7 July 2009


I saw, yesterday, the film Katyń by the famous Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Probably one of the most important films of the early 21st century, it tries to restore the historical truth about the mass murder of 22 thousand Polish people (military officers, engineers, intellectuals, merchants) in the Russian Katyn (Катынь) forest near the Polish border. Ordered by Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret Soviet Police NKVD, these people were captured, shortly after USSR invaded Poland, kept as prisoners for several months, and finally executed and buried in mass graves. The Nazis, who invaded Poland almost simultaneously as the Soviets, took advantage of the massacre for their own propaganda. At the end of the war, the Soviet-occupied Poland started an organized propaganda to convince everyone that it was the Nazis who had committed the massacre; anyone who dared deny this was imprisoned, marginalized or killed. The situation lasted until 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged Soviet responsibility; and Boris Yeltsin made public the documents authorizing the massacre.

An excellent review of the film is written by Anne Applebaum who tells us that the film is in the classic Wajda style:
For half a century, beginning in the darkest era of communism and continuing through the years of Solidarity, martial law, and the post-Communist present, Wajda has been conducting precisely this kind of cinematic dialogue with Polish audiences. Although they have sometimes been celebrated abroad, his movies have always been made with his countrymen in mind, which gives them a special flavor.
We don't need too much of Polish history to watch the film, although some certainly helps. From Applebaum's review I also learned that Wajda's father was among the Katyn massacre victims and that there are several references in the film about Wajda's own life; for example, that he wanted to be an art student, and that his mother had, for years, no idea what had happened to her husband. Wajda was asked why he made the film now.
Most of those who actually remembered the events of 1939 were now dead, he explained—Wajda himself is eighty-one—so the film could no longer be made for them. Instead, he said, he wanted to tell the story again for young people—but not just any young people. Wajda said he wanted to reach "those moviegoers for whom it matters that we are a society, and not just an accidental crowd."
But both in the interviews he's given and in the film itself, Wajda seems to be saying something rather different about the need for a national cinema. By making Katyn, he wanted to create something that would get Poles to talk to one another, to reflect upon common experiences, to define common values, to admire similar virtues, to forge a civil society out of an anonymous crowd. Katyn is deliberately intended to inspire patriotism, in the most positive sense of the word. This too helps explain why Wajda made a film that asks not just "what happened?" or "what did the Soviet Union do to us?" but rather "how did we, as a society, react afterward?" as well as "and how do we remember it now?"
Wajda has achieved his goals as he has, indeed, created discussions, and
"Have you been to see Katyn yet?" was something one was asked with some frequency in Warsaw this past fall.
Most interestingly, he has managed to solicit some Russian reaction:
[O]n the day after the film's release, a government-owned Russian newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, declared that Soviet responsibility for Katyn was "not obvious." In a snide article, one of the newspaper's pundits threw doubt on a decade's worth of voluminous archival publications, and accused Wajda of "separating us further from the truth."
The film includes rare original photographs, excerpts from German newsreels presenting the Katyn massacre as a Soviet crime, and excerpts from Soviet newsreels presenting the massacre as a German crime.

Unfortunately, not everybody will be able to watch the film because it's not a main Hollywood production. I'm lucky to be in Edinburgh where the film scene is very good.

P.S. (Added 20 Feb. 2013). Here is a link on Andrzej Wajda's biography, as presented by culture.pl


  1. Adding to my ever growing "to watch" list.

    BTW, there is a frighteningly high profile level of denialism of this in Russia among Russian nationalists (and even people considered moderate).

    I read the blog of one of the most famous political commentators in Russia (Anatoly Wasserman) and I'm shocked at the denialist insanity. In this worldview this (1) did not happen and (2) was done by the Germans. Often (1) and (2) at the same time!

    They're also Holodomor denialists, as expected.

    PS. Typo in paragraph 1 -- "Police" instead of "Polish"

  2. Thanks for the comment and thoughts (and for spotting the typo--now corrected). I know, from personal experience, that there are Russian deniers of the massacre, but I was not aware of the extent of denial. I find it hard to understand why, after the fall of Soviet union, there still are so many people who will openly declare "I am a Soviet". It does not make sense. Everybody committed crimes in the war, including the allies (Hiroshima/Nagasaki/Dresden), and these crimes should be acknowledged so that, hopefully, we learn and never repeat them. Denial serves no purpose at all.

    On a similar note, I am aware of Holocaust deniers: for example, there are many Greek nationalists who fall into this category .

    Thanks for pointing out Holodomor. I checked it on Wikipedia where, for example, I read that:
    On November 17, 2007 members from Aleksandr Dugin's radical Russian nationalist group [Eurasian Youth Union] broke into the Ukrainian cultural center in Moscow and smashed an exhibition on the famine.

  3. I think there is a certain level of nostalgia -- many people were better off materially with the dictatorship that provided stability over an unstable free market. There's also been a longstanding Russian supremacism that partly stems from Russia's distinct culture. Its religion, its literary tradition, its cuisine can be very easily separated from both Europe and Asia which makes admiration of Russian culture (all the way to chauvinism) possible. Finally I think many people feel victimised by the west (correctly to a very limited extent but not nearly to the degree they think) which separates an us-vs-them mentality.

    If you're interested I've posted on the Holodomor last year [http://anadder.com/a-pulitzer-for-lying-about-mass-murder] -- the most troubling (but not surprising) part was the denialism of western leftist intellectuals who were so ideologically invested in Stalin's USSR as a utopia.

  4. Thanks for the pointer. I felt I had to write something about it, at least as a reminder for me to look further into this despicable crime.

  5. Great review, thank you. I shall be watching.



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The principle of dynamic programming

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