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A Monument to Forgetting

How one disaster at Katyn helped us move past another


ISSUE:  Fall 2011

On the morning of April 10, 2010, a ball of flame erupted in the forest outside of Smolensk, Russia. A plane had crashed. Everyone on board was killed. This was a significant fact, especially for Poland. Lech Kaczynski, the president of Poland, was on that plane, along with a significant portion of his cabinet. Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last man to serve as president in exile, was also aboard the plane. He was the man who passed the presidential insignia to Lech Walesa as the first democratically elected president since WWII. The chiefs of staff of the Polish Army, Navy, and Air Force were aboard the plane. The deputy foreign minister was aboard the plane, as well as the head of the National Bank and the head of the National Security Bureau. Important lawmakers and members of parliament were aboard that plane, as well as other top military leaders, bishops, priests, political advisors, and aides. Ninety-six people died.

It was an incredible event, for a country to lose so many of its top civilian and military leaders in a single blow like that. But these people were Polish after all, and in Poland, tragedies have a way of magnifying and expanding through history. The rest of the world was less aware, however, of the background history and thus less aware of just how strange an event that plane crash really was. You see, this was not the first time that the forests around Smolensk had claimed the lives of so many prominent Poles. It had all happened before. In shocking and unexpected ways, history was repeating itself.

We must go back to the early days of WWII now. Vyachslav Molotov, the foreign minister of what was then the Soviet Union, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister under Adolf Hitler, had agreed to a pact whereby the Soviets and the Nazis would split Europe and agree not to fight one another. This is the infamous Treaty of Non-Aggression signed in 1939. It was a pact doomed to be broken, a task Hitler took care of two years later when he launched a surprise attack on the Soviets only to meet his own doom at Stalingrad in 1943, a battle that, for all practical purposes, meant the end of the Third Reich. But before all that, before the Nazi war machine had turned toward Western Europe in all its fury, the Nazis and the Soviets were busy invading Poland together. Much of Eastern Poland was quickly swallowed up by the Soviets, the Nazis taking the rest.

As the Red Army moved across Poland, the NKVD, precursor to what later became the KGB, was busy rounding up Polish army officials and other professionals—university professors, politicians, public intellectuals, scientists—and putting them into concentration camps. It was unclear what was to be done with them. Then, finally, the secret order came down on March 5, 1940. Stalin and other top Soviet leaders had decided what to do. These people, more than twenty-two thousand of them, all told, were to be executed, in secret, and dumped into mass graves.

The forests around Smolensk became a killing ground of vast proportions. Other sites were chosen closer to Moscow and near a number of labor camps that made up Stalin’s Gulag system. Outside of Smolensk, the killing was done in the Katyn forest. More than 4,400 Poles were shot and buried there in mass graves, many of them among the most important military and civilian leaders. Vasili Blokhin was even brought in to handle some of the killing at the Osthashkov camp. Blokhin, a major-general, was head executioner for the NKVD and a favorite of Stalin. It is estimated that he personally shot and killed seven thousand people, one by one, during the Katyn massacres. The Guinness Book of World Records, in fact, named him the world’s “Most Prolific Executioner” in 2010.

High-level officers had their arms tied behind their backs and were bustled down into a basement after signing papers. Pushed into a small room by guards, the prisoner was forced to his knees while another man would step out from behind the door, put a pistol to the back of the prisoner’s head, and pull the trigger. The body would be pulled out a second door or through a hatch at the top of the room. The room was quickly swabbed down for the next execution. Out in the forest the procedure was roughly the same. Groups of Poles were loaded onto lorries, the infamous Black Marias, and driven out to pits dug by Soviet tractors. A Soviet agent would step in and place his revolver to the skull of the victim and quickly pull the trigger. The dead body would slump down into the mass grave with the hundreds of other bodies already there.

For this job, the NKVD liked to use the German 7.65 mm Walther PPK pistol. This had a twofold purpose. First, those pistols rarely misfired, and they had the ability to deliver a kill shot almost every time. (Vasili Blokhin liked to use the Walther PPK because it kicked back less and therefore did less damage to his wrist after thousands upon thousands of firings.) Second, using a German pistol provided cover; the bodies, if ever discovered, might look like they were killed by the Nazis instead of the Soviets. As it turned out, the corpses were discovered just a year later in summer 1941 when the Nazis had turned against the Soviets and were on the march east, taking all the ground that had so recently been captured by the Soviets. The Nazis, seeing an opportunity for some easy propaganda against the Soviets, released pictures and information about the massacre to the world press. It was proclaimed a Soviet atrocity against the Poles. The Soviets protested, blaming the Nazis for the killings. The din of ongoing war muffled the details of the debate. A year later, the Wehrmacht was stopped at Stalingrad, and the tide of battle swung, once more, the other direction. The Soviets retook the ground they had lost and marched all the way to Berlin. Smolensk was Soviet again. But not just Smolensk—Poland too had fallen within the Soviet orbit and would remain there until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

With Smolensk in Soviet hands, with Poland fully in the Soviet Bloc and occupied by Soviet troops, the Katyn massacre was now, “officially” designated a Nazi atrocity. More often than not, Poles were encouraged not to speak of it at all. But they did speak of it. The memory of Katyn became an important symbol and rallying cry. To speak of Katyn, to remember Katyn, was a way to hold truth up in the face of all the lies. Postwar Poland was, after all, a place awash in lies. The fundamental lie was that Poland had ever wanted to be a part of the Soviet sphere of influence and Warsaw Pact in the first place.


For almost fifty years, Poles had to live with that official lie—that the Katyn massacres had not been perpetrated by the Soviets and that the People’s Republic of Poland (the name of the Polish state during the years of Soviet occupation) was their own idea and not something imposed upon them from Moscow. All that changed in 1990. The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved, everything transformed at once.

That same year, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the victims of the Katyn massacres had been executed by the NKVD. On April 13, 1990, the Soviet Union officially issued its apology for the Katyn massacres and declared the date Katyn Memorial Day. Boris Yeltsin later released documents about the massacre and a steady stream of declassified records and files has been released since, including Stalin’s signed memo authorizing the executions.

By the late 1990s, talk of a memorial to the Katyn massacres had begun in earnest. Yeltsin and then Polish president Aleksander Kwasnieski agreed to initiate the process of building a memorial that would commemorate both the victims of the Katyn massacre and the victims of the two other NKVD execution sites for internal Russian prisoners nearby. In summer 2000, the Katyn National Memorial Complex was opened just outside of Smolensk, built with the cooperation of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and a consortium of Polish groups known as the Council of Preserving Memory, Struggle, and Martyrdom.

This was the final step, it seemed, in the long process of historical recognition for the original crime. This was the moment of reconciliation. This was the moment when old wounds could finally begin to heal. That, after all, is what memorials are for.


In fact, there is a paradox at the heart of every memorial. They are, as the word suggests, about memory. The memorial is thus a physical manifestation of memory. It makes memory a real thing in the world. Where there is a memorial, presumably, there is a permanent memory. Maybe the simplest, oldest, and most iconic form of the memorial is the stone marker. Stone is strong. Stone lasts longer than flesh every cantime. And so we attempt to put memories into stone, hard permanent stone.

But here is where the paradox comes in. We put up memorials to remember, but we also put them up to forget. Making a memorial is partly about putting history away, putting tragedy (or triumph) into stone and then moving on. Memory held too close is dangerous to life. You cannot spend all your time remembering or else nothing new happens. The past can be an abyss. No one wants to fall into the abyss. And so we do something to mark the moment. We put up a memorial to the trauma, to the important event, to the struggle, to whatever. Putting up the memorial is an act of payment. It is a payment to the past in order to proceed into the future. Simply moving on would be too painful. It would feel as if the proper payment had not been made. We need to make the payment or else we pay for the failure to do so in the wages of guilt. To pay our dues, to assuage the guilt, to move forward with the sense that the past has been given its respect, we put up a monument. The monument says that we can start forgetting now. We can let the past be the past.

We see this aspect of forgetting in all memorials. One of the obvious but not always mentioned aspects of Maya Lin’s memorial for the Vietnam War is how funereal the thing is. The slabs of black stone with the names and dates are like a giant tombstone sweeping sideways across the green grass. It is a tombstone to the American individuals who died in the Vietnam War, but it is also a tombstone to the war itself. It says, “We can let the thing die now. We can let it go.” The people are dead, and the war is dead too. It was important to do that in 1982, when the memorial was officially dedicated, because the Vietnam War was threatening to remain in the present longer than its due. It wouldn’t go to rest. Maya Lin figured out a way to initiate that process, to begin, slowly but steadily, to forget. It worked, and the memorial was a triumph even after much early controversy, because people were ready. In their hearts they were ready. And something changed about the Vietnam War after Lin’s memorial went up. The war began to give up its hold on the present and go away into the past. The Lin memorial initiated the process of real forgetting. Every year now, every passing day, the Vietnam War is forgotten. It is painful to put it this way; it sounds wrong. But it isn’t wrong. Some forgetting needs to happen if only because new tragedies, new triumphs, new traumas come along and need their space.


The memorial to the Katyn massacre—in the woods just outside of Smolensk in the western part of Russia not too far from the border with Belarus—is a beautiful memorial. This is largely due to the forest in which the memorial is located, a natural setting that the makers of the memorial did much to respect and utilize. In this forest, the trees are particularly stately. They just grow that way. There are pines and birch trees mostly. The forest is neither too dense nor too sparse. The trees grow at a respectful distance from one another and straight up into the sky. This gives a feeling of openness at eye level. You can really see where you are in the forest of Katyn; you can get your bearings. The forest floor is lightly covered with ferns and mosses. And then the tree trunks draw the eye up, always up. As you look upward, the trees begin to form a canopy. The branches lift out and over the space of the forest. There is a cathedral effect—there is no other way to describe it. Through the leafy openings of this forest cathedral can be glimpsed the blue sky. And you can’t help thinking: the people who were dragged out and shot here glimpsed this for a moment; they saw the forest cathedral and the sky before they dropped down into those pits.

The pits are there too. A circle of sorts has been dug around the area where the killings took place. This creates an internal wall. Along the wall are metal boxes that each bear the names and dates of the individuals killed there. Above this wall of boxes is a layer of earth, which creates the effect of looking beneath the earth, seeing into the pits that were originally dug to be mass graves, nameless graves. Now, the names have been restored beneath the earth. The pit has been given back to human history as a small triumph over the forces that would have cancelled these names, these individuals, forever. The forest, the pit, the names. Those three elements form the essence of the Katyn Memorial in the forest outside of Smolensk.

There is an air of solidity and permanence to the memorial, something that says this will be here for a very long time. At the same time, it is a place that says we can put the past away. As you walk from the road toward the memorial, a giant red geometrical archway splits the path into three routes. You can go to the right directly toward the place where the Poles were killed, or you can go to the left, toward the graves for thousands of Russian citizens who were also killed here over the years, during the time of Stalin’s terror, during the Great Purges. And you can go a middle way that is unnamed, unclaimed. From the middle, a person can wander freely across death without its national distinctions.

Memory and forgetting, they both have a role to play in the memorial at Katyn. Still, there is a tension. It can be felt as you walk through the trees and make your way from one path to the other. The path to the right is marked by a Polish flag, the path to the left is marked by a Russian flag. The Poles who were killed at Katyn were killed by Russians, the same Russians who had made a pact with the Nazis to rip Poland apart and share the pieces. But since Smolensk is in Russia, this cannot be a site simply of Polish national tragedy and Polish nationalism. It has to be a shared site; it has to be a site that moves past the blame, that forgoes condemnation. So, an uneasiness lingers here. The memorial cannot overcome that tension completely. By existing at all, the memorial is drawing attention to the crime, bringing it back into the present. The memorial is struggling to do two things at once, to do justice to memory, making the memories alive for the present, and to tame those memories, to put them back away again where they can rest. But every time you bring memories out of the past, they threaten to become real again. Every decision around the making of the Katyn memorial, every debate about exactly who would get memorialized there and under what context, brought out the old rivalries and the old mistrust. Maybe that is what can be felt in the forest of Katyn, the carefulness. Every gesture, every stone, every twist in every path had to be decided upon with the utmost of care or the whole project would have fallen apart.

The Katyn Memorial succeeds by focusing on the actual individuals who died. The individuals, the memorial is saying, are the most important now. The specific political and historical context in which they died is of less significance. So, we can forget a little. Specifically, we can forget a little bit about blame and causality and victimhood. Here, the memorial seems to say, are Russians and Poles who were brought here against their will to be murdered in a time when death ran rampant beyond anyone’s control. Let that be the final word on the matter. In the name of moving forward, in the name of leaving some things of the past to the past, let that be the last word. People died here, wrongly, and we mourn them.


There was a memorial ceremony held at Katyn only a few days before the tragic plane crash in late spring 2010. The memorial service was attended by both Russians and Poles. Vladimir Putin was there, as was Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland. Putin made a speech at the memorial service, saying, “No matter how difficult it is, we must move toward each other, remembering everything but understanding that we can’t live only in the past.”

But it was this very fact, the forgetting and moving on part of the memorial ceremony, that didn’t sit right with a number of Poles. It didn’t sit right with President Lech Kaczynski, who was not invited to the ceremony by the Russians and was never known as the most accommodating of fellows. It didn’t sit right with a number of other politicians, nor with a number of generals and military officers. They did not feel ready to do that kind of forgetting. They wanted to keep an aspect of the pain in the present. And there is something understandable in this too. These Poles wanted recognition not just for the tragedy itself but for the long history of lies about the tragedy. They wanted recognition for the long history of lack of recognition.

So, Lech Kaczynski decided that he would conduct his own ceremony. That’s why he chartered the plane, that’s why he filled it up with all the other high-level Poles who felt the way he did. That’s why they set off to the Smolensk airport on the foggy morning of April 10, 2010. By the time the plane arrived in Smolensk airspace the fog had gotten very thick. The air control tower in Smolensk told them it wasn’t safe to land, that they should go to Minsk instead. Kaczynski and, presumably, other people on the plane didn’t believe the ground crew. There was, reportedly, a great deal of tension in the cockpit between the pilots, who understood the very real dangers of landing in those conditions, and the VIPs who wanted to get to the Katyn Memorial and believed their wishes were being intentionally thwarted. They ordered the pilot to land. The plane made a pass over the airport and then turned around to attempt a landing. As it came in lower, the plane shook and was buffeted by the choppy air. The pilots began to lose control. The plane struck the tops of some of the trees, the tall trees of the forests around Smolensk. The plane began to come apart in the air. Some part of the plane struck the ground. The fuselage disintegrated and the human bodies within were flung down to the forest floor beneath as pieces of the aircraft crashed and burned along with them. In seconds, everyone was dead.

And now, there is another memorial to be found in the forests around Smolensk. Another group of Polish luminaries from the realm of politics and the military has been claimed. Right now, the memorial to the plane crash consists mostly of crosses and a large stone brought to the site near one of the landing fields of the Smolensk airport as a marker. There are pictures and candles and personal memorabilia placed near the crosses and the stone. This new memorial is raw, marked by the impromptu gestures of the recently grieving. String outlines can still be found (as of summer 2011) in the fields nearby, marking the spots where specific bodies were found in the hours after the crash.


This makeshift memorial to the plane crash is now like a supplement to the main memorial at Katyn. It is a supplement not just because of the circumstances of the plane crash, the fact that Lech Kaczynski and his colleagues were on their way to the Katyn memorial, but because the plane crash happened as a direct result of the same tensions that linger at the Katyn memorial and linger, in some form or other, at all memorials. Remembering is dangerous. The pain that memorials hope to cap and contain constantly threatens to erupt again into the present.

Lech Kaczynski didn’t want to forget and he didn’t want to move on. Part of him did recognize the need to move on, of course. In the speech he was to give at the memorial he was going to make a gesture toward further reconciliation between Russia and Poland. He was going to make a call for further healing of the wounds. But there were aspects of Katyn that were very difficult for Kaczynski to let go of for the simple reason that his own identity was wrapped up in them. He called the cover-up of Katyn the “foundational fraud of the Polish People’s Republic.” The flip side of this claim is that the acknowledgment of Katyn is then the foundational truth for an authentic Poland. That idea, the idea of Katyn as the truth of Poland, was something that Kaczynski wanted to keep alive. He wanted the historical memory of Katyn to live in the present. He wanted it to live in the present because he wanted it to guide peoples’ actions now. One of Lech Kaczynski’s pet projects was an antiballistic missile defense system that was to be provided by the Americans and directed against the Russians. This was a source of great displeasure to the Russians and surely one of the reasons why Kaczyniski and his people were not invited to the Katyn Memorial ceremony attended by Putin.

There is a certain Polish mindset, understandable from the perspective of history, that says Poland will always define itself in opposition to Russia. Again, we must go back to WWII—but, in truth, we must go back before that. It goes to the Polish–Soviet War that broke out just after WWI and led to the establishment of the first Polish nation state, the Second Republic. And it goes back farther. It goes back to the partitions of the late eighteenth century when Poland ceased to be Poland and was carved up between the powers of Russia, Prussia, and Hapsburg Austria. It goes back before that, too, to the Polish–Muscovite War of the early seventeenth century when the Poles marched all the way to Moscow and then, in later years, were pushed back in a series of defeats in which the city of Smolensk, not incidentally, passed back and forth between Polish and Russian hands. All these past wars, these struggles of guns and politics, were on Stalin’s mind too the day he signed the papers for the mass executions at Katyn. He was striking a preemptive blow against any independent Poland that might emerge from the ashes of WWII and then rise to be another thorn in Russia’s side. He was trying to lop off Poland’s head, to kill its leadership and to leave Poland rudderless and adrift in the postwar scenario to come.

And all of these thoughts must have been in the mind of Lech Kaczynski when he got word from the Russian control tower at the Smolensk airport that the plane couldn’t land. Thousands of voices must have been screaming in his head at that moment. The old voices of Katyn were telling him that he must land no matter what. So he decided to land. And that landing became, itself, another Katyn, another case in which Russia— this time unintentionally and through no fault of its own—had lopped off the head of Poland. It is impossible, I think, to imagine the decision to go ahead and land that plane with all the dangers involved unless you can hear those voices, unless you can feel the tremendous weight of history that was coming to bear on the individuals inside that plane. They felt directly responsible for the memory of Katyn, a memory that, for them, breathed life into an entire nation, making it what it is. They had to land that plane.


It is terrible to contemplate this fact, but the immediate result of the plane crash was to realize Kaczynski’s purpose and to make the memory of Katyn very alive indeed. The tragedy of the past was carried forward into the events of the present, just like Lech Kaczynski always wanted. His tragic death, and the deaths of the other ninety-five people on board, virtually assured that people in Poland and around the world were going to be talking about Katyn and thinking about Katyn. The memorial ceremony three days before, attended by Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin, was having the opposite effect. It was pushing the memory of Katyn farther into the past. Tusk and Putin had actually shaken hands while standing over the graves of Katyn. Tusk remarked in his speech at the event that the dead of Katyn would have wanted to see reconciliation between Poland and Russia. The voices of Katyn’s past were being evoked in order to put the historical event to rest, to begin to cover it over with forgetting.

The plane crash immediately reversed this process. It made the original tragedy of Katyn raw again, in an instant. Accusations about who was at fault immediately began to be tossed around. The conspiracy theories (baseless as they were) that immediately cropped up about Russian involvement and complicity in the crash served to revive that old theme of Polish tragedy and Russian perfidy. In his death, Lech Kaczynski discovered, despite himself and without intending to, a way to keep history from fading away into the past. The surest way to make an old tragedy new again is to repeat it.


In the immediate aftermath of the plane crash some Poles and some Russians replaced the language of friendship and reconciliation with the language of blame and mistrust. The theme of “moving on” reverted very quickly to the theme of “never forget.” The hard wing of Polish nationalism, led by Lech Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, tried its best to inject an element of blame into the affair. The forces that want to remember at any cost realize, instinctively, that they need controversy. There has been controversy about the crash and what Russia should have done to prevent it. There has been controversy over the final report and whether it has been properly translated into English. There has been controversy over the burial of Lech Kaczynski, who was given (wrongly, some thought) a hero’s burial in a tomb at Wawel Cathedral next to the great Polish Nationalist, defeater of the Soviet Red Army, and head of the Second Republic, Józef Piłsudski. All of this was an effort to resurrect the first Katyn from the forest floor and make it serve the second Katyn, to claim its memory for the purposes of the present.

But the shock of the plane crash, its arbitrary nature, which was in such contrast to the intentional criminality of the first Katyn, had a completely different effect. People began to realize that there really is no one to blame for this second Katyn. The voices screaming “never forget” are dashed against the pointless and accidental nature of the plane crash. This second Katyn is not like the first Katyn at all. Just days after the plane crash, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian: “The first Katyn catastrophe was concealed for decades by the night and fog of totalitarian lies; the second was immediately the lead item in news bulletins around the world. Most extraordinary has been the reaction of the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, who has gone to exceptional lengths to demonstrate Russian sympathy, repeatedly visiting the crash site, announcing a national day of mourning today, and ordering Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn (which spares you nothing of the cruelty of the KGB’s forerunners) to be shown on primetime Russian TV.” Kris Kotarski, a journalist whose grandfather was a victim of the Katyn massacres, wrote, “Recent Russian gestures, both before and after the plane accident, mean so much to the people of Poland and offer so much hope for reconciliation.”

The first Katyn was an act of men, it was carried out by human beings for specific reasons. The second Katyn was an accident. And so, finally, in a twist of history no one would have expected, a memorial to a plane crash in the forests around Smolensk becomes the necessary tool for forgetting that the original memorial to the massacre of Katyn could not provide on its own. The people who wanted most to remember had to die so that the rest of us could begin to forget.

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