Students Learn About the Haunting Aftermath of Katyn Murders During WWII

History buffs, law students and interested parties attended a panel discussion on the Katyn massacre last Thursday in the Cleveland-Marshall Law building.

The Katyn massacre involved the mass execution of at least 21,800 Polish military officers during World War II. The Soviet secret police carried out the murders. The massacre was one of the largest executions of prisoners of war during WWII.

Panelists Maria Szonert and Alexander Gulyanov discussed the history, and the ongoing investigation, of the massacre. Law professor Milena Sterio moderated the event.

Sterio began the discussion with a brief overview of the discovery of the massacre. She said the Germans discovered mass graves in the Katyn forest (about midway between Moscow and Warsaw) in 1943. The Soviets denied responsibility for the massacre and even tried to indict the Germans for committing the murders.

Szonert provided further history of the massacre. She said orders were given for 25,700 Poles to be killed, and about 21,800 Poles were actually murdered.

Of those killed, Szonert said 97 percent were Polish nationals. Because of this, she said there is currently an investigation to determine if the Katyn massacre can be legally defined as genocide.

Szonert suggested the anti-communist ideals of the Polish officers might have been the motive for the murders.

Gulyanov then spoke about more recent developments in the investigation. He said it was not until 1990 that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged responsibility for the massacre.

He also said it was only in 1991 that KGB documents about the killings were released to the public. The KGB was the national security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1991.

According to Gulyanov, many Russian people today do not know about the Katyn massacres, or they still believe the Germans committed the murders. He said the lack of knowledge of what happened at Katyn is a problem for Russia-Poland relations, as well as a problem for Russia internally.

Gulyanov described the Katyn massacre as, “the most odious crime of Stalin-ism,” and he said there are still classified KGB documents that have yet to be released.

Following the presentation, Szonert and Gulyanov took questions from the audience.

Some of the more intriguing questions involved the contents of the still classified KGB documents and why they have not been released.

Communications professor Michael Rand asked if the KGB documents have not been released because they may contain information stating the Germans and Soviets may have known what the other was doing during the war.

However, Gulyanov said no member of the general public knows what is contained in the documents.

Several students expressed their opinions about the massacre and the panel discussion.

Alison Lancaster, a social science major, said the panel provided an “interesting aspect of history.” Lancaster said he was “especially interested in history and how it shapes how we live.”

He also commented that the discussion helped to clear the “muddy water” of history, where he assumed, “the Soviets were the ‘good guys,’ and the Germans were the ‘bad guys.'”

Marcel Wieth, a law student, said he took an international law class taught by Sterio that dealt a great deal with genocide.

“I thought [the discussion] was great. I definitely think I’m going to do a little bit more research on [Katyn], said Wieth. “Although [Katyn] happened so long ago, it’s very real to Russia and to Poland, and their relations.”

The discussion was free and open to the public. It was hosted by CSU to increase the scope of Eastern European studies at the university.