Send Us A Message
(202) 629-9500
Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
900 15th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20005

The Secret Soviet Genocide of WWII

The Secret Soviet Genocide of WWII

This article was written by Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, Ph.D., 2020-2021 VOC Senior Research Fellow in Poland Studies. It is the first in a series of five articles about The Katyn Forest Massacre. To view all five articles, click here.

In the spring of 1940, at least 21,787 Polish people (mostly the Polish intelligentsia and high-ranking Polish soldiers, officers, and officials) were murdered by the Soviets in the territory of the USSR. The Polish prisoners of war were killed with a gunshot to the back of the head. The truth about what happened was supposed to be silenced and remains unknown.

These killings are known collectively as the Katyn Massacre (although there were some other places besides the Katyn forest where Polish soldiers were killed, the bodies were first discovered in the Katyn Forest). The Katyn Forest Massacre was a pivotal moment in world history, for three reasons: First, it was the first genocide of WWII. Second, it was the first genocide of prisoners of war. And third, it was also the first crime in which two nations blamed each other for a long time.

The history of the genocidal Katyn Massacre began long before April 1940. On August 23, 1939, Germany and Russia signed the German-Russian non-aggression treaty (commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) at the Moscow Kremlin. Pursuant to this document (negotiated at the Kremlin during the night on August 23–24, 1939, by Hitler and Stalin via telephone), Poland was to be divided up by these two future aggressors.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west, north, and south with five German armies—the most modern, experienced, and powerful military force in the world. The Third Reich didn’t declare war on Poland but alluded to the protection of the German minority allegedly jeopardized by the Poles as a pretext.

Although Poland was protected by agreements and protocols, neither Great Britain nor France, after declaring war on Germany on September 3, 1939, offered Poland any military assistance.

On September 17, 1939, the Red Army entered Polish territory. The USSR did not declare war on Poland; the official reason given for entering Polish territory was to help the Russians’ Belorussian and Ukrainian brothers. The Red Army disarmed the Polish troops and either shot the Polish officers or sent them to prisoner-of-war camps in the USSR.

The prisoners were to be sent to several different Russian camps at Ostashkov, Jukhnov, Kozelsk, Putivl, Starobelsk, Kozelshin, Yuzh, and Oranki, three of which (Ostashov, Kozelsk, and Starobelsk) were “special” camps designated for the most dangerous anti-Soviet “elements.”

The Soviets divided the group of Polish prisoners of war into two sub-groups, one of which contained the most dangerous (for the Soviet Union) individuals: Polish officers, police officers, and law enforcement officials. The other group comprised members of services responsible for defending the state. This second group of officers was separated from the others and sent to the “special” camps in Kozelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov.

These three “special” Soviet camps were designated specifically for Polish soldiers who were not only officers but also other intellectual leaders such as doctors, lawyers, officials, and clergy—professionals with higher-education degrees. It needs to be emphasized that most of the soldiers in the Polish Armed Forces were reserve officers who had been called into the army due to the war. They had fought in the Polish-Soviet War; however, after the war, some of them stayed in the army and many were reservists who had been the core of the country’s professional middle and upper class.

At this point, it should be noted that the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) treated these kinds of prisoners as the Polish elite and interrogated them to see whether some could be converted to communism, but to no great success. The whole group of “special” prisoners was investigated and infiltrated,[1] and attempts were made to co-opt them.

At the beginning of March 1940, the Politburo approved Beria’s proposal to treat the Polish prisoners of war as “enemies of the Soviet authorities filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government.” They should have been treated as prisoners of war in accordance with international treaties and convention, but instead, they were secretly killed without any formal charges brought against them, without any investigation, and without any trial or indictment.

The killings started on April 3, 1940, and continued until May 1940. The Katyn Massacre didn’t take place in one or two days, as there were almost twenty-two thousand people who were killed. Executions happened only at night, in strict secrecy. Therefore, the killings must have been stretched over time.

Historians have presented the circumstances of the executions in each of the camps in detail (as best they could). Benjamin B. Fisher, one of the history staff at the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, alleged that the NKVD—the Soviet police and secret police—filmed executions carried out in Smolensk, either at the local prison or in the basement of its headquarters. It is believed that during the Korean War, the Soviets gave North Korea a copy of the film for instructional purposes.”[2] However, this hypothesis has not been substantiated.

The 4,410 prisoners from the Kozelsk camp were killed near Smolensk. In the Katyn Forest, at an NKVD holiday resort, the Soviets dug a deep hole in the ground. Due to the arrangement of the bodies, historians infer that the prisoners must have stood or knelt over the burial pits (although some may have been shot while lying face down in the pit). The prisoners were shot in the back of the head with a Walther P 38 pistol.

The 6,314 prisoners from the Ostashkov camp (the police officers) were murdered in the facilities of the NKWD in Kalinin (nowadays Tver) and buried in Mednoye. The shootings took place after dark, with around 250 men killed each night.

A description of the killing of the inmates from Ostashkov was provided by, among others, the head of the Board of the District NKVD in the Kalinin/Tver region in 1940, Major Dmitry Stepanovich Tokarev. When questioned by the prosecutor (Yablokov), Tokarev said,

It was already on the first day. So we went. And then I saw all this horror. We came there. After a few minutes Blokhin [one of the NKVD officers who came from Moscow] put on his special clothing: a brown leather cap, a long leather brown apron, leather brown gloves with cuffs above the elbows. It made a huge impression on me—I saw the executioner! The charges were not read to the convicts. After being dragged to the cell, the victim was immediately killed by a shot in the back of the head.[3]

The 3,739 prisoners from the Starobelsk camp were murdered in the basement of the NKVD’s oblast headquarters in Kharkov, where the inmates traveled to by train. The bodies were buried in a forested area near the settlement of Piatykhatky and were found after the Katyn forest discovery.

The killing of Polish victims also took place in Soviet prisons and jails. On March 5, 1940, the Politburo agreed to treat Polish prisoners of war as “enemies of the Soviet authorities filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government.”[4] For many Poles held in Soviet camps and prisons, this was a death sentence without an investigation, trial, indictment, or any formal charges against them. Although the precise number of victims is unknown, there were 11,000 Poles mentioned in the March 5 decision.

Regarding the death toll of the Katyn Massacre, 21,857 victims were mentioned in A. Shelepin’s note dated March 9, 1959, for Nikita Khrushchev, which seems to be the most likely number as it is attributed to the interim knowledge of NKVD and officials.

The Katyn Massacre was the first genocide of WWII, although unknown or forgotten by many. Moreover, there are still people today (researchers, writers, journalists) who dispute and challenge that the USSR was responsible. In November 2020 the Polish Embassy reacted to the alleged attempts to deny the Soviets’ responsibility for the KatynForest Massacre that took place during the conference organized by Russian Military Historical Society.[5]

Therefore, we must never forget the victims of the Katyn Massacre, nor the Soviet Union’s brutal crimes.


[1] As pointed out by A. M. Cienciala: “The whole Polish officer contingent was subjected to detailed investigation. They were to be ‘infiltrated’ by agents and informers recruited from among the prisoners” (A. M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski, Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; London, 2007).

[2] Benjamin B. Fischer, “The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field,” Studies in Intelligence (Winter 1999-2000),

[3] “The Katyn Massacre – Mechanisms of Genocide,” The Warsaw Institute Review, May 18, 2020,

[4] The quote mentioned Janowiec and Others v. Russia, European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, October 21, 2013 .{%22appno%22:[%2255508/07%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-127684%22]}

[5] See more: “Polish embassy protests Russian attempts to deny Stalinist crimes,” The First News, November 25, 2020,