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World War II Soviet Spy Dies At 103. Russia And Poland Remember Him Differently

Feb 14, 2020
Originally published on February 14, 2020 5:29 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of Russia's most celebrated spies has died at the age of 103. Russian state media are remembering him as the man who, during World War II, stopped the Nazis from destroying the Polish city of Krakow. But as NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow, the story is not clear-cut. It's part of a furious debate about the past between Russia and Poland.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: On Thursday, Russians woke up to the news that one of their greatest spies, Alexei Botyan, had died overnight.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: A TV news anchor reminded Russians that Botyan was born in 1917, the same year as the communist revolution in present-day Belarus. At the start of World War II, he fought against the Nazis and the Polish army. After Poland capitulated, he joined Soviet military intelligence.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The TV news focused on Botyan's claim to fame, his daring mission to prevent retreating Germans from destroying Krakow, one of the most beautiful cities in Poland. As the Red Army approached Krakow, Botyan allegedly blew up a Nazi ammunition dump, saving the city. That feat inspired a popular Soviet movie.

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KIM: Russian TV ran an interview with Botyan to mark his 103rd birthday last Monday.

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ALEXEI BOTYAN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He said he hadn't been trying to save Krakow. He just wanted the war to end as soon as possible. The war against Nazi Germany came to an end four months after the Red Army drove the Nazis out of the city. That's about as much of the Russian story that Polish historians can agree to. They don't believe Krakow was saved by Soviet heroes. Polish historians say the Nazis didn't plan to destroy it. They simply abandoned the city before the Red Army arrived. Alexei Botyan, the great Russian hero, is unknown in Poland.

SLAWOMIR DEBSKI: The story is a Soviet propaganda fabrication.

KIM: Slawomir Debski is a historian who heads the Polish Institute of International Affairs. He says the story of a gallant Soviet spy saving Krakow is an urban legend that benefits Russian President Vladimir Putin.

DEBSKI: After Mr. Putin gained control of the Russian propaganda industry, the hero was let's call it nationalized to become a Russian big name.

KIM: In 2007, Putin invited Botyan to the Kremlin and awarded him the Hero of Russia medal. The Kremlin is using the Soviet victory over the Nazis to instill national pride among Russians and so strengthen the regime.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In December, Putin reminded visiting leaders of the sacrifices the Soviet Union had made during World War II. He included Poland among the countries responsible for starting the war, and defended the Soviet Union's initial collusion with Nazi Germany. Ahead of ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the war's end, the Kremlin is celebrating Soviet heroes like Alexei Botyan. After his death, the Kremlin said Putin was in mourning for a legendary intelligence officer who had made history. Whose history is another question. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.