My take-away on "Katyn"

06/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

I have just seen Andrzej Wajda's gripping documentary film of 2007, "Katyn", which was among the nominees for an Oscar. The film depicts the liquidation of 22,000 Poles, most of them military officers, in and around the region of the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, in April 1940, on the orders of Josef Stalin.

The Russo-German invasion of Poland in 1939 - the fourth partition of Poland, if you will - was a cordinated affair, stemming from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of late August. The Germans invaded first, overcoming an heroic Polish resistance in three weeks. Then the Russians moved in from the east and interned the mass of Polish officers retreating from the Germans. They were shipped off to Russia by train and held for months until they were executed, each with a bullet to the back of the head, and then dumped into mass graves. The Germans discovered the graves in 1943, but the powerful Russian propaganda machine swung into action and put the blame on the Germans. Only after the end of the Cold War did the Russians, in the person of Boris Yeltsin, admit that Stalin was responsible for the atrocity. And of course, during the Cold War, the Communist government in Poland dutifully followed the Russian propaganda line while the population became ever more knowledgeable about what had really happened.

"Katyn" was shown on Russian television station Kultura on April 2. This was a first in Russia and coincided with the commemorative visit to Katyn by Vladimir Putin on April 7, in the company of the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. The Putin admission of blame was understated though welcomed. The Polish President, Lech Kazinski, not wanting to be there together with Putin, was to come later, on April 10, but his plane crashed, with all 96 people aboard killed.

My reaction after seeing "Katyn" is the following: it is useless and counter-productive to compare Naziism and Communism. The Left has generally been reserved about such an amalgam, hoping to preserve the original universalism and idealism of Communism placed agains the abominable racism of a single state, Germany. The Right on the other hand believes it is unfair not to culpabilize the actions of the Soviet Union during and after World War II.

It seems to me that the analogy between Communism and Naziism should not be made. These were two different regimes in two different countries. Each, despicable in its own way, should be considered separately, as separate phenomena, and should not be compared in a morality contest about which side killed more innocent people than the other.