Mary Dejevsky: It's time to purge the long and painful legacy of Katyn

National image is complex and not easily changed in a positive direction

Share
Related Topics

The Russian government has just embarked on its latest attempt to improve its image. Its first fumbling efforts began in 2004, when then President Putin realised how negatively both he and Russia were regarded abroad. Two years later, Russia appointed the American PR agency, Ketchum. Now a home-grown commission has been created, answerable directly to President Medvedev, who is said to be unhappy – as well he might be – with how Russia was cast as the villain in the war with Georgia.

National image, though, is not something easily changed – not in a positive direction, at least. And there is more bad news heading Russia's way, with the international release of Katyn, an authoritative and affecting film about the massacre of Polish officers in a Russian forest in 1940. It is the work of the eminent Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, whose father was among those who died.

In many ways, the film is a hymn to Poland's officer class, for whom homeland and honour took precedence even over family. Depicting the military elite as the product, even the highest expression, of Poland's pre-war middle class, it also immortalises a bourgeois way of life that was mostly hidden once the iron curtain had descended. It reminds today's Polish middle class of the tradition to which they belong.

Even more, though, Katyn is a study in truth and consequences. As such, it could not have been made in Poland even as recently as 1989. For Katyn – the word massacre is understood – was a taboo subject in post-war Poland, unless you accepted the officially-ordained lie that the killers were not Russian, but German. As one character says, ignorant of the double meaning obvious to the audience: "Your attitude to Katyn reflects your attitude to Poland."

By shifting the official date of the killings by a year, Soviet propagandists incriminated the Germans who had by then occupied Western Russia, and co-opted Katyn into the USSR's patriotic anti-Nazi myth-making. Poles had to accept a false date and false perpetrators for an atrocity that annihilated their brightest and best, or hold their peace.

It was only when the Soviet bloc unravelled that Poles could speak the truth without risk of persecution. In the meantime, two generations had grown up with the presumption that all officials lied and that they had to be party to those lies to qualify for advancement. Wajda's film represents a national catharsis.

It would be heartening to believe that Katyn will be seen as being less about wicked Russians than about the truth. And Wajda's narrative, while featuring mostly upright Poles, allows that not all were high-minded. Just as the "good" German is a cliché of British war films, so Wajda also provides a "good" Russian.

It is possible, too, that Poles who have grown up since the end of the Cold War will identify with Katyn less than their elders. Internet message boards suggest that younger Poles – as cynical, perhaps, as their British counterparts – are impatient with set-piece glorification of a past social order. Their comments are more critical than you might imagine.

All that said, however, Katyn is unlikely to do a great deal either for Russia's international image or for Polish-Russian relations. And it is, in a way, tragically predictable that the film's release comes just as post-war tensions seemed finally to be in easing and a more normal relationship seemed in prospect.

National image is a complex phenomenon, made up not only of first-hand experience, but inherited memory and expectations. Nor can it be completely controlled by national governments. The real Kazakhstan had to contend, out of the blue, with the fictitious Borat, while the highly negative image of the US in Bush's second term was reversed, literally overnight, by the election of Barack Obama.

But Russia is not powerless to limit the damage from Katyn. Although the late Boris Yeltsin, acknowledged the truth, as have several commissions of investigation, the Kremlin's public stance remains ambiguous. Even now, some Russian publications treat Katyn as a German atrocity, or something unresolved. Medvedev could rectify that: an official ceremony at Katyn, a formal acceptance of responsibility, even perhaps an invitation to Wajda to present his film in Russia. It would not change everything at a stroke, but it would be a modest start to a new, and more truthful, age.

independent.co.uk/mary-dejevsky

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links