Date: 18 May 2020

The Katyn Massacre – Mechanisms of Genocide

80 years ago, on March 5, 1940, a decision was made at the highest level of the Soviet authorities, from which the NKVD murdered nearly 22 thousand Polish citizens. Among them were prisoners of camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkow, captured after Soviet Union’s aggression on Poland, and people in NKVD prisons in the USSR-occupied eastern parts of Poland. The fallen constituted the nation’s elite; its defensive, intellectual, and creative potential. Murdering them was an attack on ‘Polishness’ and the Polish nation; aimed to prevent a sovereign Polish state from being rebuilt.


Hitler-Stalin Pact

On August 23, 1939, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Third Reich, came to Moscow. Together with Vyacheslav Molotov, the People’s Commissioner for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, they signed a bilateral non-aggression pact. A secret protocol, which was attached to this document, included a plan for the partition of Poland by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. The worst fears were realised – Poland’s eastern and western neighbors decided to take the freedom of Poles away again. For the price of seemingly smaller territorial benefits, Hitler received a guarantee of Moscow’s neutrality in the upcoming military conflict with the West.

On September 17, 1939, just about two weeks after the Third Reich attacked Poland, the Red Army attacked Poland from the east, implementing the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Meeting little resistance from the units of the Border Protection Corps and few military units, it occupied more and more towns at a fast pace. Because of the “stabbing in the back” with lacking support of allies, a decision was made to evacuate the highest authorities of the Republic of Poland abroad. At the same time, the Commander-in-Chief issued an unclear directive ordering the troops to get to Hungary or Romania and avoid fighting the Red Army. However, some Polish units and garrisons decided to take part in uneven battles against the aggressor – but given the huge disproportion, the disaster was inevitable. The independent Polish state was eliminated, and its territory seized by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.

In Soviet captivity

After the aggression on Poland, the Soviets took captive or arrested from 240 to 250 thousand Poles, including about 10 thousand officers of the Polish Army. Contrary to all international conventions, they handed prisoners over to the NKVD security services – as the counterrevolutionary element.

Three special camps were set up: in Starobielsk and Kozielsk – for officers, senior state and military officials, and in Ostashkow – mainly for soldiers of the Border Protection Corps and officers of the State Police, intelligence and counterintelligence, the Prison Guard, and the Border Guard. At the end of November 1939, a total of over 14.5 thousand Polish prisoners of war were in these camps. The conditions were difficult – overcrowding, lack of water and food. Each of the prisoners was inquired about their political views, professional position, assets, even associations with foreign countries, and foreign language skills. The network of informers provided information about life in the camp. Many months of interrogation and indoctrination of the prisoners brought little effect. Only a few broke down. The vast majority did not, openly manifesting their patriotism.

In the last weeks of 1939, NKVD officers accelerated the investigation. Their files were forwarded to the Special Council, the task of which was to decide on the fate of the POWs and prisoners held by the NKVD.

Death sentence

Józef Stalin personally decided to murder Polish prisoners of war, at the request of the People’s Commissioner of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, Lavrentiy Beria. In an extensive note of 5 March 1940, the head of the NKVD called for the case to be considered “in a special procedure and giving them the maximum penalty – execution”. He also requested that “cases should be handled without calling the arrested and without presenting charges, decision to end the investigation, and indictment” (Andrzej Krzysztof Kunert, Katyn. Ocalona pamięć [“Saved Memory”], Warsaw 2010, p. 130). The verdict was signed by members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Anastas Mikoyan. The acceptance of Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich was also confirmed by adding their names to the margin of the document. On the same day, the Politburo formally accepted Beria’s proposal.

Meetings discussing the subject were held in Moscow in the following days, and on 14 March 1940, the heads of the regional directorates of Smolensk, Kalinin, and Kharkiv regions and military commanders of the NKVD regional directorates were ordered to murder Polish prisoners of war. A week later, Beria issued an order “About unloading NKVD prisons“, which really translated into murdering Poles detained in NKVD prisons in the area of pre-war eastern provinces of Poland. Among them were retired officers, people involved in the state service, government officials, local government officials, prosecutors, judges, political activists, landowners, and others of a similar standing.

Murderous strategy

The implementation of the plan to murder Polish prisoners of war was carried out according to detailed instructions of the NKVD. The Soviets wanted the whole action to be carried out quickly and efficiently – so that as few people as possible knew about it. The killing machine started up with momentum. On 16 March 1940, the NKVD investigating units began to complete the documents of future victims. Meanwhile, afraid of the prisoners’ rebellion, the security apparatus of the camp focused on deceiving them. A massed and well-thought-out disinformation campaign had the anticipated effect. The prisoners were not aware of their fate until the last moment. They learned the terrible truth only in the Katyn Forest or in NKVD prison cells. One of the Starobielsk survivors, Józef Czapski, recalled: “There was no way of figuring out what were the selection criteria for the groups of us sent away from the camp. Their age, years of birth, ranks, professions, social backgrounds, political beliefs were all mixed. Every subsequent batch was another contradiction to our guesses. We all matched only in one thing: each of us waited feverishly for that hour when they announced a new list of those leaving. Maybe this time it would finally be our turn to be on the list […]. Standing on the great church stairs, the commandant bid farewell to the groups of those leaving with a smile full of promises. You’re going out there, he told one of us, where I would love to go myself.” (Józef Czapski, Wspomnienia starobielskie [“Memoirs of Starobielsk”], Rome 1945, p. 45).

Prisoners were transported from the camps to the places of execution – prisoners from Kozielsk were transported by trains to Smolensk, from Starobielsk to Kharkiv, from Ostashkow to Kalinin (now Tver). This is how Zdzisław Peszkowski, a survivor from Starobielsk, who later become a chaplain of the Katyn Families, remembered his departure from the camp: “They searched us thoroughly and took from us any sharp tools like knives, scissors, razor blades we had. Our photographs were checked, and we were led out of the camp gate in groups of two. We were put into the prison wagons that had been already waiting for us. They have packed everyone in, eight men in each compartment. They locked barred corridor doors with special locks. NKVD soldiers were guarding from the corridor. We were just like wild animals in cages…” (Sprawa Katynia [“The Katyn Case”], ed. Krzysztof Komorowski, Warsaw 2010, p. 44).

At the same time, the action of “unloading” the prisons of the so-called Western Belarus and Western Ukraine was prepared. The arrested were transported to prisons in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Minsk, and Kherson. The Special Council of the NKVD drew up “death lists” – shooting orders, which were then approved by the so-called “NKVD troika”: Vsevolod Merkulov, Bogdan Kobulov, and Leonid Bashtakov. Executioners were trained in killing people with a shot in the back of the head. Moscow also appointed people to supervise their work.

The massacre

The first “death letters” reached the camps in Kozelsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkow in early April, and to the prisons in Minsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson around 20 April 1940. The same procedure occurred in torture houses in Kharkiv and Kalinin. NKVD officers who participated in the executions mentioned their details in the testimonies. Executions were carried out only at night, in strict secrecy. The prisoners were brought to the cellars, where, in a solitary and muted room, they were murdered with a shot in the back of the head. Those who resisted were tied up. The Nagant revolver was initially used to carry out the executions. Later on, the executioners started using German Walther 7.65 due to its reliability and high performance. The shooting ended at dawn. The head of the Board of the District NKVD in Kalinin, Major Dmitry Stepanovich Tokarev, recalled years later: “It was already on the first day. So we went. And then I saw all this horror. We came there. After a few minutes Blokhin [one of the NKVD officers who came from Moscow] put on his special clothing: a brown leather cap, a long leather brown apron, leather brown gloves with cuffs above the elbows. It made a huge impression on me – I saw the executioner! The charges were not read to the convicts. After being dragged to the cell, the victim was immediately killed by a shot in the back of the head” (Sprawa Katynia, p. 50). In the morning, the corpses of the murdered were transported by trucks to solitary places with already dug pits. Gravediggers were replaced by excavators that leveled the ground. The burial places of the victims were for years inaccessible even to the local residents.


We know much less about the execution in Katyn – in this case, our knowledge comes mainly from exhumations. The shells found above the death pits indicate that the executions took place directly there. However, before the victims were sent to the execution site, they were directed to a villa, which in the 1930s served as a resort for the most deserving NKVD officers. This building was where the searches were conducted. Perhaps it was also where some executions were carried out. Those who resisted had their hands bound. Some of them had coats put on their head tied with a rope, the end of which was connected with a knot on their hands. The prisoners were then reloaded into prison cars without windows and transported to the execution site.

Several Soviet documents give different numbers of people killed, although the differences are small. According to the note of the head of KGB Alexander Shelepin to Nikita Khrushchev of  3 March 1959, a total of 21,857 Polish POWs and prisoners were shot, including 7,305 people detained in prisons. Some researchers believe that the numbers are understated. Only 395 prisoners escaped mass murder – from three special camps they were taken to the camp in Yukhnov.

Motives for the crime

The reason for murdering Polish officers could have been the desire to take revenge for the defeat in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 or the necessity to arrange the camps for Finns, who were taken prisoner in the ongoing war with their neighbour. The most probable motive, however, was the idea of depriving the Polish nation of its leaders and intellectual elite. In the opinion of the Soviet authorities, Polish POWs, who were manifesting their patriotism, were “irredeemable enemies of the Soviet authorities and are not likely to improve”. For this reason, they were to be murdered. The Soviet authorities decided that this move would facilitate the future governance of the Polish-Soviet Republic. Some researchers believe that the decision to “finally solve” the case of Polish prisoners of war was made in the name of the declared cooperation of German and Soviet security services in the fight against Polish independence aspirations. The coincidence in time with the AB-Aktion (Extraordinary Operation of Pacification) conducted by the Germans and aimed at the Polish intelligentsia does not seem to be unintentional.

Victims and executioners

Among the Polish POWs held in special camps in Kozelsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkow were professional officers of the Polish Army and State Police as well as reservists. In “death transports” to Smolensk and Kharkiv were: 12 generals, 1 rear admiral, 77 colonels, 197 lieutenants-colonels, 541 majors, 1 441 captains, 6 061 lieutenants, second lieutenants, cavalry masters, and warrant officers, and 18 chaplains and other clergymen. According to Polish historians, half of the then officer corps of the Polish Army were killed. In the NKVD prisons of so-called Western Belarus and Western Ukraine, the Soviets detained officers who were not mobilized in September 1939, civil servants and local government officials. Many of the murdered were high-class specialists in various fields, among them university professors, engineers, priests, doctors, lawyers, officials, poets, writers – the intellectual elite of Poland.

Many employees of the central apparatus, regional directorates in Smolensk, Kharkiv, and Kalinin, as well as NKVD convoy and military units, participated in the Katyn genocide. The perpetrators were the most experienced torturers from Lubyanka and local NKVD prisons, trained in killing with one shot. Some of them are known by name. One of the documents that were not destroyed was Lavrentiy Beria’s order, released on 26 October 1940, rewarding 125 people “for the proper performance of special tasks”. These people included all ranks from generals to the lowest NKVD officers. The torturers remained silent for years to come, carefully hiding the secret. Some of them managed to make a career, but many of them started to drink and died, one by one, within a few years of the crime. Some of them committed suicide.

Discovery of graves

In the summer of 1941 Smolensk and its surroundings were occupied by the German army. The first information about the mass graves of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest was given to the Germans shortly after, but they did not make any attempt to verify it. In the spring of 1942, Polish forced laborers found out about the execution of Poles from the local population. In April they started searching the forest on their own. In one of the suggested places, they discovered a corpse in Polish Army uniforms. They built a birch cross and notified the German authorities of the finding, but the latter did not show any interest in the case. It was not until February 1943 that the German secret field police started an efficient investigation. On 18 February, the area indicated by the Poles was partly dug up and several mass graves were identified. On 11 April 1943, the German news agency Transocean News Service was the first to report the discovery in Katyn – a place that became a symbol of this atrocious crime.

Playing with Katyn

The Germans revealed the Katyn massacre after the defeat in Stalingrad. They believed that the discovery of graves in Katyn would be an excellent opportunity to divide the anti-Hitler coalition. The announcement of the German news agency about the finding of the graves gave rise to massive propaganda. With Hitler’s order, this case was given international publicity. All over Europe, the radio stations controlled by the Germans reported the discovery of the graves. The exhumation was attended by journalists, a delegation of the Polish Red Cross and an international committee of pathologists. Six days after the announcement of the Transocean News Service, Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany noted: “The whole problem of Katyn has become a big political affair that may still have a significant resonance. That is why we make use of it in accordance with the state of the art. Since these 10,000 to 12,000 Polish officers have already lost their lives – perhaps not as a result of no fault of their own, as they once instigated war, their fate should now serve the nations of Europe to open their eyes to the danger of Bolshevism” (Eugeniusz Cezary Król, Polska i Polacy w propagandzie narodowego socjalizmu w Niemczech 1919-1945 [“Poland and the Poles in the propaganda of National Socialism in Germany 1919-1945”], Warsaw 2006, p. 430).

Shortly after the discovery of the graves in Katyn, the Polish government called for an investigation. The disappearance of Polish officers has long been a matter of concern for the Polish authorities – they also repeatedly asked the Kremlin about their fate. The discovery made the Polish government demand that the Soviets explain what happened during the genocide. Moscow reacted with a false accusation of Poles covering up the German crime and cooperating with the Nazis. Under Stalin’s pressure, the British Foreign Minister demanded the immediate withdrawal of the appeal and the public announcement that the Katyn massacre was a German “invention”. British censorship stopped the Polish radio dispatches and confiscated texts intended for printing. The Allies feared that Poland’s position would complicate Soviet-British contacts. Although the Poles withdrew their appeal, the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish Government-in-exile. Stalin triumphed – the Katyn case has damaged Poland’s position in the international arena.

Falsification of history

After the release of the German news agency, the radio and press from Moscow were disseminating the position of the Kremlin, blaming the Germans for the massacre in Katyn. What is more, Moscow’s “Pravda” concluded the appeal of the Polish government to the International Red Cross for explaining the situation with an accusatory article “Polish Hitler’s collaborators”.

The Soviets, having had broken off diplomatic relations with the Polish government less than a week later, and following the occupation of Smolensk by the Red Army, the NKVD and NKGB officers immediately went to Katyn to falsify evidence of a crime. In January 1944, a special commission headed by Nikolay Burdenko that investigated the Katyn massacre reported that the Germans were responsible for the crimes. After the war, the case of Katyn was raised before the Nuremberg Tribunal. However, it did not go to trial as the guilt of the Germans could not be proven. Over the following decades, the Soviets tried to erase the memory of the Katyn massacre. A tool used in spreading disinformation was publicizing the German crime committed on the residents of the Belarusian village of Khatyn, located near Katyn.


The exhumations in Katyn began at the end of February 1943 – then the Germans discovered eight mass graves. Out of seven of them, they extracted over 4,000 bodies, of which nearly 2,800 were identified. After the entry of the Red Army, the Soviet commission concluded that the crimes were committed by the Germans in the summer of 1941. The official recognition of the guilt of the USSR by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 made it possible to resume exploration. As a result, in 1991, it was possible to locate burial places for prisoners: from Starobielsk in Piatichatki, and from Ostashkow in Miednoje. The remaining graves were found during subsequent studies in 1994 and 1995. At that time, the exhumations were also carried out in Katyn. Other Polish graves were discovered in Bykivnia in the suburbs of Kyiv. During the exhumation works conducted in 2011, the corpses of Polish citizens from the so-called Ukrainian Katyn list were discovered.

The Katyn investigations

The Polish investigation under the supervision of prosecutor Jerzy Sawicki started in the spring of 1945 and was interrupted in 1946. In the same year, the Soviet prosecutor-general Rudenko brought an accusation before the Nuremberg Tribunal against the Germans for murdering Polish officers. In 1950, as a result of the efforts of the Polish American Congress, the Katyn massacre was dealt with by a US Congress Committee. In its report, it recommended that the case be referred to the UN and the USSR be prosecuted before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This ruling has triggered numerous protests of the authorities of the USSR and the Polish People’s Republic. In 1959, the Katyn case was taken up by the then head of the KGB. In a note for Khrushchev, he suggested destroying the victims’ personal files and preserving only the principal documents. From then on, key files were only available to the General Secretary of the CPSU.


The review of the Katyn case was only possible after 1989. In 1990, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR opened an investigation conducted until 2004, when it was canceled due to the death of the guilty. The cancellation order and its justification have been kept secret. At the same time, the Katyn Massacre was classified as common crime, subject to a statute of limitations. In the same year, the Institute of National Remembrance decided to launch a Polish investigation into the Katyn case.


In the USSR, revealing the truth about Katyn was only made possible by perestroika. In 1987, a joint committee of historians was formed to explain the “blank spots” in the history of mutual relations. The breakthrough was when Russian researchers – Natalia Lebedeva, Vladimir Volkov, Yuri Zoria, and Valentina Parsadanova, found the NKVD documents and compared them with lists of German exhumations. Journalists and activists of “Memorial”, a Russian NGO defending human rights and documenting Stalinist crimes, also spoke out for the truth.

On 13 April 1990, the Russian agency TASS published an official announcement stating that the NKVD, and Beria and Merkulov personally, are responsible for the murder of Poles. On the same day, Poland received several hundred copies of documents concerning the prisoners of Kozelsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkow. On 14 October 1992, a special envoy of President Boris Yeltsin solemnly presented President Lech Wałęsa with a copy of the famous Package No. 1, including a letter from Beria to Stalin, and an extract from the minutes of the Politburo of the USSR. A new stage in research on the Katyn Massacre had begun.

Katyn necropolises

In the early 1990s, Poles made efforts to build a large cemetery, mass tombs, ossuaries or honourary ‘necropoleis’ for the victims of the Katyn Massacre. The first Polish cemetery where the remains of Soviet genocide victims are buried was opened in June 2000 in Kharkiv-Piatichatki. The remains of Polish soldiers and civilians, but also of Kharkiv residents, who were victims of Stalinist terror, were buried in the cemetery. In the following months, similar ceremonies were held in Katyn and Miednoje. These cemeteries became the final resting place for Polish officers from the camp in Kozelsk and Ostashkow. In 2012, a Polish war cemetery was opened in Kyiv-Bykivnia, where the remains of victims from the so-called Ukrainian Katyn list were buried.

Many issues relating to the Katyn Massacre remain unresolved. What makes it even harder is that part of the volumes of the files of the investigation conducted by the Russians between 1990 and 2004 are not available. Russia refuses to disclose them, justifying their decision with the secrecy clause. What is more, Russia has not made a final decision on the legal classification of the crime. The Russian Prosecutor’s Office considered it a common crime without revealing the legal grounding. The names of the victims on the so-called Belarusian Katyn list, not yet found, are still unknown. It is also unknown where these people were buried. In the case of the so-called Ukrainian Katyn list, the place where a small number of victims are buried was found. The aim of the Polish investigation conducted by the Institute of National Remembrance, which considers Katyn murder to be a war crime and a crime against humanity in its most serious form – that is, genocide – is to explain all the circumstances of this atrocious crime. The aim is to find out the names of all the victims of the Katyn Massacre, as well as the places where they were executed and buried. The investigators of the Institute of National Remembrance also seek to identify the names of all the perpetrators of the crime and determine the responsibility of each of them. In addition, if possible, it would be to prosecute the living perpetrators and bring about justice.

Author: Katarzyna Utracka

This article was originally published on The Warsaw Institute Review.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.

TAGS: migration crisis, NATO, Belarus, Russia


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