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Unearthing Soviet Massacres Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Captured British and American officers observe a German army doctor examining the remains of a Soviet massacre victim in Katyn Forest, Russia, in 1943. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann) [LARGER IMAGE]

T he graves of 25,700 Polish citizens massacred by the Soviets in April and May 1940 have been unearthed at three sites in western Russia, providing evidence for a genocide indictment the Polish government plans to pursue in the Polish General Court. The excavations, carried out by Muzeum Okregowe w Sieradzu archaeologist Marek Urbanski, yielded thousands of German-made bullets bought by the Soviets between 1930 and 1935, proof of Russian involvement in the massacres. Soviet officials had blamed the killings on Hitler. Urbanski says the executions were directed mainly at Polish army officers captured at the outset of World War II and were part of a Soviet plan to exterminate the Polish intelligentsia. Some 14,700 executed officers have been identified by their uniforms and other military paraphernalia.

Nearly three weeks after Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Stalin ordered Soviet troops into the eastern part of the country. Captured Polish officers were interned in concentration camps at Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostaszkow, and, six months later, were executed in Katyn and Miednoje forests and in a wooded area on the outskirts of Kharkov. The German army discovered the Katyn Forest massacre site after its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Urbanski's three seasons of excavations in woods near Kharkov revealed that the majority of victims there had been shot in the back of the head with their hands tied behind their backs and their coats wrapped around their heads. A number were finished off with bayonets or a second shot.

Excavations at the massacre sites, which began in 1994, were undertaken to determine the extent of the burial grounds and how many bodies they contained, and in preparation for Polish military cemeteries. The Kharkov burial area, the most thoroughly studied, yielded more than 10,000 artifacts associated with 6,400 bodies, including 2,100 Russians, victims of Stalin's purges, as well as 4,300 Poles. Of the Poles, 3,820 were officers interned at Starobielsk; the rest were probably civilians arrested during the short-lived Soviet occupation.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America