Katyń is more than just Katyń

My first wife Wiesława, who is Polish, called me thirty minutes after the disaster, relieved to have received the news that her brother Damian – a cameraman with Polish TV – was alive, since Kaczyński had not taken any journalists on board.

I was happy for Damian. I did not check the information regarding journalists. Damian could not have perished anyway since he’’d gone to Katyń with Tusk and stayed there… But now Katyń has claimed fresh victims from Poland. There is a monstrous, mystical sense in this bloodthirstiness that reflects a fatalist consciousness which is characteristic of the Russian soul and whose roots are in Slav paganism rather than in Orthodoxy. As someone linked to Poland by family ties, someone who has learned to speak Polish and has become recognized as a writer in the country that I love, every time I come Poland I believe I see a vision imprinted in the sky. What I see is the word Katy? written in huge letters over the eastern half of the Polish sky, its letters soaked in blood dripping onto the ground. It is as if a long time ago this word had flipped over from the realm of politics, history and a war of civilizations into another dimension, growing wild like a fecund tree, mutating like cells afflicted by some malign tumour and turning into a screaming symbol of pain, deceit and suffering unbearable to the national psychology and incompatible with ordinary national existence.

The only way the Poles were able to overcome this ceaseless pain was by constantly magnifying it, by being constantly shocked by the betrayal on the part of, firstly, ‘their own’ — those Poles who had lied for decades, either in the genuine hope of preserving Poland at least in its reduced, socialist form of a Russian satellite, or who had lied with boundless cynicism for the sake of preserving their own power and in fear of an impending vengeance. This lying had cut the nation into pieces.

Secondly, and more importantly, many Poles were forced to lie by their mighty neighbour, Russia, because she was lying herself, lying in an insufferably foul way, spreading her lies to the whole world, appealing to the outcome of a fake medical commission which included even Aleksei Tolstoy. And then Russia suddenly came out with a half-hearted admission of guilt, like a schoolboy admitting to truancy, but without disclosing the extent of the calamity to the Poles. In a way, from the Russian point of view, this was understandable since against the backdrop of the extermination that had taken place in Russia itself, Russians were hardly aware of this ‘minor detail’. Most of them had no idea what had happened in Katyń and those who knew were inclined to take the idiotic view that it was the Germans who had done it, or the malicious view that because of their history of relations with Russia the Poles themselves were to blame and that the murder of their officers was an appropriate punishment for perceiving Russia as a desperate empire. The Russians were appalled: but we have great, universal culture, we have Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy! But to no avail – culture or no culture, Russia was regarded as shit.

Poland despised the country that had raped her but Russia would just say: Me? Me a rapist? I have given you Eastern Prussia as a gift, keeping only a pathetic scrap of Kaliningrad to myself; I have given you all of Silesia including the German city of Breslau – and you still want more? And Poland would retort: And what about Lvov? Forget Lvov – what about the betrayal of the Warsaw Uprising? And Russia would go: Oh yeah! You wanted us to give power to those who despise us? And so it went on, irreconcileable claims and counterclaims, around and around in the small circle of modern history, against the backdrop of the larger circle, the 17th century Polish conquest of Muscovy, the partitions of Poland and so on and so forth.

For the past few centuries, right up to Iosip Brodsky, Russia had feared the Asiatic culture which for them was the epitome of Asian stagnation, chaos, brutality and disrespect for human life. Poland, too, had fought the Asiatic culture, except that for the Poles the term covered Russia itself. Russia had never found anything positive in the Asiatic culture, had felt no moral obligation towards it. Enlightened Russia has always tried to rid itself of the Asiatic culture, the way Chekhov had tried to squeeze the slave out of himself, drop by drop.

Poland has adopted a similar strategy towards Russia, always wavering between two options: either trying to impose civilization on it, including through occupation, or cursing it, to be done with it forever. To say that the Asiatic culture has not rubbed off on Poland would be deceiving oneself. The contempt in which the Poles are held in America as the ‘’dark’’ Christians, or the fear Old Europe has of the Polish plumber, the Polish adoration of the West, especially under communism – these are all reflections of the Asiatic culture in Poland. But even if Europe had not accepted Poland as a sufficiently European country, it had used her against the threat of the Russian Empire, nurturing in the Poles an awareness of their Europeanness. In any case, the Poles have always been convinced that between their civilization and Russia there is an abyss, albeit quite narrow in places.

This is the root of the historical scandal that took place when Russia’’s Asiatic culture, in the shape of Stalin’s empire, prevailed, crushing Poland. The Poles have apparently conveniently forgotten that there was no love lost between them and the Germans, in spite of the fact that the Germans had behaved despicably to Poland and treated the Poles as subhuman. Polish emigration to Germany has demonstrated that the Poles are fond of German civilization and they are happy to lose themselves in it. Of course this has helped wounds to heal. Yet Russia has remained a hostile country that had conquered Poland not because it was better or stronger but because it was able to achieve victory by sacrificing a vast number of its own people, like some woozy woman who does not mind crushing one of her countless brood in her sleep. So it’’s hardly surprising that with the same lazy indifference it would squash its potential opponents in the same way as people who lash out with a towel to swat a bumblebee that has flown into the room before it even tried to sting anyone. It’‘s flown in, so it’’s obvious it might sting someone. That’’s what Katyń is all about.

And it is precisely this incompatibility of scale that has become the bone of contention. Every Pole knows of Katyń while the Russians had only the vaguest idea of what it was. While for the former it was an event on an apocalyptic scale, for the latter it was just an ordinary wartime tragedy at most. And that is why Russia’’s repentance could never be good enough for the Poles while the Polish demands have been too much for the Russian authorities.

Of course, Katyń is much more than Katyń. The Poles have definitely perceived this tragedy not just as a tragedy but have used it to create the image of an enemy and, ultimately, for the purposes of self-affirmation, a sense of their pathological exceptionality. On the other hand, we Russians cannot but admire the way Poles perceive their country as their common home. No matter how many scandals and partitions it will be afflicted by, it will always be their common home. Let me give you a personal example. Wiesława, who lives in Moscow, was asked to help identify the casualties as an interpreter. The task depressed her. To cheer her up I had only to say: “You’’ve got to be strong. You will be helping your country.”

And immediately she cheered up and her back straightened up. I was impressed even though I had expected this response. I doubt I would get a similar response if I said something like this to a contemporary Russian. Yet for Wiesława Poland is not an abstract symbol but rather part of her personal existence. Poland is present in her. It is not just patriotism but a way of life. Russian patriotism has always been linked to power in one way or another – it either supports or opposes power but it almost always hinges on the state. By the way, there is a great number of exceptions to this rule, as with the entire Russian language, and it’’s hard to tell what is more significant in Russia: the rule or the exceptions. Looking at Russia from the inside out, the Polish thesis that Russia is an empire representing Asiatic culture does not stand up.

Russia is a strange empire. Or perhaps even an anti-empire. The ovewhelming majority of Russians are not masters of this empire, its subjects or even its servants but rather an element outside the empire, trying to survive in circumstances similar to an empire, which they probably consider simply unbearable. The Russians spend their entire lives surviving. They have no strength left to participate in imperial games. And Katyń is part of an imperial game. This is why the Russian people are so indifferent to Katyń, an event that neither helps them nor prevents them to survive; one that neither represents a threat nor provides support. Consequently, for them Katyń has never taken place and that’’s it.

But suddenly Katyń has appeared on the Russian horizon. The tribute paid jointly to the victims of the massacre to mark the 70th anniversary of Katyń by the Russian powers-that-be and the Polish nation, was undoubtedly a step forward. Even if the Russian Prime Minister did it to neutralize the Polish position ahead of the victory celebrations, even if he has arbitrarily linked Katyń to Stalin’’s personal revenge for the Russian prisoners of war in 1920. Clearly, he had to find some justification for his genuflection and I’’m glad he has found one. Although this bears no relation to the truth, what matters is that he has actually said that the totalitarian regime had corrupted Russian life. It would be hard to expect more of him. After all, the Poles had not exactly been angels when it came to the Soviet prisoners of war in 1920, who seem to have vanished into thin air. So what should be the next steps as to Katyń? The demand for a list of the executioners? Why not? We cannot expect that such a list will be produced in the near future anyway: the continuity of security forces is assured under Putin, the KGB won’’t give up power and Lenin will keep his place in the mausoleum. There is no point accusing politicians of hypocrisy. So what next: victims of political oppression? That issue will definitely get on the agenda. But an admission of genocide – hardly. The Russian authorities certainly went out of their way to meet Poland. As far as they could.

And suddenly: this tragedy. I don’’t think fog was the only problem. Personally, I have been rather wary of flying in one of those antediluvian TU-154s for a long time now. Why did the Polish President fly in one of these noisy, vibrating TU-154s? You always disembark from them with a terrible headache. But the Poles did not disembark. They probably crashed because they did not want to fly to a secondary airport – because it would have been somehow politically incorrect or humiliating to fly to Moscow or Minsk. Hello, we’ve arrived! But we haven’’t been expecting you! Our Ministry of Internal Affairs has long wondered about your visit! What are you doing in Moscow, you the cream of the Polish army and the President, you who were against us in the Russian-Georgian war? Scared of the fog, are you? Go and fly to Katyń, there’s a historical site for you. Fly back to your history!

They were scared to land in Moscow and be ridiculed. As if landing in Moscow would expose them to defeat. And why land in Minsk? It’’s too early for the Polish President to fly to Minsk!

All this took place at a subconscious level but it has now reached the level of the conscious. Surely we Poles, the flower of our nation, can handle the fog of Smolensk? Particularly as crowds of our fellow countrymen are already there, waiting for us. This was the case of what the Russians call Polish honour. And you have to pay for honour.

Why did so many of the nation’s finest board that plane? The reason is that they were going to arrive in Katyń as victors. Let’’s face it – the Russians have given in. They have given in for unknown reasons, but they have given in. And now we can go and celebrate our victory. We will celebrate with Polish TV. We will reinforce our victory!

But victory has to be paid for. But who is it that will pay for it?

Yet I don’’t think that present-day Russia is a political monolith. I’’m rather inclined to believe that the communal genuflection was the result of a compromise within various echelons of Russia’s power-wielding cliques. Some of them would have smirked if the Polish President had arrived in Moscow, scared by the Smolensk smog, others would have responded more humanly. In any case, when tragedy struck, the human attitude prevailed. Everyone is terrified to see human bodies torn to pieces. Everyone travels by air. Everyone is terrified.

And although it may sound terrifying, this tragedy may finally help the Russians to figure out what Katyń is all about. Many will be able to follow the reverse historical path from the death of the Polish President to the execution of Polish officers by the NKVD. President Medvedev gave its blessing to the airing on Russian television’’s main channel of Wajda’’s film Katyń, which is yet to be released in Russia’’s cinemas. Polish songs are being played on the radio. The tragedy has become the chief topic of discussion on Russia’’s internet, that dumping ground for the real civil society. Some are grieving, others are cursing, referring to the late President as an inveterate Russophobe, but nevertheless, over the past few days Poland’’s rating has undoubtedly gone up. Poland is again visible in the Russian space. In future, the blood-soaked name of Katyń, having absorbed fresh blood, may take on the meaning of a general tragedy. We can say, as we did in the good old Soviet days, that Poland is again in fashion in this country.


Translation: Julia Sherwood


The article appeared in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

We are grateful to Viktor Erofeyev for the permission to publish this text in English.