Saturday 1 May 2010

"Katyn documents faked"?

I was going to write something here about Katyn as a heritage issue on April 10th, but that intention was swept away as news of other events unfolded on that day. The Times' Moscow correspondent Tony Halpin has an interesting article about the wider dissemination, after all this time, in Russia of (some of) the Katyn documents that emerged in the last few Soviet years and the 1990s. This article "Have the Katyn files opened Pandora's Box?", Times Online April 28, 2010) starts:
The facts may be known to many but it will still shock Russians to see the actual documents showing how casually Joseph Stalin and the Soviet leadership dispatched 22,000 Polish prisoners to their deaths at Katyn. President Medvedev’s order to publish the file comes at a sensitive moment for Russia, just days before it celebrates the 65th anniversary on May 9 of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second Wolrd War is known here. The Kremlin has painstakingly constructed a sense of Russian national pride on the foundations of the war victory, seeing it as one of the few historical achievements to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anything that calls into question the heroism of Russians in that period has been fiercely challenged. Yet here are documents showing how the NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB secret police, proposed the cold-blooded extermination of Polish prisoners to Stalin, the man still held in awe by many older Russians as the great war leader who saved the nation from the Nazis. There is Stalin’s signature of consent to a war crime. Here is indisputable evidence too of the extent to which the Soviet regime lied and lied again for half a century to cover up responsibility for that crime.
Nothing here new for observers here. What caught my eye in another context was another bit:
This is painful territory, especially for the younger generation in pro-Kremlin groups such as Nashi who have been raised to express unquestioning patriotism towards the war victory. Some are already dismissing today's documents from the State Archive as forgeries, preferring to retreat into implausible lies than confront unpleasant truths.
The use of images of the past and various forms of connection with them to build modern identities is a well-known phenomenon. The topos of the heroic struggle against an "Other" is a typical one.

These phenomena however are by no means only expressed as "nationalism", but are evoked whenever a group seeks an identity in internal unity against an Other. A most potent example is the creation of the self-identity of collectors of ancient artefacts, stressing their own personal (individual and collective) links to the past which is celebrated in the collection of dugups. Here too we see irrational attacks on an Other, embodied by the pejorative (in these circles) label of "archaeologists". Here too we see the use of implausible stories preferred over an uncomfortable truth about the relationship of this activity and the destruction of the archaeological record to produce those collectables. There is no difference really between the tactics used by collecting groups (whether they be metal detectorists or "internationalist" no-questions-asked purchasers in the US) and groups like the Молодежное демократическое антифашистское движение «Наши».

Vignette: Unfortunately not a fake: the death warrant for 22000 Polish prisoners signed by Stalin in his habituary blue crayon.

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