The Katyn Massacre

A devastating massacre in the forest just outside of Smolensk was kept a secret for almost fifty years. The extent of the truth was not fully acknowledged until twenty years after that. What happened in the forest was among the first of the gruesome and senseless series of murders that took place during World War II, and one of the last of those to be solved. This was to be known as the Katyn Massacre.

In 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Non-Aggression Pact, in which it was agreed to divide Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Poland. Both leaders agreed to divide Poland in half. In September of this year, both leaders invaded Poland, with the Soviets acting first. Under the guise of “liberating” Ukrainian and Belorussian workers from oppression, the Poles, especially those belonging to the intelligentsia, were placed by the Soviets in special concentration camps in Kolzelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov; all former monasteries converted into prisons. It was in these prisons that extreme torture and interrogations took place. In early spring of 1940, the NKVD murdered thousands of men in the forests outside of these prisons under the signed orders of Lavrenty Beria Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and others. It is estimated that more than 22,000 Poles died not only in the forest, but in the surrounding prisons and concentration camps at the hands of the Soviets.

None of what took place was known to the Germans until 1943 when the Pact was broken. The Nazis used this intelligence to try to cause a rift between the allies. They broadcasted it on the Radio Berlin (the full transcript can be found here) and brought 12 forensic experts as well as the Polish Red Cross to justify their claims. The evidence was overwhelming: hand-drawn maps from soldiers who witnessed the genocide, aerial photographs taken by German reconnaissance showing mass burials, and even journals from the deceased that were unearthed. But why, even with all the evidence that the Germans collected, were the facts ignored for the span of seven decades?

Hand drawn map showing the precise location of the mass graves and prison camps
One of the many aerial photographs taken by the Germans

Stalin insisted that the claims made over the broadcast were “monstrous invention by the German fascist scoundrels”. The Allies feared the truth which might have estranged the Soviet Union and rejected all claims. They knew that they needed the Soviets to win the war. However, on the other hand, Winston Churchill believed that “the German revelations are probably true. The Bolsheviks can be very cruel” (620).

Even with this film, Katyn, 1943, the Allies still questioned who was at fault despite interviewing two survivors.

Once the Soviets were able to take back Poland, they organized a cover-up in 1944 known as the Burdenko Commission. The Commission did precisely what the Nazis had done to retrieve evidence by bringing in forensic teams to collect evidence. However, the Soviets would not let anyone but their own work on the project, and with the second requirement being that any witness should be ethnically Russian. The Soviet military court in Leningrad tried seven German soldiers to procure false evidence. One of the accused Arno Diere, a German soldier, confessed to the crimes, or rather, was forced into the confession. The “evidence” that supported their claim that the Nazis were guilty for these crimes was accepted without question by the Allies, despite Churchill and Roosevelt knowing better.

Under the orders of Franklin Roosevelt, George Earle, an emissary to the Balkans, was sent to investigate in 1944. His reports, however, were dismissed immediately. Two American POWs, Donald Stewart and John Van Vleit, who witnessed the horrors presented information that was also discarded. In fact, Van Vliet’s superior Major General Bissell physically destroyed his report and claimed it was “lost”. This same Major General would later testify in the 1950s when the case was opened again on U.S. soil. Bissell claimed that if he would have come forward with the information in the 40s, it “would have been contrary to U.S. interests to embarrass the Soviet Union during the war.” In the late 1960s the Soviets were still trying to blame the Nazis for what had happened. In 1969 the Soviets built a war memorial in the Belorussian village Khatyn to the victims of Fascism to attract attention away from the Katyn Massacre. With the village having a similar name to the forest in which the mass burials took place, the Soviets hoped to put an end to inquiries. Nixon was even brought here, hoping to shift his attention to this spot rather than where the massacre occurred. You can read the article that was published about his trip in The New York Times in 1974 here.

Later, when Gorbachev visited Warsaw under Glasnost’, crowds flooded the streets to demand the truth. He reluctantly released some of the information. He only acknowledged Beria to be at fault, and grossly underestimated the number of the victims. He even asked his aids to find a “counterbalance” to the massacre. Yeltsin, in a commemoration ceremony, stated that it wasn’t just a Polish tragedy, but a Russian one.

Even more heart breaking is that the same forest where the Katyn Massacre took place is also where President Lech Kaczynski’s plane, carrying the president as well as top military and political leaders of Poland, crashed in 2010, just days after Putin fully acknowledged publicly that the Soviet Union was indeed responsible for the horrific crimes against the Poles. Read more here.

Believing in victory at all cost, the Allies overlooked this horrific crime committed by one of their own despite overwhelming amounts of evidence and despite our own leaders knowing better. How long should the truth have to wait, and is it worth it in order to preserve political unity?

Statue built by Polish-American sculptor Andrzej Pitsynski in honor of the victims of the Katyn Massacre. It stands near the mouth of the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Other sources used:

The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman

One of the most famous statues in all of Russia, The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman, was created in the year 1937 by sculptor Vera Mukhina.

Mukina drew inspiration from an ancient Greek sculpture, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, from the 5th century BC. Interestingly, the events of 5th century BC in Athens were not much different from those that occurred in Soviet Russia during the 1930s.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton were two brothers who killed the brother of Hippias, the first sole leader of Athens, known for his tyrannical brutality. Hippias sought revenge for his brother’s death by subjecting his subjects to one of two fates: exile or death. This is a direct parallel to the events that happened in the same decade that the statue was created. Stalin, like Hippias, used the assassination of Sergey Kirov, a prominent Bolshevik and head of the Leningrad sector, as a catalyst for initiating the purges of the 1930s. In an ironic repeat of history, the victims were also subjected to the same two fates as used centuries earlier by Hippias.

The statue itself symbolizes the “eternal union of the working class and the peasantry”, with the working class being represented by the man and the peasantry by the woman, symbolically placed so that their stride in socialism would reach from the east to the west.

Mukhina’s work is an example of Socialist Realism, which, established at the Writer’s Union Congress in 1934, “was the sole method of Soviet cultural production”. The transformation of art in this way was needed in order to evoke a type of political mythology to take the place of religious symbols. The statue is a “very significant embodiment of what the “New World” and “New Person” should reflect” and although it embodied the freedom hoped to be achieved through Socialism, it was also erected at the height of repression.

Fâtu-Tutoveanu, Andrada. Constructing Female Identity in Soviet Art in the 1930s. A Case Study: Vera Mukhina’s Sculpture.” Bulletin of the Transylvania University of Brasov, Series IV: Philology & Cultural Studies, vol. 3, no. 52, Jan. 2010, pp. 249–258.

At the base of the statue you can see the various ethnic groups depicted, such as Kazaks and Dagestani. This representation evokes very powerful symbolism, as the man and woman who are featured more prominently are of ethnic Slavic origin. It is at the base where tourists can now find a museum about the history of the statue and the history of architecture in Russia.

In comparison to the Statue of Liberty which took 11 years to complete, the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue was finished in a mere 6 months, a fact of which Mukhina was very proud. The statue was displayed in various locations before taking a permanent residence in the heart of Moscow.

 In 1937, the statue was the main feature at the Soviet pavilion in the Paris World Fair. 

If you look closely at the photograph above, you can see that the statue was placed facing the statue representing Nazi Germany, with the Eiffel Tower in between. Both statues ended up receiving a tie; each country was awarded the Grand Prix.

Two years later in 1939, it was displayed in the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition, where not only art was represented but various branches of agriculture were proudly displayed and celebrated for its accomplishments under Soviet rule. Representatives from each union republic and major region exhibited their cultural and regional diversity with folk songs, dance, traditional dress, and more.

Although the exhibition was closed during World War II, the symbolism of the statue was circulated in an effort to boost morale and patriotism. Posters also circulated featuring the statue, as well as stamps and other forms of propaganda. It also became the official Mosfilm logo in 1947.

This poster celebrating the 24th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union was most likely intended to reach the settlers of the Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidzhan, which was used to group Jews together under the advertisement of a new “Zion”.

After World War II, the statue was disassembled and put into storage. Restoration efforts began in 2005 and the statue was revealed once more to the public in 2010. The story of its assembly was proudly featured in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and was met with some criticism.

The statue of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman stands on a socialist past, built during one of the most troubling times in Russian history. However, the patriotism it evoked during World War II represents more than the dark past it is often associated with. It represents how Russia emerged at the end of the war: a world power recognized by other nations, whose rebuilding efforts and wave of New Patriotism in the 1930s contributed to its struggle for victory despite the odds.

The Life and TIMEs of Patriarch Tikhon

So shocking was the imprisonment and conviction of Patriarch Tikhon, that it made this edition of TIME magazine in 1923. Patriarch Tikhon, who was “unfrocked” of his title to simply that of Comrade André Bélavin, was, according to the article, “judged without a hearing” and convicted of counterrevolutionary acts. The article mentioned further that the confiscation of church property, which began shortly after the Patriarch’s arrest by the Soviets, was justified by the All Russian Church Council, stating that “capitalism…is one of the seven deadly sins, therefore its struggle is a sacred struggle”.

The control of the church began with the seizure of church property and valuables. This move implemented by Lenin, heeding the advice of Trotsky to address the “counterrevolutionary clergy” in order to create a schism to separate them, whom Lenin referred to as “Patriarch Tikhon’s Clique” (Gabel, Paul. And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs. Religion in Russia, 1917-1929. Amherst, 2005. pp. 233-236.)

Ivan Skvortsov-Stepanov, a devoted Bolshevik from the early days, said this about the affair: “We cannot deprive ourselves of the pleasure of seeing the views of one part of the clergy opposed by those of the other. But we cannot stop at that and will make use of the splitting among the clergy in order to lead the masses away from any religion whatever.” –The Tasks and Methods of Antireligious Propaganda 1923 (233)

The next step to control the church was to come after its leaders, with the Patriarch being the primary target. Patriarch Tikhon was an obvious target for many reasons. For one thing, he had strong ties to Imperial Russia, an empire which was consolidated with the help of Orthodox Christianity. During the revolution, the Patriarch was adamantly opposed to the execution of the Tsar. But that was not all—he also had connections to the West, specifically in the U.S, where he served as a missionary bishop in Alaska, the Aleutians, New York, and Pennsylvania prior to his appointment as the Patriarch in 1898. If you are ever in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, you can see the monastery he founded, St. Tikhon’s Monastery, which is the oldest monastery in America.

The Patriarch was arrested in April of 1922 over charges of “being the focus of all religious opposition to the Bolsheviks, and of being the agent of foreign organizations, namely Russian Orthodox congregations abroad”. More can be found information can be found here.

With Patriarch Tikhon’s authority compromised, the Soviets issued several decrees, including one in which all congregations with fifty people or more must register with the government. Afterwards, the Living Church Movement began, with the so called “renovationists” making significant changes within the church that would later contribute to the state takeover. The church soon fell entirely into the hands of the state. Anti-Religious propaganda began to circulate. The All-Russian Church Council swiftly removed all traditional clergy from power. In the course of a month all clergy were removed, and Patriarch Tikhon was stripped of his position.

When the Patriarch was finally released a few months after his imprisonment, he emerged as merely another “comrade”. However, he still managed to draw this crowd as photographed above in 1923. You can find out more here.

Subjected to what he himself referred to as “intense” questioning in which his life was threatened, the former patriarch released this statement in which he essentially admitted to being an enemy of the Bolsheviks: “Having been brought up in a Monarchist society and being up to my arrest under the influence of anti-Soviet persons, I had indeed hostile feelings toward Soviet power…” Stating that he would comply with the government and that he was no longer an “enemy of the people”, the patriarch narrowly escaped execution. However, his statement merely sealed the fall of religion and its authority to give way to a new Soviet society.

After the Patriarch died in 1925, his body was buried in the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, the same monastery in which he has been imprisoned just a few years before. The fortified monastery was later closed and re-purposed during the Stalin era. Part of the building was designated as a penal colony for children and the other part for a museum dedicated to atheism by the wishes of Stalin. His remains were lost and not found on the grounds until 1992 in a hidden crypt, as pictured below.

1992 Patriarch Tikhon’s remains are recovered

The removal of the Patriarch, like the Tsar, solidified the transfer of power to the Soviets. As a symbol of religion, the imprisonment and “unfrocking” of the head of the church sent a powerful message that Russia was finally entering into a new chapter of history, the Soviet Era.

A Bird’s Eye View of Bukhara

Stork “A Scene in Bukhara”

            This photograph, Айст «Этюд в Бухаре» or Stork “A Scene in Bukhara”, was taken by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii in the year 1911, a time when the Russian Empire was continuing to exert influence and expand east, especially into Central Asia. Traveling throughout Russia and equipped with a railroad car that functioned as a dark room and color film slides, Prokudin-Gorskii was able to capture the cultural diversity that made up the Russian Empire in the 20th century. More information about his travels as well as a complete photograph collection can be found here.

The Silk Road

Bukhara is over 2,000 years old and is one of the oldest cities of modern day Uzbekistan. Source. In the 14th century, Bukhara was ruled by Tamerlane and was a major stop on the Silk Road. The nearby city Samarkand was later taken possession of by the Russian Empire in 1868 as a vassal state, but Bukhara remained independent. Even with its location on the Silk Road and the Trans-Caspian Railway, Bukhara had surprisingly managed to preserve tradition and culture from western influence when this photograph was captured. It remained independent until the 1920 Bukhara Operation, where the Russians defeated the Bukhara Emirate and the city became part of the Soviet Union.


Poster from the film Nasreddin in Bukhara

     During Soviet times, Bukhara was used as a tool of influence to other Islamic countries. In 1943, the soviet film Nasreddin in Bukhara was used to represent Soviet civilization to an Islamic world. The character Nasreddin was a hero in Turkish folklore who, similar to the character of Ivan the Fool in Russian folklore, was a simpleton whose bumbling mistakes bring him luck and wisdom. There is even a monument dedicated to him in Bukhara.

            The building shown in Prokudin-Gorkskii’s photograph is a madrasah, the Arabic word for institution or school, where extensive religious study took place. There are many of these madrasahs located in Bukhara that are wonderful examples of Islamic architecture that have luckily been preserved throughout centuries. The madrasah is an example of Bukhara’s lasting cultural heritage despite the industrialization that was then taking place in Russia and neighboring areas.

           Interestingly, the two cultures that were brought together in the 1800s by conquest share similarities in folklore. The stork in the photograph above has great significance in both Russian and Turkish culture. They are seen as a symbol of good luck, protectors, a symbol of vigilance against enemies, and in the case of white storks, pure and heavenly. Source.

            In many cultures, storks are revered, but the East Slavic people in particular saw them as sacred, even believing that a white stork was similar in intelligence to man. It was also believed that a stork carried the human soul to the afterlife and the soul would return to earth in a mother’s womb in the springtime. If you’re curious, you can find more here.

            The photograph that Prokudin-Gorskii captured is a lasting testament to the fact that even though the city was controlled for centuries by various leaders, empires, and governments, Bukhara still retained its unique and cultural heritage, and shares this heritage with surrounding countries, including Russia, the country who once occupied one of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan.

Photograph taken by Gina Sane; Stork on top of the Rundale Palace in Latvia

As you can see, storks are still inhabit the rooftops of even the most luxurious of palaces as welcomed guests.