Scholars to Re-Examine Katyń Forest Massacre at U.Va. Conference March 23

March 12, 2013

Though they happened more than 70 years ago, the Katyń Massacres of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers by order of Soviet leader Josef Stalin still reverberates today on the international stage.

University of Virginia professors will be among those exploring these reverberations in a conference on March 23 that brings together for the first time American, Polish and Russian voices on Katyń, combining the worlds of academia, watchdog NGOs, social movements devoted to commemoration and state institutions responsible for presenting artifacts and developing educational curricula around the Katyń massacres, said conference organizer Piotr Kosicki, who teaches in the Corcoran Department of History in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“The story of Katyń is very much alive today, not just in Poland, but internationally and among English-language scholars and commentators,” Kosicki said. “In September 2012, at the request of President Obama, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration declassified a slate of new American documents related to Katyń, and just this past February the European Court of Human Rights heard a Polish case against Russia by members of the victims’ families demanding full disclosure.”

“Mass Violence, Justice and Memory: The Katyń Massacres of 1940 in History, Memory, Education and Law” will run from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in room 101 at Nau Hall.

Seventy years ago, German forces advancing into the western Soviet Union found mass graves of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers, executed by Soviet secret police under orders from Soviet Internal Affairs commissar Lavrentii Beria and Soviet ruler Josef Stalin. In the wake of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939, the Soviet Union took control of eastern Poland at the start of World War II, deporting Polish officers to internment camps in the western Soviet Union, from which almost all of the officers were then taken by the Soviets, killed with shots to the back of the head, and buried in mass graves.

The only massacre site exhumed prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union was discovered in April 1943 by advancing German forces two years after they had broken the nonaggression pact and invaded Soviet-occupied territory.

“The discovery of the graves marks the beginning of the challenge of how to deal publicly and privately with the massacres in national and international fora alike,” Kosicki said. “How to talk about them, or not; how to commemorate them, or not; whom to blame and how to seek justice; what their political consequences would be. That is really the focus of this conference – not the massacres themselves, but their contested legacy during the Second World War, under Communism and since the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”

Kosicki framed it as being not only for scholars, but as a meeting place for academic historians, social activists, lawyers and specialists in museology and public history.

U.Va. professors will moderate the panel discussions, including Kosicki; Dariusz Tolczyk from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature; and Jeffrey Rossman from the history department.

Among the presenters at the conference will be Allen Paul, one of the first English-language historians of the Katyń Massacres; Nikita Petrov, deputy director of the Russian non-governmental organization Memorial, a voice in Russia for disclosure and reckoning with Stalinist crimes; Izabella Sariusz-Skąpska, president of the Poland-based Federation of Katyń Families, which brings together the surviving relatives of the massacres’ victims; Ireneusz Kamiński, an international law scholar and lead counsel for victims' families in their case against Russia currently before the European Court of Human Rights; Sławomir Frątczak, the director and head curator of Poland’s own Katyń Museum; and Łukasz Michalski, one of Poland’s leading public historians, who helps to craft state educational curricula about Katyń.

Kosicki also has a personal interest in the conference. He was researching in Poland in 2010 when Polish president Lech Kaczyński was killed in an airplane crash in Russia, on his way to mark the anniversary of the Katyń Massacre.

“I remember the Polish experience of the crash as a national tragedy embodying the legacy of Katyń, but I also remember being astonished at how little was said at the time about social activists – many of whom were relatives of the Katyń victims – who had devoted much of their lives to building a public awareness of Katyń and who had tragically lost their lives alongside Poland’s president en route to a commemoration of the Katyń victims,” Kosicki said. “I resolved then to study the history of different approaches to commemorating and thinking about Katyń, representing not just the political story of government leaders, but also those who kept the memory alive and promoted it whenever possible.”

Kosicki said the conference, which is open to the public, is administered by U.Va.’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, as part of the U.Va. Polish Lecture Series, which was endowed by the Rosenstiel Foundation in consultation with the American Institute of Polish Culture. The conference is co-sponsored by the Center for International Studies; the Page-Barbour Initiatives on Forced Migration and International Criminal Justice; the Institute for the Humanities and Global Cultures; the College’s departments of history, Slavic languages and sociology; and the Institute of National Remembrance of the Republic of Poland.

“This conference represents the first time that all of these speakers will appear together in the same room, bringing together American, Polish and Russian voices on Katyń, combining the worlds of academia, watchdog NGOs, social movements devoted to commemoration, and state institutions responsible for presenting artifacts and developing educational curricula around the Katyń Massacres,” Kosicki said.

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications