Year
1990
Month Day
April 13

Soviets admit to Katyn Massacre of WWII

The Soviet government officially accepts blame for the Katyn Massacre of World War II, when nearly 5,000 Polish military officers were murdered and buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest. The admission was part of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise to be more forthcoming and candid concerning Soviet history.

In 1939, Poland had been invaded from the west by Nazi forces and from the east by Soviet troops. Sometime in the spring of 1940, thousands of Polish military officers were rounded up by Soviet secret police forces, taken to the Katyn Forest outside of Smolensk, massacred, and buried in a mass grave. In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and pushed into the Polish territory once held by the Russians. In 1943, with the war against Russia going badly, the Germans announced that they had unearthed thousands of corpses in the Katyn Forest. Representatives from the Polish government-in-exile (situated in London) visited the site and decided that the Soviets, not the Nazis, were responsible for the killings. These representatives, however, were pressured by U.S. and British officials to keep their report secret for the time being, since they did not want to risk a diplomatic rupture with the Soviets. As World War II came to an end, German propaganda lashed out at the Soviets, using the Katyn Massacre as an example of Russian atrocities. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin flatly denied the charges and claimed that the Nazis were responsible for the slaughter. The matter was not revisited for 40 years.

By 1990, however, two factors pushed the Soviets to admit their culpability. First was Gorbachev’s much publicized policy of “openness” in Soviet politics. This included a more candid appraisal of Soviet history, particularly concerning the Stalin period. Second was the state of Polish-Soviet relations in 1990. The Soviet Union was losing much of its power to hold onto its satellites in Eastern Europe, but the Russians hoped to retain as much influence as possible. In Poland, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement was steadily eroding the power of the communist regime. The Katyn Massacre issue had been a sore spot in relations with Poland for over four decades, and it is possible that Soviet officials believed that a frank admission and apology would help ease the increasing diplomatic tensions. The Soviet government issued the following statement: “The Soviet side expresses deep regret over the tragedy, and assesses it as one of the worst Stalinist outrages.”

Whether the Soviet admission had any impact is difficult to ascertain. The communist regime in Poland crumbled by the end of 1990, and Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland in December of that year. Gorbachev resigned in December 1991, which brought an effective end to the Soviet Union.

READ MORE: Collapse of the Soviet Union 

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

U.S. military drops "Mother of All Bombs" on ISIS tunnel complex

On April 13, 2017, American forces in Afghanistan drop one of the largest non-nuclear weapons ever used by the U.S. military. The “Mother of All Bombs” hits an Islamic State tunnel complex with power equal to 11 tons of explosives. More than 90 Islamic State militants died in the ...read more

Fans toss candy bars onto field, disrupting MLB game

On April 13, 1978, opening day at Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees give away thousands of Reggie! bars to fans, who naturally toss them onto the field after star outfielder Reggie Jackson homers in his first at-bat. The grounds crew cleans up the goodies, delaying the game ...read more

Metropolitan Museum of Art opens in New York City

On April 13, 1870 the Metropolitan Museum of Art is officially incorporated in New York City. The brainchild of American expatriates in Paris and a number of wealthy New Yorkers, the Met would not put on an exhibition until 1872, but it quickly blossomed into one of the world’s ...read more

First nonstop flight from Europe to North America

German pilot Hermann Köhl, Irish aviator James Fitzmaurice and Baron Ehrenfried Günther Freiherr von Hünefeld, the expedition’s financier, complete the first Europe to North America transatlantic flight, taking off from Ireland and landing safely on a small Canadian island. The ...read more

British and Gurkha troops massacre hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar Massacre

In Amritsar, India’s holy city of the Sikh religion, British and Gurkha troops massacre at least 379 unarmed demonstrators meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh, a city park. Most of those killed were Indian nationalists meeting to protest the British government’s forced conscription ...read more

Japan and USSR sign nonaggression pact

During World War II, representatives from the Soviet Union and Japan sign a five-year neutrality agreement. Although traditional enemies, the nonaggression pact allowed both nations to free up large numbers of troops occupying disputed territory in Manchuria and Outer Mongolia to ...read more

Apollo 13 oxygen tank explodes

On April 13, 1970, disaster strikes 200,000 miles from Earth when oxygen tank No. 2 blows up on Apollo 13, the third manned lunar landing mission. Astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, and Fred W. Haise had left Earth two days before for the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon ...read more

Tiger Woods became the first African American to win a major, and the youngest to wear the green jacket when he aced his first Masters Golf Tournament on April 13th. This video clip with Russ Mitchell recaps the historical events of April 13. From This Day In History, this clip also includes the beginning of Hank Aaron's major league baseball career, and the first African American, Sidney Poitier, to win an Oscar for Best Actor. Pope John Paul II also made his historic visit to a Jewish Synagogue on April 13, becoming the first Pope to visit a Jewish house of worship.

Tiger Woods wins the Masters Tournament for the first time

On April 13, 1997, 21-year-old Tiger Woods wins the prestigious Masters Tournament by a record 12 strokes in Augusta, Georgia. It was Woods’ first victory in one of golf’s four major championships—the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters—and the ...read more

Hitler bluffs from bunker as Russians advance and atrocities continue

On April 13, 1945, Adolf Hitler proclaims from his underground bunker that deliverance was at hand from encroaching Russian troops—Berlin would remain German. A “mighty artillery is waiting to greet the enemy,” proclaims Der Fuhrer.  As Hitler attempted to inflate his troops’ ...read more

Thomas Jefferson is born

Future President Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s preeminent political theorist, is born on April 13, 1743. Historian and biographer Joseph Ellis has called Jefferson, who had a monumental role in shaping American politics, the ...read more

Handel’s “Messiah" premieres in Dublin

Nowadays, the performance of George Frideric Handel's Messiah oratorio at Christmas time is a tradition almost as deeply entrenched as decorating trees and hanging stockings. In churches and concert halls around the world, the most famous piece of sacred music in the English ...read more

Sidney Poitier wins Best Actor Oscar for "Lilies of the Field”

On April 13, 1964, Sidney Poitier becomes the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role as a construction worker who helps build a chapel in Lilies of the Field (1963). Poitier was born in 1927, while his parents were visiting the United States ...read more

Hail storm kills 1,000 English troops in France

On so-called “Black Monday” in 1360, a hail storm kills an estimated 1,000 English soldiers in Chartres, France. The storm and the devastation it caused also played a part in the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The Hundred Years’ War began in 1337; by 1359, King ...read more

Serial killer Christopher Wilder dies by suicide

Christopher Wilder dies after a month-long crime spree involving at least 11 young women who have disappeared or been killed. Police in New Hampshire attempted to apprehend Wilder, who was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, but Wilder apparently shot himself to death in a scuffle ...read more

Union forces surrender at Fort Sumter

After a 33-hour bombardment by Confederate cannons, Union forces surrender Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The first engagement of the war ended in Rebel victory. The surrender concluded a standoff that began with South Carolina’s secession from the Union on ...read more

Former MLB All-star Mark “The Bird” Fidrych dies in truck accident

On April 13, 2009, former Major League Baseball all-star pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych is found dead at the age of 54 following an accident at his Massachusetts farm involving a Mack truck he was working on. Fidrych, the 1976 American League Rookie of the Year, suffocated when ...read more