David Ost’s review of Victor Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn appears in Telos 156 (Fall 2011). Read the full review online at the TELOS Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue here. Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing is available for purchase here.
In this powerful short book on the horrific Soviet massacre of over 20,000 Polish reserve officers in 1940, Victor Zaslavsky utilizes recently opened Moscow archives to lay out what happened, and then argues that it was the result of a committed effort to wipe out a class. Unfortunately, that claim is not fully developed. Zaslavsky never specifies the identity of this class, and passes over the key role played by nationality. The fact that Ukrainian and Belarusian elite officers arrested from the same lands were spared—lands the Soviets were about to transfer from Polish to Soviet sovereignty—shows that not all elites were targeted equally, and that destroying those loyal to the now-dismantled Polish state (which in the pre-war period did constitute a genuine threat) was the primary consideration. The author’s equation of “classism” with “racism,” as just two different kinds of “discrimination,” is also challenged, on grounds that persecution based on the ascriptive characteristic of race differs fundamentally from efforts of class-based economic redistribution that most countries carry out, and that communist categories of class tended to be more fungible than Zaslavsky here allows.