Katyn Massacre – the extermination of Polish elites by the Soviet system

March 5, 2020

Katyn is a symbol of the criminal policy of the Soviet system against the Polish nation. The present study aims to demonstrate the basic facts of Katyn massacre – the execution of almost 22,000 people: Polish prisoners of war in Katyn, Kharkov, Kalinin (Tver) and also other Polish prisoners (soldiers and civilians), which took place in the spring of 1940 in different places of the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus republics based on the decision of the Soviet authorities, that is the Political Bureau of All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of March 5, 1940. This article refers not only to the massacre itself, but also its origin, historical processes and the lies accompanying Katyn massacre.  

The widely understood term ‘Katyn massacre’ refers not only to the massacre itself, but also its origin, the lies accompanying it and attempts to judge those responsible for it.

The Soviet policy towards Poland and the Poles until 1939

The Katyn massacre committed by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (the NKVD) in 1940 shows how the USSR policy aimed at destroying Poland’s statehood since it gained independence after World War I. The Treaty of Riga, which was signed in 1921 by Poland, the Soviet Russia and Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets, ended the Polish-Soviet war of 1919–1920. Under this treaty, the Polish eastern border was established along the following line: Dzisna–Dokszyce–Slucz–Korzec–Ostrog–Zbrucz. The parties dismissed mutual territorial claims. However, the Bolsheviks, who treated the peace agreement as a concession which was forced by the military situation, did not give up their expansion plans to the West and maintained a hostile attitude towards Warsaw.

After 1921, small, specially trained groups of Ukrainian and Belarusian Bolsheviks and the Red Army soldiers slipped across the border from the Soviet Russia. They attacked police stations, civilians, clerks and set fire to forests.

The Creation of the Border Protection Corps in 1924 gradually restricted the penetration of these agents and terrorists.

Despite the fact that talks on the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had been taking place since 1926, Moscow still expressed a hostile attitude towards the Second Polish Republic in the second half of the twenties, by supporting Lithuanian territorial claims towards Poland and considering Pilsudski’s government ‘fascist’. After the assassination of the USSR deputy, Piotr Wojkow, in 1927 by a Russian emigrant, the negotiations collapsed, and the Bolsheviks accused the Polish government of supporting Russian emigrant organisations.

In 1932, a pact was signed in which parties rejected the idea of war as an international policy tool, accepted one another’s obligations and declared that if any party was attacked, no help would be offered to the aggressor. The pact was to be in force for three years, but in 1934 both the Bolsheviks and the Polish government decided to prolong this period to ten years in the face of the danger from Germany ruled by the Nazi party.

One of the crucial factors which influenced the relations between Moscow and Warsaw was the situation of about one million Poles who, after the Treaty of Riga was signed, remained beyond the eastern border. The USSR government created two ethnic regions for them: Julian Marchlewski Polish Autonomous District (Marchlewszczyzna) in Ukraine in 1925, and Feliks Dzierzynski Polish Autonomous District (Dzierzynszczyzna) in Belarus in 1932. The aim of the Bolsheviks’ policy in these districts was to form units which were to participate in the aggression against the Second Polish Republic in the future. The ‘national experiment’ was a failure because the inhabitants of both districts preserved national and Catholic traditions and in the 1930’s strongly opposed collectivization. In 1935 the decision to dissolve Marchlewszczyzna was announced. Based on the act of the Council of People’s Commissars of 28 April 1936, the deportation of masses of Marchlewszczyzna citizens to Siberia and Kazakhstan started. According to final reports prepared by the NKVD, about 50,000 people were forced to leave their country. In 1938 Dzierzynszczyzna met with the same fate and it is estimated that about 20,000 people were deported.

During the years of the great terror 1937–1938, which affected the inhabitants of the whole USSR, an attack on the Poles who lived in the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus occurred. Based on the order issued on 11 August, 1937 by Nikolai Yezhov, an internal affairs commissar, the so-called Polish Operation of the NKVD began. This meant arrests, and executions based on false accusations of spy and sabotage activities. From August 1937 till September 1938, 144,000 Poles were judged, among whom 111,000 were shot by the NKVD, and almost 30,000 were sent to labour camps or prisons after receiving five to fifteen year sentences.

The hostility of the USSR authorities towards the Poles during the period between the wars originated, among other things, from the desire to take revenge for the defeat of the Red Army at the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1920 and preventing the army from advancing towards the west.

The Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939

In the morning of 17 September, 1939, between 600–650,000 soldiers and over 5,000 thousand Red Army tanks invaded the Second Polish Republic, which had been fighting against German aggression since 1 September. On 23 August, 1939, the USSR and the Third Reich signed a pact, which was named the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact after its signatories, the ministers of foreign affairs of both countries. According to the confidential protocol of this non-aggression pact, the USSR’s sphere of influence was to extend approximately to the Narew, Vistula and San rivers. This state of affairs was confirmed in the treaty of 28 September and another protocol accompanying it, according to which German and Soviet parties committed themselves to fighting ‘Polish agitation’.

The invasion of the Red Army took place at the time when the Polish forces were retreating eastwards before the Germans, after an unsuccessful attempt to maintain the territory to the Narew, Vistula and San rivers. According to Edward Rydz-Smigly’s military plan, the remaining units were to gather at the so-called Romanian Bridgehead and continue defence until France and Great Britain launched an offensive in the West. They declared war on Germany on 3 September under their obligations towards Poland from before 1 September. As a result of the decision of 12 September, which was taken by the French- English Supreme Council of War, the allies did not take any military action, and the Red Army invaded Poland on the pretext that ‘the Polish country and its government ceased to exist’. Consequently, ‘the USSR had to take care of the people who lived in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus and their possessions’ as the Soviet propaganda referred to the eastern regions of the Second Polish Republic.

The commander-in-chief of the Polish Army, Marshal Smigly-Rydz ordered the army to abstain from provocative operations against the Soviets and allowed the possibility of war in case ‘they invaded Poland or tried to disarm the detachments’. Those instructions were issued in Kuty, where politicians, commanders, soldiers and civilians escaped across the bridge in Czeremosz to the Romanian bank.


People from Wilno (Vilnius) and Grodno and the group of Border Protection Corps resisted the enemy attack. The corps under Wilhelm Orlik-Rückemann’s command fought the battle of Szack against the 52 Rifle Division of the Red Army. By 25 September, as a result of Belarusian Front attack, the Soviets had gained possession of Wilno (Vilnius), Grodno, Brześć (Brest) on the River Bug and Suwalki. By 28 September, the soldiers of Belarusian Front had occupied Tarnopol, Dubno, Stanislawow, Lwów (Lviv) and Zamosc. The USSR gained control of over half of the territory of the Second Polish Republic.

As soon as the Red Army crossed the border, it started to commit crimes: the massacre in Grodno and the assassination of General Jozef Olszyna- Wilczynski, the execution of marines of the Pinsk Flotilla in Mokrany, murders in Nowogrodek, Tarnopol and other places, the execution of the soldiers taken captive near Wilno (Vilnius), and also the arrest of defenders of Lwów (Lviv). This happened despite the agreement which guaranteed defenders of Lwów (Lviv) safe conduct towards the Romanian border. Behind the army, operational-chekist groups of the NKVD followed, which murdered and arrested Polish people. These units formed the security apparatus in occupied places, gained control over the state archives, radio and telephone communications and they disarmed civilians. The units acted in accordance with the directive issued by the NKVD on ‘The Organisation of Work in Liberated Regions of Western Districts of Ukraine and Belarus’ of 15 September, 1939. About 230,000 soldiers and of cers and thousands of military service representatives were taken captive by the Bolsheviks. In the majority of cases soldiers and of officers did not oppose it. Privates were separated from of officers who were transported to Kozelsk and Starobelsk. Policemen were transported mainly to Ostashkov.

Camps Kozelsk

Kozelsk camp was created in the buildings of a former monastery, the so- called Optina Hermitage. There were 4,594 captives there, about half of whom were reserve officers. There were also over 300 doctors, several hundred lawyers, engineers, teachers, 21 university lecturers, a lot of men of letters, journalists and feature writers. There was one woman among them: Second Lieutenant Pilot Janina Lewandowska, General Jozef-Dowbor-Musnicki’s daughter. The following people were kept there: Rear-admiral Ksawery Czernicki – chief of services of Naval Forces management; General Henryk Odrowaz-Minkiewicz – the former commander of Border Protection Corps; General Mieczyslaw Smorawinski – commander of Corps District No 2 in Lublin; retired Generals Bronislaw Bohaterewicz and Jerzy Wolkowicki, and Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz, who avoided death and played a significant role in uncovering Katyn massacre, its initiators and executors.


In Starobelsk the prisoners of war were kept in a former nunnery at 8 Kirov Street, in the buildings at 32 Kirov Street and 19 Wolodarski Street. There were 3,894 people there: a lot of scholars, priests, about 100 teachers and 400 doctors, several hundred lawyers and engineers, several dozen of men of letters and journalists, and also 8 generals: the defender of Lwów (Lviv) Franciszek Sikorski, Konstanty Plisowski, Stanisław Haller, Leonard Skierski, Leon Billewicz, Aleksander Kowalewski, Kazimierz Orlik-Lukoski and Piotr Skuratowicz.


The prisoners were kept in a former monastery on Stolobny Island on Seliger Lake, 11 kilometres from Ostashkov. Among the prisoners were the following: the State Police and Military Police officials, secret service and counter-espionage officials, the soldiers of the Border Protection Corps and the employees of the Prison Guard. There were also almost the whole staff of the Military Police Education Centre, among whom was Colonel Stanislaw Sitek. Ostashkov camp was the biggest of the three camps – there were about 6,570 prisoners of war just before it was disbanded in April 1940.

Preparations for the massacre

From October 1939, the delegated NKVD officials from Moscow heard the prisoners, encouraged them to cooperate and collected data. Only a few of the prisoners agreed to collaborate. The commanding officers’ reports included opinions about hostile attitudes of the Poles and a minimal chance of them being useful to the USSR authorities.

The decision to shoot the prisoners from Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov was signed on 5 March, 1940 by seven members of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) authorities: Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (proposer), Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich. On 22 March, Beria issued an order ‘to empty the NKVD prisons in USSR and BSSR, that is in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. The majority of those arrested Poles were officers and policemen.

The lists of those sent to death were to be prepared and signed by Piotr Soprunienko, commander-in-chief of the Prisoners of War Board of People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, which was created by the order of Beria in September 1939.

On 1 April, the first three lists of the 343 names were sent from Moscow to Ostaskhov camp. Later Soprunienko phoned the following commanding officers: Wasilij Korolew in Kozelsk, Aleksander Bierezkow in Starobelsk and Pawel Borisowiec in Ostaskhov in order to submit further lists of victims.

Places of torture – cemeteries Smolensk–Katyn

On 3 April, the rst prisoners from Kozelsk were transported in cattle trucks through Smolensk to Gniezdovo, where smaller groups were transported by prison cars commonly called ‘czornyje worony’ (‘black ravens’) to the wilderness called Kozie Gory in Katyn Forest. The functionaries of the NKVD killed each person by shooting in the back of the head. By 11 May, 1940, 4,421 Polish citizens had been killed and buried in Katyn death pits. There is an assumption that some officers had been killed in Smolensk.


The first group of prisoners from Starobelsk camp was transported to the headquarters of the Board of Kharkov NKVD district on 5 April 1940. Every night in the basement of the building in Dscherschinski Street executioners killed prisoners by shooting in the neck. The trucks carried the bodies to the pits in Forest Park in Kharkov, a kilometre and a half to Piatykhatky village. By 12 May 3,820 Polish citizens had been killed in Kharkov.

Kalinin (Tver)–Miednoye

On 4 April, 1940, the NKVD started to send prisoners from Ostashkov to the headquarters of the Board of Kalinin NKVD district (today’s Tver) at 6 Soviet Street. The executions took place in the basements. The same method of killing was used: a shot to the neck. In the mornings trucks carried the bodies to the pits in Miednoye village, 30 kilometres further away. By 22 May, 1940, 6,311 Polish citizens had been killed in Kalinin. What is worth mentioning when it comes to the Katyn lie, is that the territory of Miednoye cemetery has never belonged to Germany.

Polish authorities built war cemeteries at the places where the officers’ bodies had been buried. The cemeteries were officially opened in the year 2000. (in Kharkov on 17 June, in Katyn on 28 July and on 2 September in Miednoye).


Only 395 people from the three camps survived. Some of them owed their rescue to pure chance. Several people were willing to fight on the Soviet side in case of German invasion. There were also agents among them, the same ones as the NKVD had in the camps. The officers who were arrested in the camps and transported to NKVD Lubyanka prison in Moscow also managed to escape death in the summer of 1940.  

There are mass graves in the whole area of the former Soviet Union. Stalin and other leading Bolshevik activists before him ordered the elimination of whole social classes – Russian intelligence and rich farmers, the so-called kulaks; superior servicemen and workers; aristocrats and their servants. They sentenced members of different professions to death, for example, doctors and generals and exterminated people of various nationalities: Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Chinese – the list is endless.

The massacre committed in the spring of 1940 was carefully considered and organized. The aim of the communist party was the extermination of those social groups which had been building the bases of the modern Polish nation since the mid-nineteenth century.

A modern collective national consciousness was developed. This was possible thanks to the intellectual elite’s work on improving the conditions of life among peasantry, industrial workers or craftsmen and educated people’s attempts to involve those from lower classes of society in social life. Owing to the landed gentry’s and intellectual elite’s, care and effort to continue Polish traditions and culture were of interest to more and more social layers of Poles. The burghers, which was becoming richer and richer, developed modern industry by creating economic structures, on which – Poland reborn after the partition – built its economy.

The social classes which remained passive during the uprisings in the 19th century took an active part in the fight for independence. After Poland gained independence in 1918, subsequent generations of intellectual elite created structures of an independent country, which was developing in all spheres of life.

By carrying out the Katyn massacre, the Soviets got rid of large numbers of teachers, doctors, industrialists, engineers, humanists, writers, scholars, and also a lot of professional officers: the elites capable of rebuilding the country. Polish people who were a threat to the plans of the conquest of Poland, because they were determined to oppose the annexation of their country by Moscow and suspected in being involved in any anti-Soviet conspiracy found themselves in the hands of the NKVD. Mobilized reserve officers, not only the Poles, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Tatars and people of various nationalities living in the Second Polish Republic constituted over half of the victims.

The plan of the destruction of people in the eastern part of the Polish Republic also included forced deportations, which were organised by the NKVD to faraway places in the USSR. The first of them took place from 9 to 11 February, 1940 and included, among others, military settlers, civil servants, workers of the forest services and Polish State Railways. The second deportation took place from 12 to 14 April, 1940. It included family members of those considered to be enemies of communism: office workers, police and prison officers, teachers, social activists, captives’ families and those repressed by the NKVD and killed in Katyn massacre. On 28 and 29 June, 1940, war refugees from central Poland were deported. The fourth deportation took place in May and June 1941. It included intellectuals, captives, labourers, craftsmen, families of railway workers and of those arrested since autumn 1940. The captives were deported to different republics of the USSR: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek, and also Russian (for example to Siberia).

According to the Soviet documents that have been published so far, the number of Polish people deported in the years 1940–1941 is at least 309–327,000 citizens.

Authors: Monika Komaniecka, Krystyna Samsonowska, Mateusz Szpytma, Anna Zechenter

Translated by Iwona Ewa Waldzińska

Source: Institute of National Remembrance/NB


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