Georgia and the Dangers of Putinism

I was watching Katyn and I had Georgia on my mind.

The Katyn Forest massacre remains one of the most notorious crimes of the twentieth century. In the spring of 1940, the Soviet security forces murdered and buried in mass graves some 15,000 Polish officers taken prisoners of war after the Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Of itself, the mass killing of Polish officers hardly stands out on the blood-soaked canvas of the last century’s history; after all, there have been hundreds of Katyn massacres committed during the decades of the communist reign, and hundreds of other mass graves lie throughout the forests and the tundra from Belarus to the Baring Strait. What made Katyn exceptional is the controversy the case attracted ever since the Wehrmacht found and exhumed the bodies in 1943, and the impact the massacre has had on international relations, including, arguably, the genesis of the Cold War.

Katyn is a somber and powerful cinematic memorial to those who were murdered and those who were left behind, made by Andrzej Wajda, the greatest living Polish film director. Wajda’s father was one of the officers murdered by the Soviet NKVD, and his family had to live for decades with the official lie that he and 14,700 others were really murdered by the Germans. Wajda’s film was nominated for the Best Foreign Movie Oscar earlier this year, eventually losing to Austria’s Counterfeiters, a more traditional take on World War Two and survival in concentration camps.

Watching Katyn on DVD the other night I was thinking about my great-grandfather, a Major in the Polish Army who was one of the lucky ones allowed to exit the Soviet Union with General Anders, and who had then fought the length of the Italian Peninsula with the II Polish Army Corp, including at Monte Cassino, the Stalingrad of the Western front.

But mostly my thoughts turned to Georgia. Once you get over the irony of being lectured that the right to ethnic self-determination trumps national sovereignty and territorial integrity by someone who had despoiled Chechnya, you might be forgiven for thinking rather melodramatically that something more than people died on the streets of Gori. Perhaps it was the great geopolitical hope of the past two decades that Russia would turn out to be a normal country, like most other post-communist states. That hope was arguably dying the death of thousand cuts over the years, becoming less credible with every new authoritarian measure at home and every next saber rattling abroad. But invading a sovereign democratic neighbor must surely count as the Rubicon of sorts.

Soon on the heels of the Georgian incursion came the nuclear blackmail delivered to Poland by a middling military apparatchik. There is both more and less than it seems to the threat that Poland risks a nuclear attack as a consequence of signing onto America’s missile shield program. More, because we have not heard such strong rhetoric coming out of Moscow in quite some time; less, because the Russian words rather than a threat were a re-statement of the Cold War doctrine that in an event of nuclear war with the United States, America’s allies hosting the U.S. military installations would become targets as much as the American mainland. Arguably, it is a sign of progress of sorts that over the course of two decades Poland went from being targeted by the American nuclear missiles to being targeted by the Russian ones.