Decapitating and Debraining the Nation: Katyń and the Body Politics of Martyrdom

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Vanessa Fredericks


Katyń refers to the execution of approximately 22,000 Polish citizens by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) in 1940. Polish and Russian historians of the Katyń massacre maintain that Stalin ordered the executions because those taken captive were considered an elite, and were the future leaders of an independent Polish nation. There are a number of narratives on Katyń that refer to the elimination of Polish prisoners as an attempt to ‘decapitate’ and ‘debrain’ the Polish nation. Katyń is framed as an attempt to destroy a very specific version of Polish national identity, and a nation represented by a male-oriented body politic. Those who were killed at Katyń are often portrayed as ‘martyrs’. This martyrological narrative of Katyń is situated within a broader mythological narrative of Polish history and national identity known as ‘Polish messianism’. This messianic myth developed in response to the partitions of Poland in the late 1700s. Polish nationalism in this era developed alongside a romanticised myth of Polish History in which Poland was viewed as an innocent ‘victim’ of oppression. Katyń has become a particularly powerful symbol within this history of victimisation. In this paper I focus on narratives of the body in order to analyse the ways in which the figure of the martyr is deployed to (re)produce particular ideas about history and national identity. What are the effects of using the word ‘martyr’ to describe the Katyń dead? And whose bodies are (re)membered within this narrative?

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How to Cite
FREDERICKS, Vanessa. Decapitating and Debraining the Nation: Katyń and the Body Politics of Martyrdom. Култура/Culture, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 13, p. 68-78, july 2016. ISSN 1857-7725. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 12 dec. 2017.
English Articles


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