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Mass Deportations of Poles; Soviet and Russian Ethnic Cleansing

Deportation wagon at the Center for Documentation of Deportation of Upper Silesians to the USSR in 1945, Radzionkow, Poland. Photo: G. Litynski

Author: Grzegorz Litynski

Editorial note: Deportations carried out by Russia and the Soviet Union concerned not only Poles but also other nationalities and ethnic groups living in this part of Europe, including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Jews, and Germans. The list is much longer, and the number of deportees deep into Russia/USSR goes into the millions.

Deportations of Poles by Russians has a long history as it first occurred in the 17th century. The first deportees were prisoners of war captured in battles of the period Polish-Moscow wars or civilians kidnapped from border states. Once in Siberia, they performed manual slave labor: constructing numerous fortifications, bridges, and crossings, or working the land.

Driven by the aforementioned need to consolidate tsarist rule in the newly occupied lands, deportations of Poles to Siberia in the following centuries were decidedly more oppressive. The mass deportations of Poles to Siberia escalated at the end of the 18th century. Many deportees were sent deep into Russia after the Polish-Russian war in 1792 and the Kosciuszko Insurrection in 1794. From then on, most deportees were sent to katorga for slave labor and grueling work, or to a settlement without the right to return to their homeland.

Deportations to Siberia in the 19th Century

It is estimated that after the obliteration of the November Uprising against Russian rule in 1830-31, between 20,000 and 30,000 Polish soldiers and officers were exiled to Siberia and other regions of the Russian Empire. In addition, about 20,000 civilians were deported.

Over 30 years later, the suppression of the January Uprising in 1863-64 was followed by a period of harsh repressions that lasted until 1867: arrests, brutal interrogations, and convictions of its participants on an unprecedented scale. Punishments ranged from confiscating property and deportation to the depths of Russia to the death penalty. In the late 1880s, early 1890s, to early 20th century, Polish revolutionaries and numerous anti-tsarist conspirators faced deportations. The number of exiles is estimated to be 40,000.

Deportations in the 20th Century

The Polish-Soviet war ended with the signing of the Peace of Riga in 1921. As a result of the agreement, about 1.5 million Poles stayed behind all of the Soviet Union. The Polish victory over the Red Army near Warsaw in 1920 was a stain on Soviet honor. Poland was then the most assertive bourgeois military neighbor of the communist Soviet Union and, therefore, one of its targets.

The Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937-1938)

During the period of the Great Purge, the NKVD carried out the ethnic cleansing of the Polish minority. It was ordered by the Politburo of the Communist Party against the so-called “Polish spies” and customarily interpreted by the NKVD officials as relating to “absolutely all Poles” living in the Soviet Union. The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order No. 00485, dated August 11, 1937. It was signed personally by Nikolai Yezhov (1895-1940), the head of the NKVD. In the internal classified correspondence, Yezhov noted that the reason for repression is “fascist, nationalist activity among the Polish population of the USSR” allegedly run by the Polish secret services. The Polish operation was to proceed in the following stages, and the procedure was to consist, as per Yezhov’s order of mass arrests and then dividing the arrested into categories. The first category is subject to execution, and the second category is subject to sentencing to imprisonment for five to ten years, in gulag or prison.

The Polish Operation of NKVD in 1937-38 resulted in the sentencing of 139,835 people and execution by a shot to the back of the head of 111,091 Poles living in the Soviet Union. Intellectuals were murdered in a particularly vicious manner. For example, of the 470 Polish priests living in the Soviet Union, only ten priests remained. The Polish operation had the characteristics of a typical ethnic cleansing; a genocide.

Another Yezhov’s order (No. 00486 of August 15, 1937) was a detailed operational instruction that referred to the families of the arrested. Along with the arrest, a search was mandatory, and “all possessions [...] should be confiscated. After the arrest and search, the convicts' wives are taken to prisons. At the same time and in the order indicated below, children are also taken away.” Yezhov’s order also stipulated for wives “a minimum of five to eight years in the camp,” while socially dangerous children “shall be imprisoned in camps or NKVD labor colonies or children’s homes with a special regime.”

At the same time, Poles living in the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics were deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia. The vast majority of them never saw their homeland again. The total number of deported Poles between 1937 and 1938 amounted to more than 100,000, but the worst was yet to come.

Soviet Occupation of Eastern Poland (1939-1941)

Following the German-Soviet agreement of August 23, 1939, also referred to as the Hitler-Stalin Pact or Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty, the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Poland without declaring war on September 17, 1939. The Soviets occupied more than 50 percent of Polish territory inhabited by 13 million people. The rest of the country was occupied by the Germans. After crushing the resistance of the Border Protection Corps and units of the Polish army, the Soviets proceeded with terror and mass repressions. “The intrusion of Soviet indoctrination and propaganda, mandatory political meetings, Soviet control of the radio and press, and the dissolution of religious activity transformed the city,” commented Janusz Bardach (1919-2002) about his town Wlodzimierz Wolynski.

Russian was introduced as the official language. All Polish institutions were shut down. Polish currency was abolished, and Polish banks were closed. All landowners had their lands taken from them. The people living in the Soviet occupation zone were declared Soviet citizens, and men of military age were conscripted into the Red Army. “In October and November 1939, Communist party officials, Soviet civil authorities, and the NKVD set up headquarters in the best downtown buildings without compensating the previous owners and tenants. They annexed many apartments and housed the military in civilian living quarters, throwing the owners out on the street. All possessions remained in the houses,” described Bardach in his memoir, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag.

Soon, arrests and deportations came to the fore as the Soviets started to work on classifying the people living in the occupied territory. The categorization included age, ethnicity, religion, occupation, and home ownership.

The first victims of mass deportations were Polish soldiers. More than 200,000 of them were taken prisoner in September and October 1939. Some privates and non-commissioned officers were released home after a short detention, while others were sent to gulags. The NKVD murdered the majority of officers in April and May 1940 during the Katyn Massacre.

The second group of Polish deportees was Poles who used to live in the German-occupied zone and fled to the Soviet zone. Many of them were Jewish. The third category was Poles, who, according to the Soviets, were the “work-class enemies.” They were state employees of pre-war Poland that included police officers, teachers, judges and prosecutors, railway workers. This group also included politicians, social activists, aristocrats, owners of private companies, lawyers, architects, managers, bankers, medical and veterinary doctors. “The Polish authorities and military personnel who had remained in town were arrested, along with clergy of all denominations,” continued Bardach.

Deported Polish children in the Soviet Union. Source: Narodowe Centrum Cyfrowe in Warsaw

Mass Deportations

Four waves of mass deportations occurred between February 1940 and June 1941. Typically, people were taken from their homes in the early morning hours when an NKVD officer with two Red Army soldiers showed up at the victims’ homes, gave them about 30 minutes to pack, and limited the number of possessions and food they could take. “My family was devastated. My oldest brother was sixteen, and the youngest twins were five. My parents had six children, all boys. There was no trial, and no explanation was given,” remembers Walter Remiarz (b. 1926). People were taken to the nearest train station and herded into overcrowded cattle carriages. Many of those deported in winter died from the cold. “There was a wood stove in the middle of the car and a hole in the floor for our toilet needs,” recalls Remiarz of his deportation in February 1940. “We were treated like cattle,” recalls Anatol Maciejny, a five-year-old boy at that point. Starvation was common, and the mortality rate was high. Each train carried the corpses to the next town in a separate open cart. It is estimated that between the fall of 1939 and June 1941, the NKVD deported as many as 1,000,000 Polish people, though some historians projected higher numbers. The Soviets sent Poles mostly to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and north European arctic regions. The deported were used as a cheap labor force that performed grueling labor: mining, building canals and railroads, logging and floating timber in the taiga, and kolkhozes and factories.

The Survivors

On July 30, 1941, the so-called Sikorski-Maisky Pact was signed and amnesty was granted to all Polish citizens in the Soviet Union. Only a few deportees left the Soviet Union following the amnesty. After WWII ended, thousands of people arrived in Poland as part of the repatriation campaign of 1945-46 and 1955-1959. However, countless Polish deportees were murdered by the NKVD or died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion and remained forever away from Poland.

Mass deportation from the Polish territories into the USSR continued even after the war. In early 1945, 50,000 to 90,000 residents of Upper Silesia, including Polish army soldiers from 1939, partisans, and people picked randomly were deported to the USSR.

Recommended reading:

Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Anchor Books, 2004.

Janusz Bardach, Katleen Gleeson, Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag, University of California Press, 1999.

Norman Davies, Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents, Osprey Publishing, 2015.

Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, Harvard University Press, 2012.

Teofil Lachowicz, Echa z nieludzkiej ziemi, Oficyna wydawnicza Rytm, 2011.

Adam Lityński, Prawo Rosji i ZSRR 1917–1991, czyli historia wszechzwiązkowego komunistycznego prawa bolszewików. C.H. Beck, 2010.


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