The Katyn Massacre: Half a Century of Lies and the Search for Truth

Borrowing institutionally from the German-Polish case, Polish-Russian reconciliation had been making small, tentative steps until the crisis in and over Ukraine. There is some effort to continue civil society interaction, but official initiatives such as the planned Polish-Russian Year in 2015, which was to showcase cooperation in culture and silence, have been stalled. If the reconciliation process gets back on track, Polish and Russian differences over the Katyn Massacre will continue to be a major source of tension in relations.


“Memory and truth about Katyn constitute the basis for Polish-Russian reconciliation,” said Donald Tusk at the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. The Russian representatives nodded. In their speeches, they used similar words, but meant different things. Or they did not mean them at all.

“Katyn” and “The Katyn Lie”

In Poland, “Katyn” means both a crime and a lie about it. It refers to the massacre of approximately 22,000 Polish officers who were murdered in spring 1940 by the NKVD. Since 1943, the Soviet authorities had blamed the Nazis for this crime and persecuted those who insisted on telling the truth.  As a result, for the Poles the word “Katyn” came to symbolize two evils of Stalinism, both its ruthlessness and its hypocrisy.

In Communist Poland, the memory of Katyn had been cherished despite the official propaganda. It became embedded in the context of the Polish fight for national identity and (regaining) national independence. Both pride in the intelligentsia, prominent in Polish culture, and a sense of loss strengthened the link between truth about Katyn and Polish national feelings. All these meanings coalesced in the word “Katyn” and made it into a powerful identity anchor in Poland.

In Russian society, the Katyn massacre had been largely unknown, even after the changes of the early 1990s. Only after the 2010 crash of the plane carrying prominent representatives of the Polish government and cultural life (including the Polish president) on their way to Russia for a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre, did many Russians learn about Katyn. However, the wave of emotion and empathy that followed the catastrophe did not lead to a broader discussion about the legacy of the Stalinist regime in Russia, nor to the uncovering of the whole truth regarding Katyn.

“Lower” Factual Truth as a Prerequisite for Justice

Truth in the context of Katyn starts with establishing all the facts of the crime. Factuality is the way to both “disarm” the symbol and “neutralize” the lie repeated before, and to lead to a rational debate that could be the basis of Polish-Russian reconciliation. The cooperation from the Russian political side in this factual search had been half-hearted at best due to, among other considerations, the fear of a Polish claim for economic reparations and the unwillingness to fully distance Russia from the Stalinist regime.

In the speeches of Russian representatives, what we see is rather a tendency to generalize, e.g., the Katyn forest is named as the place in which all victims of totalitarianisms should be commemorated.  This universalizing approach, seemingly humanist for its assumption that all victims are equal, is unacceptable to the Polish side, which stresses the particularity of the Katyn victims and the genocidal character of this crime.

Danger of a “Higher Truth”

In his essay “Holy Russia,” the French philosopher Alain Besançon points out that in Russia there are two types of truth: “pravda” and “istina.” The former means “not just truth, but also justice and obedience to God, the source of truth and justice.” The latter refers to “the factual, positivistic truth, one that you can see with your eyes and verify.”  He argues that “istina” is in Russia perceived as less dignified than “Pravda.” This means that the distortions of the factual truth are possible and do not matter as the higher truth “gleams as shelter” above it.

In no other language I know does one word encompass both truth and justice. At first glance, the reconciliation debates need exactly the unity between truth and justice that is implied by the word “pravda.” At the same time, however, concepts of such broad meanings, originally used in religious contexts, can in the social or political reality easily be instrumentalized, abused as cover-words for half-truths, bad will, or the feeling of national or moral superiority.

“Pravda” is not a concept in which two different nations could meet as partners and reconcile in dialogue. “Istina” is the only chance for us, Russians and Poles, to reconcile—with each other, and with the truth itself.


Ms. Jolanta Jonaszko graduated from Yale with an MA in “European and Russian Studies” (her MA thesis was on the history and memory of Katyn) and from Oxford in Russian and German language and literature. She is a blog writer ( and currently works in a German HR consultancy.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.