Plans have been announced to open Russia’s first museum dedicated to the Katyn massacre, which saw nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war murdered by Soviet agents in 1940.
The two-floored museum building, which is set to open in late 2017, will be situated next to an existing memorial complex in the Katyn Forest, around 20 kilometres from Smolensk, where the majority of the murders took place. The memorial complex itself has served as a venue for exhibitions and lectures since its opening in 2000, but the Russian Ministry of Culture has now decided to allocate the 11.9 million roubles ($186,600) deemed necessary for the construction of a museum building to host permanent and temporary exhibitions, multimedia displays and film screenings.
Whilst the existing memorial — which features a ten-metre tall wooden Orthodox cross and a plinth dedicated to Soviet prisoners of war — was jointly funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Polish Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites, the new museum is a solely Russian venture. According to Dmitrii Ofitserov-Belsky from the Moscow Higher School of Economics, the new construction is “hardly likely” to “initiate a new stage in Russo-Polish relations”.
The Katyn massacre, which was proposed by Lavrenty Beria, the head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and approved by Joseph Stalin was carried out across several sites in the spring of 1940. It is estimated that nearly half the Polish officer class was killed in the mass shootings. Until 1990, the Soviet government claimed that the bodies discovered in mass graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943 were victims of Nazi reprisals. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russo-Polish relations have been repeatedly strained by both Russian officials’ failure to declassify and release many files relating to the massacre to the Polish government, and their refusal to recognise the crime as a war crime or an act of genocide.
In 2010 the Russian State Duma approved a ruling declaring Stalin personally responsible for ordering the massacre. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights declared the massacre a war crime.