Russia’s Duma admitted, after more than a half century of denial, that the Katyn massacre of more than 22,000 Polish officers and administrators was ordered by Stalin and signed off by the Politburo. Historians have had access to the Katyn “smoking gun” document since the early 1990s: a request from Lavrenty Beria to the Politburo for permission to execute the Polish POWs in Soviet hands signed by Stalin and other members of the Politburo. The Russian cover up began after German forces were driven from Eastern Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine. The cover story was that the Poles had been executed by the Germans, and that was Stalin’s position during the Nuremburg Trials. In order to maintain good relations with Communist Poland after the war, Russia was forced into some weak admissions – that perhaps the Poles were executed by rogue elements of the secret police without permission from the Kremlin. Only during the Yeltsin years was the smoking gun document handed to the Polish side. The Putin administration avoided any outright admissions of guilt and did not restrain a cult of “Katyn deniers,” who claimed that it was the Nazis after all who executed the Polish officers. Recent suits of Polish family members in Russian courts brought no satisfaction: there was too little evidence, the bodies had never been identified, and the culprits were long dead anyway.
Russia’s admission of guilt was issued for the purpose of improving relations between Poland and Russia. It has not been backed by an official statement by either Putin or Medvedev, but it is clear that the Duma would not have acted without their consent. The Duma’s admission should be the first step in a fairly long process. Russian authorities must rehabilitate the victims (who were executed for treason) and presumably offer their survivors compensation. This will not be an easy process. The Soviet archives suggest that thousands of case records were destroyed under Nikita Khrushchev. Moreover, the executions were carried out in a variety of locations (not only the Katyn forest), and the exhumation results so far have identified only a handful of victims.
Katyn will continue to sour Russian-Polish relations despite this considerable progress.