Poles in Belarus
|Regions with significant populations|
|Hrodna voblast · Minsk Region|
|Belarusian · Polish |
|Predominantly Roman Catholicism,
Few Eastern Orthodox Church
The Polish minority in Belarus numbers officially about 294,549 according to 2009 census. It forms the second largest ethnic minority in the country after the Russians, at 3.1% of the total population. An estimated 180,905 Belarusian Poles live in large agglomerations and 113,644 in smaller settlements, with the number of women exceeding the number of men by about 33,000. Some estimates by Polish non-governmental sources in the U.S. are higher, citing the previous poll held in 1989 under the Soviet authorities with 413,000 Poles recorded.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of sovereign Republic of Belarus, the situation of the Polish minority has been steadily improving. The politics of Sovietization pursued by decades of indoctrination, went down in history. Poles in Belarus began re-establishing the Polish language schools and their legal right of participating in the religious life. However, the attitude of new authorities to Polish minority are not very consistent. The new laws are insufficient, and the local levels of Belarusian government are largely unwilling to accept the aspirations of their own ethnic Poles, making them into new targets for state-sanctioned intolerance, according to 2005 report by The Economist.
Polish ethnic and cultural presence in modern Belarus are an intricate part of its history. The lands of modern Belarus are the birthplace of Mickiewicz and Domejko among others. The proto-Belarusian language, called Ruthenian or Old Belarusian was protected by law in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and used as local vernacular, while both Polish and Latin languages were the lingua franca of the throne. "As the 16th century drew to a close" – wrote Andrew Savchenko about the local nobles, they had to contend with "an increasingly stark choice: to strengthen their ties with Poland or to suffer disastrous military defeat and subjugation" by the Russian Empire, thus leading to their voluntary Polonization. Throughout the 19th century, "the mass of unassuming peasants was subjected to active Russification" by the Tsarist authorities including the abolition of the Uniate Church created by the Union of Brest, a uniquely Belarusian institution and the cornerstone of the Belarusian nation.
The territories of the Russian Empire consisting of modern Belarus were divided in 1921 between Poland and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic at the Treaty of Riga, thus ending the Polish-Soviet War. Thousands of Poles settled in the area following the peace treaty. In the elections of November 1922, a Belarusian party (in the Blok Mniejszości Narodowych coalition) obtained 14 seats in the Polish parliament (11 of them in the lower chamber, Sejm). In 1923, a new regulation was passed allowing for the Belarusian language to be used officially both in courts and in schools. Obligatory teaching of the Belarusian language was introduced in all Polish gymnasia in areas inhabited by Belarusians in 1927.
Across the border, in the Belarusian SSR, Minsk was home to Polish community organizations and a Polish-speaking national theatre of Belarus. In addition, a Polish Autonomous District, Dzierzynszczyzna, was proclaimed on Soviet territory. However, in East Belarus the Soviet authorities liquidated most Polish organizations in the early 1930s. In 1937–1938 the Soviet NKVD and the Communist Party attempted to eradicate Poles as a minority group in East Belarus during the largest ethnic shooting and deportation action of the Great Terror.
The "Polish operation" of the NKVD
Just prior to the 1939 Invasion of Poland, the Soviet Byelorussia witnessed the genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union resulting in the virtual eradication of Polish minority along the border. The state-sanctioned campaign of mass-murder which took place approximately from August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938, according to archives of the Soviet NKVD, resulted in the killing of 111,091 ethnic Poles (mostly men). Additional 28,744 were sentenced to death-ridden labor camps; amounting to 139,835 Polish victims across the country (10% of the officially persecuted persons during the entire Yezhovshchina period, with confirming NKVD documents). About 17% of the total number of victims came from Byelorussia, among them, thousands of peasants, railway workers, industrial labourers, engineers and similar others, resulting in near collapse of its economy. The coordinated actions of the Soviet NKVD and the Communist Party in 1937–1938 against Polish minority living in the Soviet Union, representing only 0.4 percent of Soviet citizens, amounted to an ethnic genocide as defined by the UN convention, concluded historian Michael Ellman. His opinion is shared by Simon Sebag Montefiore, Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, and Dr Tomasz Sommer among others. In a typical Stalinist fashion, the murdered Polish families were accused of "anti-Soviet" activities and state terrorism.
1939 invasion of Poland
Following the Nazi–Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1939, the Polish anti-German resistance movement Armia Krajowa was actively operating on the territory of modern Belarus, although many ethnic Belarusians also actively participated in the movement. Soon after the Soviet invasion of Poland, the former territories of Kresy were divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and subsequently, incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic following staged elections. The area that became part of the USSR formed the new West Belarus.
In their attack, the Red Army overrun 52.1% of territory of interwar Poland with over 13,700,000 inhabitants. The Soviet occupation zone included also 336,000 new refugees who escaped from Polish lands invaded by Germany, numbering at around 198,000. Spreading terror throughout the region, the Soviet secret police (NKVD) accompanying the Red Army massacred Polish prisoners of war, and in less than two years, deported up to 1.5 million ethnic Poles to Siberia including Poles and Polish Jews from West Belarus. Twenty-one months after the Soviet invasion of Poland, during the German Operation Barbarossa of June 1941, West Belarus was overrun again by the Wehrmacht followed closely behind by Einsatzgruppen and the mass executions of Polish Jews commenced.
Towards the end of World War II in Europe, at the insistence of Joseph Stalin during the Tehran Conference of 1943, West Belarus was formally ceded by the Allies to the Belorussian SSR. The Polish population was soon forcibly resettled as part of the Soviet-Polish population exchange. Many inhabitants of Belarus who identified themselves as Poles were allowed to go back to Poland. In exchange, several thousands of Belarusians from parts of the former Belastok Voblast were resettled to Belarus.
The remaining Polish minority in Belarus was significantly discriminated against during the times of the Soviet Union. Until 1949 all Polish language schools were replaced with the Russian, and not even a single one remained due to continuing policies of Sovietization. All Polish organizations and social clubs were liquidated. Incidentally, the Poles were the only ethnic group in Belorussian SSR whose existence was denied by communist administration. The situation of the Polish minority started to improve only in the later years of the Soviet Union prior to its dissolution, but faced difficulties from the government of Alexander Lukashenko.
According to 2009 census Polish minority in Belarus numbers officially about 295,000. After the Russian minority, Poles certainly form the second largest minority group in Belarus. The majority of Poles live in the Western regions including 230,000 in the Hrodna voblast. The largest Polish organization in Belarus is the Union of Poles in Belarus (Związek Polaków na Białorusi), with over 20,000 members.
As Poland supports the pro-democracy opposition in Belarus, Polish-Belarusian relations are poor, and representatives of the Polish minority in Belarus often complain about various repressions, such as the jailing for 15 days, of the former head of the Union of Poles, Tadeusz Gawin. He was sentenced on 2 August 2005 for arranging a meeting between a visiting deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, Donald Tusk, and the ethnic Polish activists including Veslaw Kewlyak, also sentenced for 15 days. The Lukashenko government launched a campaign against the Polish ethnic minority claiming that they were trying to destabilise the balance of power, and that the Polish minority is a fifth column (see, earlier Soviet proclamations). In May and June of that year a Polish diplomat was expelled, a Polish-language newspaper was closed and the democratically-elected leadership of a local Polish organisation, the Union of Poles in Belarus (UPB), had their own nominees forcibly replaced by those sympathetic to Lukashenko.
The introduction of the Karta Polaka (Polish Charter) in 2007 confirming Polish heritage of individuals who cannot obtain dual citizenship in their own countries, enabled many thousands of inhabitants of Belarus to formally declare their Polish identity for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland. The introduction caused protests from Belarusian officials.
Poles in Belarus have an unusual linguistic situation; a slight majority use Belarusian, while a majority of ethnic Belarusians actually use Russian, as do the rest of the Poles. This unusual situation arose because the Poles in Belarus live mostly in the Belarusian-speaking parts of the country, whereas Russian now dominates in Minsk and most of eastern Belarus. Very few Belarusian Poles use Polish in everyday life.
- Boris Kleyn (1994), Poles in Belarus: Revival of Heritage and Search for Ancestors. PolishRoots. The Polish Genealogy Source. Chapter: History. Accessed August 8, 2011.
- Statistics from belstat.gov.by (бюллетень). See page 22. RAR data compression of PDF file. Listing total population of Belarus with population by age and sex, marital status, education, nationality, language and livelihood ("Общая численность населения; численность населения по возрасту и полу, состоянию в браке, уровню образования, национальностям, языку, источникам средств к существованию") (Belarusian)
- Prof. Piotr Eberhardt, "Polacy na Białorusi." Świat Polonii. Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska. Accessed August 6, 2011.
- "Bordering on madness: Belarus mistreats its Polish minority." The Economist, June 16, 2005.
- Witryna Związku Polaków na Białorusi (Association of Poles in Belarus). Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska. Accessed August 6, 2011.
- Boris Kleyn (1994), "Poles in Belarus: Revival of Heritage and Search for Ancestors." PolishRoots. The Polish Genealogy Source. Accessed August 08, 2011.
- Andrew Savchenko, Belarus: a perpetual borderland. BRILL, 2009. ISBN 90-04-17448-6. Accessed August 8, 2011.
- Alice Teichova, Herbert Matis, Jaroslav Pátek (2000). Economic Change and the National Question in Twentieth-century Europe. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-63037-5.
- Eugeniusz Mironowicz, "Białoruś", Trio, Warszawa, 1999, ISBN 83-85660-82-8 (Polish)
- "A letter from Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands: Two genocidaires, taking turns in Poland". The Book Haven. Stanford University. December 15, 2010. Retrieved April 25, 2011.
- Tomasz Sommer (2010). "Execute the Poles: The Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union, 1937–1938. Documents from Headquarters". Warsaw: 3S Media. p. 277. ISBN 83-7673-020-7. Retrieved April 25, 2011.
- "Sommer, Tomasz. Book description (Opis).". Rozstrzelać Polaków. Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim w latach 1937–1938. Dokumenty z Centrali (Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union). Księgarnia Prawnicza, Lublin. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- McLoughlin, Barry, and McDermott, Kevin (eds). Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union. Palgrave Macmillan, December 2002. ISBN 1-4039-0119-8, p. 164
- Michael Ellman, "Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932–33 Revisited." Amsterdam School of Economics. PDF file
- Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar, page 229. Vintage Books, New York 2003. Vintage ISBN 1-4000-7678-1]
- Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (2011-01-15). "Nieopłakane ludobójstwo (Genocide Not Mourned)". Rzeczpospolita. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- Franciszek Tyszka. "Tomasz Sommer: Ludobójstwo Polaków z lat 1937–38 to zbrodnia większa niż Katyń" [Genocide of Poles in the years 1937–38, a Crime Greater than Katyn]. Super Express. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- "Rozstrzelać Polaków. Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim (To Execute the Poles. Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union)". Historyton. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- Polska Agencja Prasowa (2010-06-24). "Publikacja na temat eksterminacji Polaków w ZSRR w latach 30 (Publication on the Subject of Extermination of Poles in the Soviet Union during the 1930s)". Portal Wiara.pl. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- "Konferencja "Rozstrzelać Polaków – Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim"" [Conference on Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union, Warsaw]. Instytut Globalizacji oraz Press Club Polska in cooperation with Memorial Society. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
- Prof. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski (22 March 2011). "Rozkaz N.K.W.D.: No. 00485 z dnia 11-VIII-1937, a Polacy". Polish Club Online. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
See also, Tomasz Sommer: Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim (Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union), article published by The Polish Review vol. LV, No. 4, 2010.
- According to the historian Jan Siamashka, ethnic Belarusians of only Orthodox faith constituted about 40% of the Navahrudak Discrict Military Group of the AK (Zgrupowanie Okręgu AK Nowogródek). This number does not include Roman Catholic Belarusians 
- Elżbieta Trela-Mazur (1997). Włodzimierz Bonusiak, Stanisław Jan Ciesielski, Zygmunt Mańkowski, Mikołaj Iwanow, ed. Sowietyzacja oświaty w Małopolsce Wschodniej pod radziecką okupacją 1939–1941 (Sovietization of education in eastern Lesser Poland during the Soviet occupation 1939–1941) (in Polish). Kielce: Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna im. Jana Kochanowskiego. p. 294. ISBN 83-7133-100-2., also in Wrocławskie Studia Wschodnie, Wrocław, 1997
- Contested memories By Joshua D. Zimmerman, Rutgers University Press - Publisher; page 67–68
- Sanford, p. 23; (Polish) Olszyna-Wilczyński Józef Konstanty, Encyklopedia PWN. Retrieved 14 November 2006.
- (Polish) Śledztwo w sprawie zabójstwa w dniu 22 września 1939 r. generała brygady Wojska Polskiego Józefa Olszyny-Wilczyńskiego i jego adiutanta przez żołnierzy Związku Radzieckiego. (S 6/02/Zk) Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Internet Archive, 16.10.03. Retrieved 16 July 2007.
- Jerzy Jan Lerski, Piotr Wróbel, Richard J. Kozicki, Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966-1945, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996, ISBN 0-313-26007-9, Google Print, 538
- Menachem Turek, "Życie i zagłada Żydów podczas niemieckiej okupacji" Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego. Translated by Sylwia Szymańska
- Piotr Eberhardt, Jan Owsinski (2003). Ethnic Groups and Population Changes in Twentieth-century Central-Eastern Europe: History, Data, Analysis. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 199–201. ISBN 978-0-7656-0665-5.
- "Belarus Polish chief jailed again". BBC News. August 13, 2005.
- Wirtualna Polonia
- Białoruś: Polowanie na Polaków
- "Bordering on madness". The Economist. June 16, 2005.
- "Najwięcej wniosków o Kartę Polaka we Lwowie i Grodnie" (The most applications for the Polish Charter from Lviv and Grodno). Interia.pl after Polish Press Agency, 21 January 2009. Accessed August 9, 2001.
- Various links and information about Polish organization on Belarus
- News Articles about the Polish Community in Belarus
- (Polish) News website
- (Polish) Various articles and legal documents related to Polish minority in Belarus
- (Polish) Polacy na Białorusi: Liczebność i rozmieszczenie ludności polskiej według ostatnich spisów powszechnych
- Andrzej Tichomirow, Polish National Minority in Belarus as a Research Problem, Belarusian Review Working Paper, #1, October 2014