Institute of National Remembrance

Institute of National Remembrance

Katyn is a symbol of the criminal policy of the Soviet system against the Polish nation. The present study aims to demonstrate the basic facts of Katyn massacre – the execution of almost 22,000 people...

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Katyn is a symbol of the criminal policy of the Soviet system against the Polish nation. The present study aims to demonstrate the basic facts of Katyn massacre – the execution of almost 22,000 people: Polish prisoners of war in Katyn, Kharkov, Kalinin (Tver) and also other Polish prisoners (soldiers and civilians), which took place in the spring of 1940 in different places of the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus republics based on the decision of the Soviet authorities, that is the Political Bureau of All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of March 5, 1940. This article refers not only to the massacre itself, but also its origin, historical processes and the lies accompanying Katyn massacre.

The term ‘Katyn massacre’ refers to the execution in the spring of 1940 of almost 22,000 people: Polish prisoners of war in Katyn, Kharkov, Kalinin (Tver) and also prisoners (soldiers and civilians), in different places of the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus republics based on the decision of the Soviet authorities, that is the Political Bureau of All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of March 5, 1940. The commonly used expression referring to the simultaneous murders at many locations includes only the name of one of them, where the bodies of the officers were buried. This is connected with the fact that, for almost half the century after these tragic events, the knowledge about people taken into captivity, or arrested and finally murdered based on the resolution of the Political Bureau of All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), was limited to the information of the executions in Katyn1.

The widely understood term ‘Katyn massacre’ refers not only to the massacre itself, but also its origin, the lies accompanying it and attempts to judge those responsible for it.

1. The Soviet policy towards Poland and the Poles until 1939

The Katyn massacre committed by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (the NKVD) in 1940 shows how the USSR policy aimed at destroying Poland’s statehood since it gained independence after World War I2. The Treaty of Riga, which was signed in 1921 by Poland, the Soviet Russia and Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets, ended the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–1920. Under this treaty, the Polish eastern border was established along the following line: Dzisna–Dokszyce–Slucz–Korzec–Ostrog–Zbrucz. The parties dismissed mutual territorial claims. However, the Bolsheviks, who treated the peace agreement as a concession which was forced by the military situation, did not give up their expansion plans to the West and maintained a hostile attitude towards Warsaw3.

After 1921, small, specially trained groups of Ukrainian and Belarusian Bolsheviks and the Red Army soldiers slipped across the border from the Soviet Russia. They attacked police stations, civilians, clerks and set fire to forests.

The Creation of the Border Protection Corps in 1924 gradually restricted the penetration of these agents and terrorists4.

Despite the fact that talks on the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had been taking place since 1926, Moscow still expressed a hostile attitude towards the Second Polish Republic in the second half of the twenties, by supporting Lithuanian territorial claims towards Poland and considering Pilsudski’s government ‘fascist’. After the assassination of the USSR deputy, Piotr Wojkow, in 1927 by a Russian emigrant, the negotiations collapsed, and the Bolsheviks accused the Polish government of supporting Russian emigrant organizations5.

In 1932, a pact was signed in which parties rejected the idea of war as an international policy tool, accepted one another’s obligations and declared that if any party was attacked, no help would be offered to the aggressor. The pact was to be in force for three years, but in 1934 both the Bolsheviks and the Polish government decided to prolong this period to ten years in the face of the danger from Germany ruled by the Nazi party6.

One of the crucial factors which influenced the relations between Moscow and Warsaw was the situation of about one million Poles who, after the Treaty of Riga was signed, remained beyond the eastern border7. The USSR government created two ethnic regions for them: Julian Marchlewski Polish Autonomous District (Marchlewszczyzna) in Ukraine in 1925, and Feliks Dzierzynski Polish Autonomous District (Dzierzynszczyzna) in Belarus in 1932. The aim of the Bolsheviks’ policy in these districts was to form units which were to participate in the aggression against the Second Polish Republic in the future. The ‘national experiment’ was a failure because the inhabitants of both districts preserved national and Catholic traditions and in the 1930’s strongly opposed collectivization. In 1935 the decision to dissolve Marchlewszczyzna was announced. Based on the act of the Council of People’s Commissars of 28 April 1936, the deportation of masses of Marchlewszczyzna citizens to Siberia and Kazakhstan started8. According to final reports prepared by the NKVD, about 50,000 people were forced to leave their country. In 1938 Dzierzynszczyzna met with the same fate and it is estimated that about 20,000 people were deported.

During the years of the great terror 1937–1938, which affected the inhabitants of the whole USSR, an attack on the Poles who lived in the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus occurred. Based on the order issued on 11 August, 1937 by Nikolai Yezhov, an internal affairs commissar, the so-called Polish Operation of the NKVD began9. This meant arrests, and executions based on false accusations of spy and sabotage activities. From August 1937 till September 1938, 144,000 Poles were judged, among whom 111,000 were shot by the NKVD, and almost 30,000 were sent to labour camps or prisons after receiving five to fifteen year sentences10.

The hostility of the USSR authorities towards the Poles during the period between the wars originated, among other things, from the desire to take revenge for the defeat of the Red Army at the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1920 and preventing the army from advancing towards the west11.

2. The Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939

In the morning of 17 September, 1939, between 600–650,000 soldiers and over 5,000 thousand Red Army tanks invaded the Second Polish Republic, which had been fighting against German aggression since 1 September12. On 23 August, 1939, the USSR and the Third Reich signed a pact, which was named the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact after its signatories, the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries. According to the confidential protocol of this non-aggression pact, the USSR’s sphere of influence was to extend approximately to the Narew, Vistula and San rivers. This state of affairs was confirmed in the treaty of 28 September and another protocol accompanying it, according to which German and Soviet parties committed themselves to fighting ‘Polish agitation’13.

The invasion of the Red Army took place at the time when the Polish forces were retreating eastwards before the Germans, after an unsuccessful attempt to maintain the territory to the Narew, Vistula nad San rivers. According to Edward Rydz-Smigly’s military plan, the remaining units were to gather at the so-called Romanian Bridgehead and continue defence until France and Great Britain launched an offensive in the West. They declared war on Germany on 3 September under their obligations towards Poland from before 1 September. As a result of the decision of 12 September, which was taken by the French-English Supreme Council of War, the allies did not take any military action, and the Red Army invaded Poland on the pretext that ‘the Polish country and its government ceased to exist’. Consequently, ‘the USSR had to take care of the people who lived in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus and their possessions’ as the Soviet propaganda referred to the eastern regions of the Second Polish Republic14.

The commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, Marshal Smigly-Rydz ordered the army to abstain from provocative operations against the Soviets and allowed the possibility of war in case ‘they invaded Poland or tried to disarm the detachments’15. Those instructions were issued in Kuty, where politicians, commanders, soldiers and civilians escaped across the bridge in Czeremosz to the Romanian bank.

People from Wilno (Vilnius) and Grodno and the group of Border Protection Corps resisted the enemy attack. The corps under Wilhelm Orlik-Rückemann’s command fought the battle of Szack against the 52 Rifle Division of the Red Army. By 25 September, as a result of Belarusian Front attack, the Soviets had gained possession of Wilno (Vilnius), Grodno, Brześć (Brest) on the River Bug and Suwalki. By 28 September, the soldiers of Belarusian Front had occupied Tarnopol, Dubno, Stanislawow, Lwów (Lviv) and Zamosc. The USSR gained control of over half of the territory of the Second Polish Republic16.

As soon as the Red Army crossed the border, it started to commit crimes: the massacre in Grodno and the assassination of General Jozef Olszyna-Wilczynski, the execution of marines of the Pinsk Flotilla in Mokrany, murders in Nowogrodek, Tarnopol and other places, the execution of the soldiers taken captive near Wilno (Vilnius), and also the arrest of defenders of Lwów (Lviv). This happened despite the agreement which guaranteed defenders of Lwów (Lviv) safe conduct towards the Romanian border17. Behind the army, operational-chekist groups of the NKVD followed, which murdered and arrested Polish people. These units formed the security apparatus in occupied places, gained control over the state archives, radio and telephone communications and they disarmed civilians. The units acted in accordance with the directive issued by the NKVD on ‘The Organisation of Work in Liberated Regions of Western Districts of Ukraine and Belarus’ of 15 September, 193918. About 230,000 soldiers and officers and thousands of military service representatives were taken captive by the Bolsheviks. In the majority of cases soldiers and officers did not oppose it. Privates were separated from officers who were transported to Kozelsk and Starobelsk. Policemen were transported mainly to Ostashkov19.

3. Camps


Kozelsk camp was created in the buildings of a former monastery, the so-called Optina Hermitage. There were 4,594 captives there, about half of whom were reserve officers. There were also over 300 doctors, several hundred lawyers, engineers, teachers, 21 university lecturers, a lot of men of letters, journalists and feature writers. There was one woman among them: Second Lieutenant Pilot Janina Lewandowska, General Jozef-Dowbor-Musnicki’s daughter. The following people were kept there: Rear-admiral Ksawery Czernicki – chief of services of Naval Forces management; General Henryk Odrowaz-Minkiewicz

– the former commander of Border Protection Corps; General Mieczyslaw Smorawinski – commander of Corps District No 2 in Lublin; retired Generals Bronislaw Bohaterewicz and Jerzy Wolkowicki, and Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz, who avoided death and played a significant role in uncovering Katyn massacre, its initiators and executors20.


In Starobelsk the prisoners of war were kept in a former nunnery at 8 Kirov Street, in the buildings at 32 Kirov Street and 19 Wolodarski Street. There were 3,894 people there: a lot of scholars, priests, about 100 teachers and 400 doctors, several hundred lawyers and engineers, several dozen of men of letters and journalists, and also 8 generals: the defender of Lwów (Lviv) Franciszek Sikorski, Konstanty Plisowski, Stanisław Haller, Leonard Skierski, Leon Billewicz, Aleksander Kowalewski, Kazimierz Orlik-Lukoski and Piotr Skuratowicz21.


The prisoners were kept in a former monastery on Stolobny Island on Seliger Lake, 11 kilometres from Ostashkov. Among the prisoners were the following: the State Police and Military Police officials, secret service and counter-espionage officials, the soldiers of the Border Protection Corps and the employees of the Prison Guard. There were also almost the whole staff of the Military Police Education Centre, among whom was Colonel Stanislaw Sitek. Ostashkov camp was the biggest of the three camps – there were about 6,570 prisoners of war just before it was disbanded in April 194022.

4. The massacre

Preparations for the massacre

From October 1939, the delegated NKVD officials from Moscow heard the prisoners, encouraged them to cooperate and collected data. Only a few of the prisoners agreed to collaborate. The commanding officers’ reports included opinions about hostile attitudes of the Poles and a minimal chance of them being useful to the USSR authorities23.

The decision to shoot the prisoners from Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov was signed on 5 March, 1940 by seven members of the All- Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) authorities: Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (proposer), Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich24. On 22 March, Beria issued an order ‘to empty the NKVD prisons in USSR and BSSR, that is in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. The majority of those arrested Poles were officers and policemen25.

The lists of those sent to death were to be prepared and signed by Piotr Soprunienko, commander-in-chief of the Prisoners of War Board of People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which was created by the order of Beria in September 193926.

On 1 April, the first three lists of the 343 names were sent from Moscow to Ostaskhov camp. Later Soprunienko phoned the following commanding officers: Wasilij Korolew in Kozelsk, Aleksander Bierezkow in Starobelsk and Pawel Borisowiec in Ostaskhov in order to submit further lists of victims

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