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Question #60292 posted on 10/28/2010 6:23 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

Ever since the International Cinema showed "Katyn" last year, I have been absolutely fascinated by what happened there. I find it particularly compelling for two reasons: first, the average layman hasn't heard of it, and second, it frequently is brought up, denied, admitted to, used for propaganda, and generally lied about in various forms by Russia (and occasionally other countries). I have a few questions questions about this. One, did the Russians actually have any reason for doing this other than generic genocide/sick of holding onto these people? And two, can Americans (or ANYONE for that matter) physically visit the mass grave in the ground? I'm not talking about any of the memorials, I'm talking about the actual site of any of the mass graves. Three, what kind of job could you have that would allow you to study things of this nature? And four, is there really anything we/I/people in general can do about stuff like this? I feel like such an awful event calls for action somehow, not necessarily revenge/punishment against those responsible (since they are probably long gone) but SOMETHING to recognize such a tragedy - any thoughts?




Dear Bound to a Russian,

Upon reading your question I was immediately drawn to it. While I have put in quite a lot of reading on this subject now, I admit you should still research it for yourself. After all, you and I probably will find different things more interesting and more pertinent. Now, let's get started.

1. Did the Russians have any reason for doing this?

Yes, in fact the Soviet Union had a lot of reasons for doing this. Note, these aren't good reasons, or just reasons, but they are reasons. First of all, at that time Poland and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies. Not only that, but Stalin was a rather horrific dictator. He did more than have people killed, he had them erased from history, and when he wanted something he went for it. Most of the people killed at Katyn were not your average prisoners of war. Many of them were Polish military officers, meaning they weren't just weakening morale but they were weakening the system as a whole by taking out certain key individuals. One scene in the movie Katyn shows a general telling the POWs: “Gentlemen, you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.” Clearly, the men who were targeted and killed were considered a threat. The historian Gerhard Weinberg suggests that not only did the Soviet Union hope to weaken Poland but also to eventually gain control over it. He says:

It has been suggested that the motive for this terrible step [the Katyn massacre] was to reassure the Germans as to the reality of Soviet anti-Polish policy. This explanation is completely unconvincing in view of the care with which the Soviet regime kept the massacre secret from the very German government it was supposed to impress... A more likely explanation is that... [the massacre] should be seen as looking forward to a future in which there might again be a Poland on the Soviet Union's western border. Since he intended to keep the eastern portion of the country in any case, Stalin could be certain that any revived Poland would be unfriendly. Under those circumstances, depriving it of a large proportion of its military and technical elite would make it weaker.

2. Can I visit the grave site? 

Yes. In Katyn, a city just outside of Smolensk, is the Katyn Memorial. At the memorial are a number of the mass graves. The area is open from nine a.m. to five p.m. most days, and you can call them at (4812) 68-35-24 if you are in the area and need directions or have more questions. If you have brushed up on your Russian then you can take a look at their website, which even has maps of the grounds.

In your question you said that you want to visit the "actual site of any of the mass graves." The Katyn Memorial I referred to does have some of the mass graves, however not all of them are located there. A lot of the graves remain unmarked in the Katyn forest and likely will remain that way, but this memorial fits your description best.

3. What kind of job could you have that would allow you to study things of this nature?

Besides somehow transforming yourself into Indiana Jones, you could be a historian. I'm not sure what you mean by things "of this nature," but assuming you mean war, war conspiracy, political cover-ups, history, political history, and so on, then definitely look into becoming a historian. Specifically, if you were able to work for a museum, memorial, university, or some sort of research institution you could spend a lot of time studying these sorts of things. As a historian focusing on this particular subject you will probably need to learn Russian, Polish, and German; what I'm saying is, this would be awesome. If that doesn't suit you, some other majors which can steer you in the right direction are sociology, political science, and international relations. A third option (because I hold onto the hope that becoming Indiana Jones is a viable option) would be a career in film or journalism. The History Channel is rife with shows and movies about these sorts of topics, and journalists often get to cover stories that examine the past in order to understand the future.

4. Is there really anything we/I/people in general can do about stuff like this?

Sadly, there isn't much you can do about what has already happened. That being said, it has made a huge difference in my life to be able to get involved in different human rights campaigns as well as visit museums and learn about history. I'm assuming that you are wondering what people can do to stop genocide and crimes against humanity in general. One human rights organization has suggested ten ways in which people can get involved and try to stop genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum gives similar advice. Their suggestions can be summed up like so: get involved and be informed. The simple, cynical fact is that the vast majority of people do not have the means to make significant changes when negative things happen in other countries.

Nevertheless, we can support those who do, and we can pressure politicians. If you want to get involved, join a group such as Save Darfur, or Free the Slaves, both of which work to bring humanitarian aid to people in need, as well as convince government authorities to step up their game in defending human rights. Besides working for changes within the political system, you can also stay informed. It sounds like a cheesy PSA, but it is the truth. If you educate yourself about history and what is going on in the world then you can make informed decisions when voting, traveling, giving to charities, and of course when teaching others.Teaching others may be the most important thing. I used to think that everyone already knew that the Holocaust was a horrible thing, that there is genocide still going on today, and that there is even slavery today in the United States. Do not take your knowledge for granted! As you already know, many governments try to hide the atrocities which have happened in their countries. We are lucky that we have the freedom of speech and more or less know our history, even the dirty bits.

If you want to find out more ways you can be involved, and if you are on campus for the next couple days, I highly recommend going to the School of Social Work's conference "Assisting Victims of Human Trafficking Through Research, Policy, & Practice." A lot of the focus will be on the practical aspects of how we can change policies in order to facilitate helping people around the world. It will be a great experience, and their keynote speaker, Kevin Bales, is probably the best resource for this kind of information.