Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth

Written by Jane Rogoyska
Review by Douglas Kemp

This is a comprehensive account of the events leading up to, and the aftermath of the notorious massacre of Polish military officers in 1940, during the Second World War by the Soviet Union. Following the invasion of Poland’s eastern territories by the Red Army in 1939 after the initial German blitzkrieg from the west, many (nearly 5,000) senior Polish military officers were captured. Representing the elite of Polish society, they were dispersed into three POW camps under poor but not intolerable conditions. Rogoyska exams in detail the life they suffered there as well as the methods the Soviet Union deployed to interrogate and find out as much as possible about their prisoners. Those who had communist sympathies and others of particular interest were singled out, and transferred to better conditions in the USSR, where they avoided the fate of their less fortunate colleagues.

After the June 1941 German attack on the Soviet Union, Poland (or what was left of it) overnight became an ally of the USSR and prisoners and others held were freed, with the intention to form Polish divisions to fight against the advancing German forces.  But then it became clear to Poland that most of the military officers captured could not be accounted for and had disappeared. The Soviet Union prevaricated and said they could not provide definite advice as to where these men were, but were probably dispersed in various camps in the east and north of the country.

The latter half of the book deals with the depressing narrative of the battle for truth when the mass graves were discovered by the occupying German forces in 1943. The USSR vehemently denied responsibility and indeed, when they retook the land by Smolensk later in 1943 they concocted an elaborate plot which included planting false documents and such on the decomposing Polish corpses. They only admitted responsibility in 1990, after decades of denial and lying.  This is a well-written, cogently researched and argued narrative that has implications for us all in these days of fake news and the rise of conspiracy theories: the necessity to seek out the truth and fight for it.