Death in Stalin’s forest

Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn

by Victor Zaslavsky

Telos Press, 2008. 133 pp.

I hesitate to review anything connected to the Telos school. The journal has undergone a precipitous theoretical decline from its origin as a center of phenomenological Marxism, critical theory, and council communism to become a vehicle for the Americanization of French New Right thinking, the intellectualization of reactionary and racist Italian regionalism, and the Left philosophical rehabilitation of Karl Schmitt.

The origins of the criticism of the Telos school have, however, steered them to some political positions that deserve a hearing. Among the products of this critical residue is Victor Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn. Zaslavsky (who passed away late last year) was a Russian sociologist and political exile who lived and wrote in Italy.

Zaslavsky’s book is a devastating look at the legacy of an almost totally unknown (unknown to Americans, that is) period of history, the span of almost two years during which Nazi Germany and the U.S. S. R. were enthusiastically cooperating partners in an attempt to reshape Europe in the interests of the ruling class of the respective states.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939, was on the surface a diplomatic pledge of non-aggression. In the long tradition of secret state conduct, however, the real content of the pact was a detailed plan to extinguish Poland as an independent country and to divide its territory between the two signatories. On September 1, 1939, the event hanging in the air for so much of the 1930s happened: Germany invaded Poland and initiated what was to become World War II. True to its pledge, Russia invaded the eastern half of Poland and annexed it to the U.S.S.R.

Zaslavsky gives a brisk and fascinating account of the impact of this chain of events on the Communist Parties of the western countries. After an extremely brief period of disorientation, the parties, so adept at dancing to the tune called from Moscow, fell into line and launched political attacks on Poland as an oppressor of its minority population of Ukranians and Byleorussians. (The impact on the Communists’ main opponents on the left, the Trotskyists, was no less severe, although it fall outside the scope of Zaslavsky’s book.)

To fully carry through its policy on annexation, the Russians had to incorporate the conquered territories economically and socially as well as politically. To do so, the old social structure needed to be destroyed. Stalin had more than a decade of experience in such matters, having annihilated peasant society in Ukraine in the early 1930s and physically eliminated not only the Old Bolsheviks in the Great Purge, but also many thousands of ordinary workers who were caught up in mass arrests ordered from above. The Russians quickly set up prison camps for the huge numbers of Polish army officers, soldiers, and police they had captured and the Politburo began devising its solution to the Polish problem.

In short, the solution was mass murder. The captured Poles who were not deported to camps in Siberia and elsewhere were summarily executed and buried in a forest village near Smolensk called Katyn.

Zaslavsky details the long and sordid history of the Russian cover-up of the Katyn Massacre, which lasted, incredibly, up through the Perestroika era. Initial and not insubstantial assistance was provided in this effort by Stalin’s wartime partners in the Grand Alliance, the U.S. and Britain.

The book is brief and highly readable. Although Zaslavsky is good in detailing the West’s complicity in the decades of the denial of the massacre, his political position seems to be nothing more than a sophisticated liberalism and it is not clear to me the nature of the affinity of Zaslavsky’s work with the current theoretical tendency of Telos.