed the disclosure of the truth about what had
happened to them. Polish evacuees from the USSR were made to vow not to
talk about their Soviet experiences in the Mideast. No London-based
centre was set up to sift and analyse information about Soviet-residing
Poles although what was known justified claims that the Soviets had
committed a major crime. The Polish authorities’ negligence in the
matter probably stemmed from fear that a more decided approach or its
sudden emergence at a “wrong moment” could result in a
breakdown of Polish-Soviet relations. From today’s standpoint this
may appear naïve but Sikorski considered this the right policy in
view of a possible Soviet invasion of Poland and failing Anglo-Saxon
support for Polish interests in general. The alternative would have been
to take up – still in wartime – the matter of
Bolshevism’s threats to Europe and staunchly refuse to sweep even
the most uncomfortable truths under the carpet. The fact is that at the
turn of 1942 and 1943 the fate of the missing Polish officers was still
an unresolved issue about which all sides seemed to want to forget
– despite evident signs and suggestions that the Poles had been
1943: the Truth is Revealed
A document in the possession of the London-based Polish Institute and
Władysław Sikorski Museum, today part of a collection devoted to Colonel
Wincenty Bąkiewicz, head of Section II in the Supreme Command of the
Polish Armed Forces in the East (General Anders’ intelligence and
counter-intelligence service), confirms that belief in the
Soviet-imprisoned Polish officers’ annihilation was commonplace
among Mideast-stationed Polish troops already in early 1943. Statements
to this effect also came from Henryk Malhomme, chargé
d’affaires of the Polish Mission in Baghdad. In an
early-February telegram to the Polish Foreign Ministry in London,
Malhomme stated bluntly that thousands of officers and policemen are
considered to have been murdered. It must be noted here that Malhomme omitted to
mention the fate of Poles still alive in the USSR and concentrated on a
past event which had taken place in its time and day. Many among the
Mideast-stationed soldiers feared for the lives of those they had left
behind, but no longer so much for the POWs, whom they believed long
dead. Proof that Malhomme’s words concerned a very specific group
of Polish officers interned in NKVD camps until the spring of 1940 lies
in his use of the words thousands of officers and policemen
– which aptly described the populations of the camps in
Kozielsk, Starobiels and Ostaszków. In effect, the Poles in the
Mideast were convinced that their colleagues in the three camps had been
In London Malhomme’s report was viewed as a survey of political
moods in Mideast-stationed Polish forces and not information about the
officers’ fate – which was quite understandable under the
general political circumstances of the day. In its negotiations about
the officers with the Soviets the Sikorski government, intent on
rapprochement with the USSR, consistently claimed the Poles were missing
and refused to acknowledge that they had been killed. Such
acknowledgment and publication of the truth would have quite certainly
ruined Sikorski’s eastern policy.
The truth surfaced quite suddenly – and from totally unexpected
Basing on local information and their own inquiries, in the early
spring of 1943 the Germans decided to launch a search in Katyń Forest
and found the bodies of the Polish officers – the final evidence
of their 1940 execution by NKVD. Joseph Goebbels, who was intent on
discrediting the Soviets after the Third Reich’s defeat at
Stalingrad, promptly launched a propaganda campaign around the issue. On
April 13, 1943 Radio Berlin announced that the bodies of the Polish
officers had been located in Katyń Forest. The news evoked a broad
Soon delegations from occupied and neutral countries began to appear on
the crime scene – among them journalists, Allied officers and
forensic experts. The latter soon confirmed the terrible truth about
what had happened.
In an April 15 reply Radio Moscow issued a
statement expressing indignation at Goebbels’ accusations and
putting the blame for the killings on German fascist henchmen.
The Germans’ announcement that the
graves of the Soviet-murdered Polish officers had been found left the
Polish authorities with no choice but to accept this as the most
probable truth and launch steps to clear the matter both through
international institutions and in their own capacity. On April 17, 1943
the Polish government issued a statement on the Katyń killings (in which
they still avoided any direct accusations) and asked the International
Red Cross in Bern to investigate the matter. But even then more weight
was laid on the propaganda advantages Germany might reap from Katyń than
the Soviets’ responsibility for the crime.
On April 19, 1943 the Soviet national daily
Pravda attacked Poland for approaching the Red Cross and
“collaborating with German provocateurs and Goebbels”. In
fact, the Poles’ conduct in the matter was more than restrained.
Under pressure by Churchill (who was backed in this by Roosevelt), the
Polish government even went as far as to withdraw its motion to the Red
Cross. This was a
premonition of the Anglo-Saxons’ treatment of Katyń in later war
years and the post-war period: the matter was sidelined and the truth
about it kept concealed. Contrary to the Polish side, however, the
Soviets’ response was determined and ruthless. On April 25, 1943
they broke off all relations with the Polish government on grounds that
the Poles had taken part in a German provocation aimed at laying the
blame for Nazi crimes on the USSR. Simultaneously, the Soviets began to construct a
falsified version of the Katyń events, known today as the
Katyń Lie, according to which the Germans committed the
massacre in 1941.
The Katyń Lie was upheld until the fall of
the USSR and fully abandoned only in 1990, when the Russian news agency
TASS announced that NKVD had been responsible for the mass killings. In
1992 the Russian President revealed the Soviet politburo’s key
documentation on the massacre. Nonetheless, the Russians’ refusal
to recognize Katyń as an act of genocide as well as their repeated
attempts to present the matter in a false light continue to overshadow
Institute of National Remembrance
Beria’s note to J. Stalin suggesting the murder of Polish
prisoners of war, March 5, 1940, Moscow [in:] Katyń.
Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyn. Documentation of the Crime), prepared by.
N. Lebedeva, W. Materski e.a., ed. Naczelna Dyrekcja Archiwów
Państwowych – Federalna Służba Archiwalna Rosji (State Archive
Head Directorate – Russian Federal Archive Service), vol. 1:
Jeńcy nie wypowiedzianej wojny. Sierpień 1939 –
marzec 1940, Warsaw 1995, pp. 469 – 475. English translation
(Katyn. An Unpunished Crime) ed. Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva,
Wojciech Materski, Yale University Press, New Haven – London 2007,
no. 47, pp. 118 – 120.
Extract from Protocol 13 of Soviet Political Bureau sittings,
March 5, 1940, Moscow [in:] Katyń Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń.
Documentation of the Crime), vol. 1, op. cit., pp. 476 – 477.
Note from KGB head A. Shelepin to N. Khrushchev, March 9 1959,
Moscow [in:] Katyń. Documentation of Genocide, Warsaw
1992, pp. 42 – 45.
Armia Krajowa w dokumentach (The Home Army in Documents),
vol. II, June 1941 – April 1943, pp. 1 – 2. Sprawa polska
w czasie drugiej wojny światowej na arenie międzynarodowej.
Zbiór dokumentów (The Polish Cause on
the World War Two International Arena. Documentation), Warsaw 1965, no.
1 (chapter II), pp. 218 – 221. Protocols From Council of
Minister Sittings, Cracow 1996, vol. III: June 1941 – December
1941, no. 68, pp. 1 – 3; no. 68 A, pp. 4 – 5 and no. 68 B,
pp. 5 – 13.
Ibidem, no. 68 B, p. 8.
Instytut Polski i Muzeum Sikorskiego W Londynie (Polish Institute and
Sikorski Museum in London /IPMS/), PRM 63II, doc. no. 24, k. 373 –
Stosunki polsko – sowieckie od września 1939 r. do kwietnia
1943. Zbiór dokumentów (Polish-Soviet
Relations – September 1939 to April 1943), Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, London 1943, doc. 21, pp. 22 – 23.
Dokumienty i matieriały po istorii sowietsko – polskich
otnoszenij, vol. VII, Moscow 1973, pp. 198 – 199. Polish
translation [in:] Układ Sikorski – Majski. Wybór
dokumentów (The Sikorski – Maisky Agreement. Selected
Documentation), ed. Eugeniusz Duraczyński, Warsaw 1990, doc. 6,
A. 48.2/C2, doc. no. 3, k. 10 –11.
Depesza Ambasadora I. Majskiego do Moskwy (Ambassador I.
Maisky’s Telegram to Moscow) [in:] Sowietsko –
anglijskije otnoszenija wo wremja Wielikoj Otieczestwiennoj Wojny 1941
– 1945, vol. 1: 1941 – 1943, Moscow 1983, pp. 64 –
65. Układ... (The Sikorsky-Maisky Agreement…), op.
cit., doc. 8., pp. 97 – 98.
Ambasador J. Winant do Waszyngtonu (Ambassador J. Winant
to Washington), July 4, 1941, London: Treść depeszy A. Edena
do S. Crippsa (A. Eden’s Telegram to S. Cripps), July 4, 1941,
London [in:] Foreign Relation of the United States. Diplomatic Papers
1941, Vol. 1: General. The Soviet Union, Washington 1950, pp.
239 – 240. Polish translation [in:] Układ ... (The
Sikorski-Maisky Agreement…), op. cit., doc. 7, pp. 96
Stosunki polsko – sowieckie ... (Polish-Soviet
Relations…), op. cit., doc. 22, p. 24.
Ibidem, doc. 23, pp. 25 – 27. During the talks Sikorski did
not specify which recent Soviet statistics he was referring to.
Ibidem, doc. 26 (Proposal of an agreement between the Polish
government and the government of the USSR sent by Mr. Olivier Harvey on
July 11, 1941 /Soviet draft/, Foreign Office), pp. 36 – 37.
Ibidem, doc. 27 (Polish proposal sent to Minister Eden on July
12, 1941 in connection with the Soviet proposal of July 11, 1941), pp.
37 – 38.
Ibidem, doc. 30, p. 44.
Documents on Polish – Soviet Relations, London 1961, vol.
1: 1939 – 1943, no. 110.
Rossijskij Gossudarstiewnnyj Archiw Socjalno – Politiczeskiej
Istorii w Moskwie (RGASPI), f. 82, op. 2, d. 1286, l. 7 - 154.
Stosunki polsko – sowieckie... (Polish – Soviet
Relations…), op. cit., doc. 35, pp. 47 – 49.
Archiw Wnieszniej Polityki RF, f. 06, op. 3, p. 19, d. 246, l. 1 –
5 [after:] Katyń. Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń.
Documentation of the Crime…), op. cit., vol. 3:
Losy ocalałych: lipiec 1940 – marzec 1943 (The
Survivors. July, 1940 – March, 1943), Warsaw 2001, p. 31.
Stosunki polsko – sowieckie... (Polish –
Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 36, p. 50.
Documents on Polish – Soviet Relations, vol. 1: 1939
– 1941, London 1961, no. 158. (General Instructions for the Polish
Ambasador in the USSR, 28 August 1941 r.). Original at IPMS and Hoover
George Sanford, The Katyn Massacre and Polish Soviet –
Relations. 1941 – 1943 [in:] Journal of Conterporary
History, London – New Delhi 2006, vol. 41 (1), p. 100.
Stosunki polsko sowieckie... (Polish – Soviet
Relations…), op. cit., doc. 37, p. 51.
W. Materski, Na Widecie. II Rzeczpospolita wobec Sowietów 1918
– 1943 (On Guard. The 2nd Republic and the Soviets
1918 – 1943), Warsaw 2005, p. 637.
W. A. Harriman, E. Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin 1941
– 1946, New York (1975), pp. 45 – 47.
S. Kot, Rozmowy z Kremlem (Talks With the Kremlin), London
1959, p. 22.
Sprawa polska w czasie drugiej wojny światowej…(The
Polish Cause During World War Two…), op. cit., no. 13
(chapter II), pp. 235 – 236.
Stosunki polsko – sowieckie ... (Polish-Soviet
Relations…), op. cit., doc. 37, pp. 51 – 53.
Documents on Polish – Soviet Relations, vol. 1, op.
cit., nr 130.
The letter was in French, cf.: Stosunki polsko – sowieckie ...
(Polish-Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 38, p. 54.
Polish translation: Katyń. Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń.
Documentation of a Crime), vol. 3, op. cit., doc. 209, p. 470
(facsimile pp. 471 – 472).
Sprawa polska w czasie drugiej wojny światowej ... (The Polish
Cause During World War Two…), op. cit., no. 17 (chapter
II), pp. 241 – 249.
S. Kot, Listy z Rosji do Gen Sikorskiego (Letter From
Russia to General Sikorski), London 1955, pp. 169 – 180.
W. Anders, Bez ostatniego rozdziału (Without a Final
Chapter), Gryf Publishers [London 1959], p. 89.
Ibidem, pp. 77 – 78, p. 89, p. 119, pp. 137 –
Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, HI/ I/ Reel 63 and 68. Microfilms of Polish Foreign Ministry
documentation from the Hoover Institute.
Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów (z przedmową
Władysława Andersa) (The Katyń Crime in Documents /With
Foreword by Władysław Anders/), London 1982, pp. 77 – 78.
J. Czapski, Wspomnienia Starobielskie (Memories of Starobielsk),
Rome 1945, pp. 48 – 60.
G. Jonkajtys – Luba, Opowieść o 2 Korpusie Polskim Generała
Władysława Andersa (The Story of the 2nd Polish Corps
Under General Władysław Anders), Warsaw (no date), s. 29. On June 10,
1943 General Anders was appointed commander of the 2nd Polish
Corps formed from all East-stationed Polish units. Earlier Anders
commanded the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR and the Polish Armed
Forces in the East.
IPMS, Col. 138/81, k. 833. See: W. Wasilewski, Żołnierze,
których zabrakło … (The Missing Soldiers…)
[in:] Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej (National Remembrance
Institute Bulletin), no. 10 – 11 (81 – 82) 2007, pp. 55
Katyń. Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń. Documentation of the
Crime), op. cit., vol. 4: Echa Katynia: kwiecień 1943
– marzec 2005 (Katyń Echos: April 1943 – March 2005),
Warsaw 2006, doc. 1, p. 43.
The Katyn Forest Massacre. Final Report of the Select Committee
to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and
Circumstances of the Katyn Massacre. Appendix. Excerpts from
interim report, July 2 1952, United States Goverment Printed Office,
Katyń. Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń. Documentation of the
Crime), op. cit., vol. 4, doc. 3, pp. 44 – 45.
 Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle
dokumentów …(The Katyń Crime in Documents…),
op. cit., pp. 88 – 89.
Sprawa polska w czasie drugiej wojny światowej ... (The Polish
Cause During World War Two…), op. cit., no. 74, 75, 76
(chapter II), pp. 347 – 348.
Wnieszniaja politika Sowietskowo Sojuza w period
Otieczestwiennoj Wojny, vol. I, Moscow 1946, pp. 346 – 347.
English translation by E. Rożek, Allied Wartime Diplomacy. A
Pattern in Poland, New York 1958, pp. 127 – 128.