November 28, 2017

Katyn: Mysterious “discoveries” of the Katyn documents

January 3, 2011

The circumstances surrounding the discovery of “Beria’s letter no. 794/B” and the rest of the Katyn documents are complicated, to say the least. To begin with, we have Mikhail Gorbachev’s memoirs, “Zhizn’ i reformy”(“Life and reforms”) from 1995, where he states, that he first saw “Beria’s letter” in December 1991, when he opened the “closed package no. 1”. Gorbachev says that the last part of the letter was “crossed out, and on top of it there was a note written by Stalin’s blue pencil: “The Politburo decision”. With the signatures: “Agree – Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov …”.

Gorbachev handed over this package containing “Beria’s letter no. 794/B” and other Katyn documents to Boris Yeltsin on December 24, 1991, after having read its contents aloud in the presence of Alexander Yakovlev. The second time these documents “turned up” again was in September 1992. But “Beria’s letter”, that was found in September 1992 had neither the text that was crossed-out by Stalin, nor the note “The Politburo decision” written with a blue pen, which Gorbachev had described. Name signatures there were also written in a different order: “Agree – Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov …”. In addition, Beria’s name on page four was crossed out with a blue pencil, judging from the handwriting by Stalin himself, and instead they put Bashtakov’s name there, who was Deputy Chief of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), under Beria.

It is possible, that Gorbachev had mixed things up in his memoirs, but it can also be so, that he actually saw another “Beria’s letter”. In connection to this, doubts and suspicion arise regarding the authenticity of “Beria’s letter”, that was found in September 1992. These doubts are strengthened by the story, that is usually told about the discovery of those documents. It’s officially considered, that the “closed package no. 1”, which contained “Beria’s letter” and other documents from the Politburo of the CC AUCP(b), was found on September 24, 1992 in the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation (formerly known as the Archive of the Central Committee) by a commission lead by the Chief of the Presidential Administration Yuri Petrov, Presidential Adviser Dmitry Volkogonov and Director of the Archives Andrey Korotkov.

When the package was opened, the Commission members understood the importance of their discovery and immediately reported about it to the President of Russia. Yeltsin then “gave an order, that Rudolf Pikhoya, in his role as the director of the Russian archives, would fly to Warsaw and hand over those sensational documents to President Walesa” (“Katynskij sindrom v sovetsko-pol’skikh otnosheniyakh”, Moscow, ROSSPEN, 2001, p. 397).

On October 15, 2009, the member of the Russian State Duma Andrey Makarov appeared at the round table meeting “Falsification of history and historical myths as a tool of modern politics” held at the Center for Social Conservative Politics, and told the true story about the discovery of the Katyn documents. These were indeed found in September 1992 during the ongoing trial against the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), although not in any archives, but in Yeltsin’s personal safe. Makarov told that he (most likely together with Sergey Shakhray, Russia’s former Deputy Prime Minister) came to Yeltsin. “And we said: Boris Nikolayevich, the CPSU trial goes rather badly. He opened the safe, in order to clearly show how it all works, took out six folders from there and said: okay, take these ones. In his presence, we looked at what it was. He took two of the folders back and said: no, it’s still too early to talk about this today. Then, by chance, I saw the name, what it was about, which made my hair rise. And no one in the country knew anything about it yet. The problem was that one of the folders, laid before us, was about Katyn” (“Nashe Vremya”, Nr. 139, October 26-November 1, 2009).

There is nothing strange about this story, that could raise any doubts whatsoever, except for the fact that Makarov saw a folder named “Katyn”. This could never happen, since neither the folder nor the “closed package” have any notes on them that would indicate that they contain documents about Katyn. In order to understand, that inside these there were documents about Katyn, they needed to open not only the folder, but also the “closed package” itself. It is obvious that Makarov was present when the “closed package no. 1” was opened in Yeltsin’s office. But is it really so important to know, who actually found this package and how this discovery was made?

Everyone knows, that people start lying about different things when they want to conceal an inconvenient truth. In our case, the information about the fact, that the “closed package” was stored in Yeltsin’s safe for almost one year, makes it possible to ask an uncomfortable question. Why didn’t Yeltsin hand those documents over to the Polish President Lech Walesa on May 21, 1992, when he was on an official state visit in Moscow?

There cannot be any doubts that Walesa did discuss the Katyn issue during his personal meeting with Boris Yeltsin. For the Poles, this problem has always been an issue of top priority in their relations with Russia. But, apparently, Yeltsin seems to have confined himself to general discussions and kept quiet about the Katyn documents, which were stored in his safe.

But in September 1992 Yeltsin gave orders (“immediately” as they say) to send the Katyn documents to Warsaw. What prevented him from doing exactly the same thing already in May that year? Whether you want it or not, but you start to listen to the researchers, who claim, that these documents were still “under development” at the time and that they were not yet “properly” designed.

The situation cleared somewhat on March 28, 2008, when the well-known Russian historian Yuri Zhukov said in a radio program on the radio station “Serebryannyj dozhd'”, that he in the early 1990s (in 1993 or 1994), in connection with the CPSU trial, requested access to materials from the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation regarding the “criminal” activities of the Soviet Communist Party.

They brought him a “thin folder”, which contained various documents. Among these Zhukov saw a photocopy of “Beria’s letter to Stalin” written on one page only and with a proposal to execute some 2.000 or 3.000 captured Polish officers, who had been found guilty of war crimes and other crimes too. The now famous “Beria’s letter”, typed on four pages, and which was found in 1992, contains a proposal to shoot 25.700 captured and arrested Poles.

The following day, on March 29, 2008, Yuri Zhukov was also interviewed via telephone by the independent Katyn researcher Sergey Strygin. Zhukov told Strygin an interesting detail: Beria’s signature was present in the document, which he saw in the archives. In the “real” four-page “Beria’s letter” his signature is placed on the last page of the document.

Explanations suggesting that Beria would have sent two successive letters to Stalin proposing to execute the Poles cannot be considered as serious. In the CPSU, and earlier in the AUCP(b), they stuck to an established practice. When it came to issues which were of highest importance to the country and which required a decision “at the highest level”, they always performed a preliminary oral check on the forthcoming decision. Therefore, the proposals and requests that were sent to the Kremlin were thoroughly worked through and formed the final version. In addition, the initiative to the decision-making regarding the execution of the Poles could only come from Stalin. It was he, who gave Beria the order to prepare the letter. Given that, talking about two different letters is absolutely out of the question.

There is no doubt that Yuri Zhukov had held in his hands a copy of the genuine “Beria’s letter” no. 794/B addressed to Stalin, which was dated February 29, 1940. Zhukov’s testimony is confirmed by another source. In December 2007, when Vladislav Shved met Viktor Galkin (the former employee at the General Department of the Central Committee, who had worked with the “closed package no 1” regarding Katyn), Galkin told him, that he in April 1981, on behalf of Konstantin Chernenko (who at that point was the director of the public sector of the Central Committee) delivered “Beria’s letter” from the “closed package no. 1” to the then KGB chief Yuri Andropov. There is a note about this on the folder itself, which contained the “closed package no. 1”.

Galkin argued, that “Beria’s letter” which he delivered to Andropov, was written on one page and that it was about the execution of about 2.000-3.000 Polish officers. He saw the letter in Chernenko’s study. After Chernenko had opened the “closed package no. 1”, he gave Galkin instructions to put the letter in an envelope and to seal it. Regarding the four-page “Beria’s letter” (available only as a scanned color copy) Galkin explained, that he had never seen such a document.

At first Vladislav Shved considered Viktor Galkin’s testimony with certain skepticism, and assumed that he had confused this document with the transcript of the Politburo’s decision from March 5, 1940, which is also written on one page. Only later, after Yuri Zhukov had told his story, he understood that Galkin’s story from memory was correct. To say anything more definite about “Beria’s letter no. 794/B” is not possible at this moment, not until we get the opportunity to conduct an independent and objective expert study of it.

To add even more to the many question marks and doubts surrounding the “closed package no. 1”, one should mention what Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in 1995 in his memoirs. There he tells about how he in April 1989, just before Wojciech Jaruzelski’s upcoming visit to the Soviet Union, reviewed the Katyn documents. Gorbachev says there were two Katyn folders (not just one!) and that they “both contained documentation, which confirmed the version of the Commission led by the academian Nikolai Burdenko. There was a collection of various materials, and they all supported that version” (“Zhizn’ i reformy”, book 2, 1995, p. 346).

There is also some real evidence that allow us to have serious thoughts about what the Katyn folder actually contained in December 1991. As already mentioned, Alexander Yakovlev was present during the handing over of the “closed package no. 1” from Gorbachev to Yeltsin on December 24, 1991. The package was found (according to one of the versions) by the Russian archive workers, who insisted that Gorbachev should be notified about it one day before his retirement from his post as the President of the Soviet Union. On several occasions afterwards (including in his book “Sumerki” (“Twilight”, Materik, Moscow, 2003), and also in a live sent talk show on Russian television called “Kak eto bylo”) Yakovlev claimed, that the Katyn folder also contained a so called “Serov’s letter”. But no such letter has ever been found, neither then nor later, why we may wonder about what kind of a document Yakovlev was relating to. Was he talking about “Beria’s letter”, but happened to say wrong, and did so time and time again?

A clue to that mystery may lie in the recently published draft copies of “Beria’s letter”, presented by Viktor Ilyukhin on November 24, 2010. He received these drafts on May 25, 2010 from an anonymous person, who contacted him and confessed, that he had been involved in a forgery group, that was active during the first half of the 1990s, i.e. during the time when Yeltsin was the President of the Russian Federation. The last page of the draft letter contains a peculiar note: “20). Bashtakov was head of the NKVD secretariat! L.P. Beria would hardly have entrusted him such a task? Replace with Abakumov? K. .. ov? Serov? (check the dates)”. Here Serov is mentioned as a possible substitute to Bashtakov to lead the NKVD troika, which would sentence the Poles to death, but they still didn’t include his name in the “final document” and kept Bashtakov. With that in mind, Yakovlev’s repeated stories about “Serov’s letter” could actually be a Freudian slip of the tongue, i.e. that he unconsciously said too much.

The current Russian government and President Dmitry Medvedev pretend as if nothing special has happened, and call all the critics that has come up, which overthrow their official version of the Katyn events, for the “attempts to whitewash Stalin and his associates”. Such attitude is not very constructive. It would have been much better to let a group of independent experts examine the “closed package no. 1” and once and for all put an end to all speculations about its authenticity. But as long as they hide these “originals” away from both the public and the scientific community, they continue to confirm the suspicions that the Katyn affair has been falsified. And probably this is the very thing that has happened.


Gorbachev, Mikhail, Zhizn’ i reformy (2 books), Novosti, Moscow, 1995

Ilyukhin, Viktor, O rezolyutsii Gosdumy RF “Pamyati zhertv Katynskoi tragedii” (published on November 24, 2010)
(this article contains the five page draft copy of “Beria’s letter”)

Interview with historian Yuri Zhukov on the radio station Serebryanyj dozhd’, 100,1 FM, March 28, 2008, 08:05 MSK/MSD

Istorik Yuri Zhukov na r/s Serebryannyj dozhd’ (28 marta, 2008) (thread from the discussion forum on the website “The Truth About Katyn”)

Katyn documents from the “closed package no. 1” (published on April 28, 2010 on Rosarkhiv’s official website)

Makarov, Andrey, Ya videl nazvaniye papki: volosy dybom vstayut…, from Nashe Vremya, Nr. 139, October 26-November 1, 2009

Shved, Vladislav, Katyn-2010. Novaya stranitsa ili…? (published on April 30, 2010)

Shved, Vladislav, Vnov’ o Katyni ili 70-letiye katynskogo rasstrela, kak lozhka degtya k 65-letiyu Velikoj Pobedy (published on February 14, 2010)

Yakovlev, Alexander, Sumerki, OOO Izdatel’skaya firma Materik, Moscow, 2003 (excerpt from the book)

Yazhborovskaya I.S., Yablokov A.Yu., Parsadanova V.S., Katynskij sindrom v sovetsko-pol’skikh otnosheniyakh, Moscow, ROSSPEN, 2001