Europe@debate in Hamburg

Posted on 22. November 2012

by Ksenia Srednyak

ksenia-srednyak-2012-2015-modifiedEurope@debate in Hamburg

November, 8th, 6:50 p.m. The conference hall of the Koerber foundation in Hamburg is filling with visitors. Аmong them I see people of different ages, recognize German, English, Polish languages… On the screen there is a topic of today’s debate – “A tardy justice or juridical fight? – The sentence of the ECHR on the Katyn massacre in 1940”. My colleagues Slawomir Parus and Annemarie Kahl are sitting next to me. We all are going to take part in the discussion on the stage; we all seem a bit nervous to be there very soon…

7:00 p.m. The talks in the hall ceased. The event starts. Angelika Nussberger, the German judge of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), is the main speaker for today. She gave us a very lively input on the history, structure and jurisdiction of the ECHR, putting special emphasis on the crimes of the war time. In April 2012 the chamber of Ms Nussberger dealt with a case that concerned complaints about the adequacy of the investigation by the Russian authorities into the Katyn massacre. The delivered sentence was received extremely ambiguous. As Ms Nussberger said, both in the Russian and Polish embassies a bottle of champagne was uncorked.

As the participants in the debate we all had a different background (Slawomir and Annemarie are specialists in law and I am a historian), that is why Matthias Haas, the moderator of the event, invited us to speak about our national perspectives on the past and the influence of history on the present – to make our discussion equal and understandable for the public. And from that moment on we got into a lively discussion.
I won’t retell the statements of my colleagues – hopefully Annemarie and Slawomir will add their own posts. And I won’t write about the event itself, let scholars who specialize in this theme do it. My focus is a historical memory. It is an important brick which helps to construct our national and individual identities. What we remember, how we remember, what we do not remember– all of that are a significant description of every society.

Historical memory

Historical memory as a structure is extremely complex. It consists of different layers such as personal / family experience, traditional culture of memory, the results of historical studies, the politics of memory, etc. Besides that people don not adopt historical memory passively, they always do it in an active way.
I analysed the recent materials in the Russian media dealing with it. It did not surprised me much that Katyn was a second-rate topic for public opinion. Among the most disputed issues are the crash of the Polish President’s plane under Smolensk in April 2010 and an official statement of the Russian Parliament “About the Katyn tragedy and its victims”, adopted in November 2010. In this document the parliamentarians confirm the guilt of Stalin for the Katyn massacre and express a hope that from now on “the relationship between Russia and Poland would take a turn to the better”.

As for the judgment of the ECHR on the Katyn case in April 2012, it did not become a subject of large public discussion in Russia. Most publications just gave a summary of the official press release. They also noticed that the decision seemed not to be final. It was underlined that the opinions of the judges were divided in two parts and the decision was made by such a symbolic majority – one vote only.

I asked approx. 20 of my friends (by the way, many of them studied History), if they heard about the judgment of the ECHR. 18 of them answered in the negative. One of the answers was: “No, haven’t heard. What are you talking about? Do they judge history??? I don’t think that it’s possible”. I mean that such a low interest in the Katyn case is based on the lack of historical knowledge about the event. Katyn is still a white spot in our historical memory. People who grew up in the USSR have to revise their understanding of history – it often leads to the disappointment in studying it, history escaped from their interests, they don’t trust history and historians. On the other hand, there is a large number of people who – in spite of the official position of the Russian government – still believe that the Katyn massacre was the crime of the Nazis.

Historical knowledge

I’m especially interested what the young people know and think about Katyn. For them the main source of information is a schoolbook. I’ve looked through some Russian history schoolbooks – all of them contain a mention about the Katyn crime but as rule it is not more than one paragraph, please see below:

Russian History (Ed. by A. Danilov), 2012“During the Soviet campaign in Poland 450 000 Polish soldiers including 18 000 officers were captured. According to the decision of the Politbureau of the Central Committee 21 857 officers were shot. That decision could be dealing with the punishment of the “belopolyaki” [the Polish who supported the White Army] for the destruction of the captive soldiers of the Red Army during and after the Soviet-Polish war in 1920, when 60 000 soldiers were killed. Both crimes remain a nonhealing wound in the relationship between Russia and Poland”.

Russian History (Ed. by A. Levandovsky), 2010
“The Socialist reforms on the joint territories accompanied with terror and deportations to Siberia. Besides that in spring 1940 almost 22 000 captured Polish officers, policemen, landowners from the Soviet concentration camps and prisons were killed”.

What do young people think?

To see how young people apprehend the historical information about Katyn I conducted a small survey among my students. On purpose I asked to participate students who do not specialize in history. So my respondents were the first-year students of a Chemistry faculty, 50 young people in the age of 17-19. The questionnaire consists of 3 items:
1) What do you know about the Katyn tragedy?
2) How did you get information about it?
3) What is the influence of the history of XXth century on the present relationship between Russia, Poland and Germany?

33 students wrote that they did not know about Katyn and what happened there. 4 respondents gave full detailed answers. The remaining 13 students wrote they had heard about it from TV and history books, but do not remember what is all about.
As for the last question, 19 students found difficulty in replying about the influence of history. The others underlined that as a rule it played a negative role and rather prevents than helps us to build a strong and friendly relationship between our countries. In addition 3 students wrote that the relations with Germany are much better than with Poland, the process of reconciliation between Russia and Poland is at the very beginning. One respondent mentioned that it depends on the generation: young people apprehend history not so painfully as their parents and grandparents.

20:30. The debate came to the end. We still feel excited and hot because of the light on the stage. The phrase we exchange on the run is “Not enough time to discuss”. Did the debate really come to the end?…