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.[1] 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 western Belarus.[2] 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 Zygmunt Berling.

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.[3]

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 of  POWs.

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.[4] 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?[5] 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.[6] 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 allies.

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.[7] 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 (...).[8] 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, [9] and personally advised Eden against treating Polish data on the prisoners as reliable.[10] 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 thousand. (...).[11] 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 interests.     

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 10,000 officers.[12]    

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.[13] 

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.[14] 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.[15] 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 reasons.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

 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 Polish citizens.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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 note.

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.[22] 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.[23] 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 internment.

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.[24] 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.[25] Harriman recounted later that this was largely due to Beaverbrook’s stance at the talks.[26] In result of failing British support for Sikorski the Poles’ voice lost weight in the eyes of the Soviet leadership.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] Kot’s note and the later talks with Vyshinsky signaled a turnaround in the Poles’ approach to the prisoner problem.

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.[31] 

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 psychologists).

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. [32]

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.[33]

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 to… Manchuria.[34]

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.[35] 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.[36] 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.[37] 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 fate.[38]

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.[39] 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 murdered.

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.[40] 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 executed.

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 quarters.

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 response worldwide.[41] 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.[42]

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.[43]

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.[44]

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.[45] 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.[46] 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 Polish-Russian relations. 

Witold Wasilewski
Institute of National Remembrance 



[1] L. 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Note from KGB head A. Shelepin to N. Khrushchev, March 9 1959, Moscow [in:] Katyń. Documentation of Genocide, Warsaw 1992, pp. 42 – 45.  

[4] 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.

[5] Ibidem, no. 68 B, p. 8.

[6] Instytut Polski i Muzeum Sikorskiego W Londynie (Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London /IPMS/), PRM 63II, doc. no. 24, k. 373 – 379.

[7] 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.

[8] 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, p. 95. 

[9] IPMS, A. 48.2/C2, doc. no. 3, k. 10 –11.

[10] 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.

[11] 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 – 97.

[12] Stosunki polsko – sowieckie ... (Polish-Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 22, p. 24.

[13] Ibidem, doc. 23, pp. 25 – 27. During the talks Sikorski did not specify which recent Soviet statistics he was referring to.

[14] 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. 

[15] 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.

[16] Ibidem, doc. 30, p. 44.

[17] Documents on Polish – Soviet Relations, London 1961, vol. 1: 1939 – 1943, no. 110.

[18] Rossijskij Gossudarstiewnnyj Archiw Socjalno – Politiczeskiej Istorii w Moskwie (RGASPI), f. 82, op. 2, d. 1286, l. 7 - 154.

[19] Stosunki polsko – sowieckie... (Polish – Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 35, pp. 47 – 49.

[20] 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.

[21] Stosunki polsko – sowieckie... (Polish – Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 36, p. 50.

[22] 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 Institute.

[23] 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.

[24] Stosunki polsko sowieckie... (Polish – Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 37, p. 51.

[25] W. Materski, Na Widecie. II Rzeczpospolita wobec Sowietów 1918 – 1943 (On Guard. The 2nd Republic and the Soviets 1918 – 1943), Warsaw 2005, p. 637.

[26] W. A. Harriman, E. Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin 1941 – 1946, New York (1975), pp. 45 – 47.

[27] S. Kot, Rozmowy z Kremlem (Talks With the Kremlin), London 1959, p. 22.

[28] Sprawa polska w czasie drugiej wojny światowej…(The Polish Cause During World War Two…), op. cit., no. 13 (chapter II), pp. 235 – 236.

[29] Stosunki polsko – sowieckie ... (Polish-Soviet Relations…), op. cit., doc. 37, pp. 51 – 53.

[30] Documents on Polish – Soviet Relations, vol. 1, op. cit., nr 130.

[31] 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).

[32] Sprawa polska w czasie drugiej wojny światowej ... (The Polish Cause During World War Two…), op. cit., no. 17 (chapter II), pp. 241 – 249.

[33] S. Kot, Listy z Rosji do Gen Sikorskiego (Letter From Russia to General Sikorski), London 1955, pp. 169 – 180.

[34] W. Anders, Bez ostatniego rozdziału (Without a Final Chapter), Gryf Publishers [London 1959], p. 89.

[35] Ibidem, pp. 77 – 78, p. 89, p. 119, pp. 137 – 138.

[36] 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.

[37] Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów (z przedmową Władysława Andersa) (The Katyń Crime in  Documents /With Foreword by Władysław Anders/), London 1982, pp. 77 – 78.

[38] J. Czapski, Wspomnienia Starobielskie (Memories of Starobielsk), Rome 1945, pp. 48 – 60.

[39] 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.

[40] 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 – 60.

[41] 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.

[42] 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, Washington 1952.  

[43] Katyń. Dokumenty Zbrodni (Katyń. Documentation of the Crime), op. cit., vol. 4, doc. 3, pp. 44 – 45.

[44] Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów …(The Katyń Crime in Documents…), op. cit., pp. 88 – 89.

[45] 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.

[46] 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.


[Prawo i Sprawiedliwość]  

Witold Wasilewski

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