Fragments from a War Diary, Part #48
The so-called “Katyn Massacre” was one of the ugliest consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 by which Hitler and Stalin agreed to forestall war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union so that Hitler could focus his attentions upon war with Western Europe and the United Kingdom, and in particular the invasion of France and the Low Countries (now known as “Benelux”) and an attempted invasion of Britain. The most invidious term of the pact was the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, and after the Pact was signed in Moscow in August 1939 Hitler invaded western Poland - an act that caused the United Kingdom to declare war on Germany - while Stalin annexed eastern Poland. The Soviet Union promptly rounded up Polish army officers and intellectuals that they deemed to present a risk to the Soviet occupation of Poland; and, in April and May 1940, they shot them all. Most of the 22,000 people summarily executed without rhyme or reason pursuant to an unholy agreement with Adolf Hitler were slaughtered in the Katyn forest west of the Russian city of Smolensk close to the border with Belarus and approximately half way between Minsk and Moscow. However several thousand of the Poles were murdered in a park just north of Kharkiv, at a site in what is now a Kharkiv suburb called Pyatykhatky (in English: the Five Houses).
Today I rose early, before my duties were due to commence, and decided to head off to visit the memorial park at the site where the massacre took place. The Polish officers and intellectuals were not the only people Stalin’s NKVD (secret police) had massacred there. In the 1930’s, Kharkiv intellectuals had been killed there as well. Kharkiv, being a city well inside the Soviet Union and a bastion of NKVD control and social infiltration, seems to have been a popular place for Stalin to arrange his mass executions. I have decided to visit the sites of these mass killings to try to understand more about the events that led to them, the role they play in the history of the region and the effects they must have had upon the population living in Kharkiv at the time. However I ended up with more questions than answers.
The site at Pyatykhatky is not straightforward to reach with public transport - or with any transport, as I soon came to learn. It is located in a gated, locked park off a highway between the suburb and the edges of the city centre proper. This highway is essentially a broad motorway through a forest and nobody lives in the vicinity. I took the Kharkiv metro (of which I shall surely write more in a later essay) to the end of the line, apparently confident in my mobile telephone’s predictions that a bus would be waiting for me to take me to the site from the final stop on the train. I was to be disappointed in that expectation. There was of course no bus as a timetable stored in some remote computer server had predicted. Instead the metro spat me out in a northern Kharkiv suburb in which many of the buildings had had their windows blown out and there was little in the way of activity, and nothing in the way of public transport, to be observed. I contemplated walking, but it was to be 11 kilometres down a Soviet-era motorway with the customary road blocks and military checkpoints so I decided against that course.
Instead I summoned up my telephone once more and I requested a ride on “Bolt”, the San Francisco mobile phone App that turns every willing car driver into a taxi and that due to its informal “no obligations” method of interaction between passenger and driver (both parties are free not to accept the other and to cancel the ride at any time until the passenger is collected) has taken wartime Ukraine by storm. And by some miracle, early on a Sunday morning a man called Oleg collected me from this deserted road at the end of the metro line and said “Good morning” to me in English. He then proceeded to drive me to my destination at Pyatykhatky, through checkpoints and all, without saying a word. I was so impressed that I tipped him generously. Had he not been on hand, I would have been entirely defeated as there was nothing else to do at the end of this metro line except get back on the metro and head back into town.
The problem with this “no questions asked” approach, which is typical of Ukrainian culture, is that when he did dutifully drop me at the Pyatykhatky memorial site, he did so without warning me that it is absolutely in the middle of nowhere; it has been closed for months if not years; there are no people around; and it is exceptionally difficult to get out of the site using any means of transport whatsoever. I headed up to the entrance. It was surrounded by a sturdy metal fence and the gate was sealed with a padlock. The accumulation of mud and dirt on the padlock indicated that it had not been opened for some time. I recalled that the site had been hit by a Russian aerial attack early in the Russian so-called “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, as they had besieged Kharkiv more or less arbitrarily from the north. My guess is that the site has been closed to the public ever since. I contemplated vaulting the metal fence to explore, but I realised that I really was alone and that were I to slip or anything to go wrong it would have been a grave problem. In the end I consoled myself with a couple of photos and trying to read some of the plaques. The site was beautiful and calm, but the location remains totally isolated. Amidst a dense forest, it is quite easy to see how thousands of people could be massacred here over a period of a few weeks and the residents of Kharkiv might be none the wiser.
And then I was presented with the problem of how to get home. My trusty mobile device, between the GPS blackouts that affected the region as an air raid siren was heard in the distance, indicated that it would be almost a three-hour walk home. I braced myself for what I imagined would be the inevitable. I paused for a moment to study what appeared to be a bus stop by the side of the highway. There were no bus numbers. There was no timetable. There was no indication of where any bus, were it to arrive, might go. It was a Sunday morning. This is a war zone. Several of the panes of glass had been smashed out. Cars would go by approximately once every five minutes. I gloomily concluded that the prospects of finding a bus were nil; and off I set, without water or food, bracing myself for the long walk.
And then Bolt came to the rescue. After fiddling with my telephone absent-mindedly as I walked, an electronic miracle was performed through the ether. After several attempts, it appears that the App had caused someone’s mobile telephone to ping in a house in the forest just down the highway. He had accepted the ride. I had to wait a few minutes, presumably while the driver, awakened by the ping on his phone, dressed and reached his car. And then I watched as he drove out from the forest and onto the highway. After a few minutes more, a car appeared on the horizon of this desolate place and the driver pulled up next to me. I asked him to drive me to Church. A wonderful Sunday lay ahead for me. For what the Good Lord deliver, may we be truly thankful.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.