Poles in the Soviet Union

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The Polish minority in the Soviet Union refers to people of Polish descent who used to reside in the Soviet Union before its 1991 dissolution (in the Autumn of Nations), and who live in post-Soviet, sovereign countries of Europe and Asia as their significant minorities at present time, including Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan among others.

History of Poles in the Soviet Union[edit]

1917–1920[edit]

Painter Kazimir Malevich (Kazimierz Malewicz)[1] was a prominent artist of Polish descent active in the Soviet Union. His attempt at settling in Warsaw in 1927 failed.[1]

Millions of Poles lived within the Russian Empire following the military Partitions of Poland throughout the 19th century. As the Russian Revolution of 1917 began in Petrograd, followed by the Russian Civil War, the majority of the Polish population saw cooperation with the Bolshevik forces as betrayal and treachery to Polish national interests.[2] Polish writer and philosopher Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz lived through the Russian Revolution while in St. Petersburg. What he saw, had a profound effect on his works, many of which display themes of the horrors of Bolshevism he witnessed. Among the many Polish victims of the revolution was the father of Polish eminent composer Witold Lutosławski, Marian Lutosławski and his brother Józef, murdered in Moscow in 1918 as alleged "counter-revolutionaries".[3]

There were also people of Polish background associated with the communist movement. Famous revolutionaries with Polish origins include Konstantin Rokossovsky, Julian Marchlewski, Karol Świerczewski and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka secret police which would later turn into the NKVD. However according to their ideology they did not identify as Poles or with Poland, and members of the communist party viewed themselves as Soviet citizens without any national sentiments. The Soviet Union also organized Polish units in the Red Army and a Polish Communist government-in-exile, however these organisations were Polish in name only and led by non-Poles, Russians in the case of the "Polish Army".

1921–1938[edit]

Polish communities were inherited from Imperial Russia after the creation of the Soviet Union. After World War I, Poland became an independent country, and its borders with the USSR were finalized by the Peace of Riga in 1921 at the end of the Polish-Soviet War, which left significant territories populated by Poles within the Soviet Union. According to the 1926 Soviet census, there were a total of 782,334 Poles in the USSR. The largest concentration of Poles was in Ukraine, where according to the Soviet census in 1926 476,435 Poles lived. Those estimates are considered to have been lowered by Soviet officials. Church and independent estimates show estimates of 650,000 to 700,000 Poles living in that area.[2] This suggests that the total Polish population of the USSR was in excess of 1,000,000. Initially the Soviets pursued a policy where the local national language was used as a tool for eradication of national identity in favour of "communist education of masses". In the case of the Poles this meant a goal of Sovietisation of the Polish population. However this proved extremely difficult as the Soviet communists themselves realised that the Poles were en masse opposed to communist ideology, seeing it as hostile to Polish identity. The policy of religious discrimination, plunder and terror further strengthened Polish resistance to Soviet rule. As a result the Soviet authorities started to imprison and forcefully remove all those seen as an obstacle to their policies. In a short time prisons in areas with a Polish minority were overcrowded by 600%.[2]

Two Polish Autonomous Districts were created, with one in Belarus and one in Ukraine. The first one was named Dzierzynszczyzna, after Felix Dzierżyński; the second was named Marchlewszczyzna after Julian Marchlewski. Following the failure of the Sovietisation of the USSR's Polish minority, the Soviet rulers decided to portray Poles as enemies of the state and use them to fuel Ukrainian nationalism in order to direct Ukrainian anger away from the Soviet government.[2] After 1928 Soviet policies turned to outright eradication of Polish national identity. Special centers were established where the youth was indoctrinated towards hatred against the Polish state, all contacts with relatives within Poland were dangerous and could result in imprisonment. Newspapers printed out in the Polish language were de facto used to print anti-Polish propaganda.[2] Following attacks on the Polish minority, from 18 February 1930 till 19 March 1930 over 100,000 people from Polish areas were expelled by the Soviet authorities.[2]

Following the collectivization of agriculture under Joseph Stalin, both autonomies were abolished and their populations were subsequently deported to Kazakhstan in 1934–1938.[2] Many people starved during the deportation and after, since the deported were moved to sparsely populated areas, unprepared for migration, lacking basic facilities and infrastructure. The survivors were under the supervision of the OGPU/NKVD, cruelly punished for any sign of discontent. 21,000 Poles died during the Holodomor.

In 1936 the Poles were deported from the territories Belarus and Ukraine adjacent to the state border (the first recorded deportation of a whole ethnic group in the USSR). Tens of thousands of ethnic Poles became victims of the Great Purge in 1937–1938 (see Polish operation of the NKVD). The Communist Party of Poland was also decimated in the Great Purge and was disbanded in 1938. Another decimated group of Poles was the Roman Catholic clergy, who opposed the forced atheization.

A number of Poles fled to Poland during this time, among them Igor Newerly and Tadeusz Borowski.

1939–1947[edit]

Polish refugees evacuated from the Soviet Union to Persia, 1942

During World War II, after the Soviet invasion of Poland the Soviet Union occupied vast areas of eastern Poland (referred to in Poland as Kresy wschodnie or "eastern Borderlands"), and another 5.2–6.5 million ethnic Poles (from the total population of about 13.5 million residents of these territories) were added, followed by further large-scale forcible deportations to Siberia, Kazakhstan and other remote areas of the Soviet Union.

The number of Poland's citizens held captive in the Soviet Union is a matter of dispute, and ranges from over 300,000 up to nearly 2 million, according to various sources. On March 30, 2004, the head of the Archival Service of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, General Vasili Khristoforov gave final exact numbers of deported Poles. According to him, in 1940 exactly 297,280 Poles were deported, in June 1941 another 40,000. These numbers do not include P.O.W.s, prisoners, small groups, people arrested trying to cross the new borders, people who voluntarily moved into the USSR, and men drafted into the Red Army and into construction battalions or stroybats.

In August 1941, following the German attack on the USSR and the dramatic change in Soviet/Polish relations, according to a January 15, 1943, note from Beria to Stalin, 389,041 Polish citizens (including 200,828 ethnic Poles, 90,662 Jews, 31,392 Ukrainians, 27,418 Belorussians, 3,421 Russians, and 2,291 persons of other nationalities) held in special settlements and prisoner of war camps were granted 'amnesty' and allowed to enrol in Polish army units. The location of reception centres was kept secret and no travel facilities provided.[4] Nevertheless, 119,855 Poles were evacuated to Persia (Iran) with General Anders' army, which subsequently fought alongside the Allies in Iran and Italy; 36,150 were transferred to the Polish Army which fought with the Red Army on the Eastern Front and 11,516 are reported to have died in 1941–1943.[5]

The following are cases of direct executions of Poles during the 1939–1941 occupation:

After World War II most Poles from Kresy were expelled into Poland, but officially 1.3 million stayed in the USSR. Some of them were motivated by the traditional Polish belief that one day they would become again lawful owners of the land they lived on. Some of them were kept forcefully in. Some simply stayed, without force or ideological reasons. There are reasons to believe that those expelled were happier than those who stayed.

Wanda Wasilewska was an exceptional case – she became a Soviet citizen and did not return after the war.

1947–1991[edit]

The Polish minority was one of the few whose numbers decreased over time, according to official statistics. There was also the repatriation of Poles (1955–1959).

After 1989, Poles who survived in Kazakhstan started to emigrate due to national tensions, mainly to Russia and, supported by an immigration society, to Poland. The number remaining is between 50,000 and 100,000.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the following post-Soviet countries have significant Polish minorities:

List of prominent Soviet Poles[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Andrzej Turowski, Malewicz W Warszawie: Rekonstrukcje i Symulacje Universitas 2002, ISBN 8370524869.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g J. M. Kupczak "Stosunek władz bolszewickich do polskiej ludności na Ukrainie (1921–1939), Wrocławskie Studia Wschodnie 1 (1997) Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 1997 page 47–62" IPN Bulletin 11(34) 2003.
  3. ^ Mirosław R. Derewońko (February 9, 2009), Witold Lutosławski bał się wspomnień... (Witold Lutosławski was afraid of memories...) Regionalny Portal Łomża. (Polish)
  4. ^ Michael Hope, 'Polish Deportees in the Soviet Union', Veritas Foundation, London, 2000, ISBN 0-948202-76-9
  5. ^ Stephen Wheatcroft, "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930–1945", Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.48, No.8, 1996, p. 1345

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