Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937–38)
The Polish Operation of the NKVD in 1937–1938 was a Soviet Great Purge-era mass operation against purported Polish agents in the Soviet Union, explicitly ordered against Polish spies, but interpreted by the NKVD as relating to "absolutely all Poles". It resulted in the sentencing of 139,835 people and the execution of 111,091 Poles, and those accused of working for Poland. The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order № 00485 signed by Nikolai Yezhov. Not all, but the majority were ethnic Poles according to Timothy Snyder: 85,000 is given by him as a "conservative estimate" of the number of executed Poles. The remainder being 'suspected' to be Polish without further inquiry.
NKVD personnel gathered Polish-sounding names from local telephone books in order to speed up the process. In Leningrad alone, almost 7,000 citizens were rounded up. A vast majority of them were executed within 10 days of arrest. In the fourteen months after the adoption of Order № 00485, 143,810 people were captured, of whom 139,885 were sentenced by extrajudicial organs, and 111,091 executed (nearly 80% of all victims).
Order № 00485
NKVD Order No. 00485 called "On the liquidation of the Polish diversionist and espionage groups and POW units" was approved on August 9, 1937 by the Party's Central Committee Politburo, and was signed by Nikolai Yezhov on August 11, 1937. It was distributed to the local subdivisions of the NKVD simultaneously with Yezhov's thirty-page "secret letter" explaining what the "Polish operation" was all about. The letter was entitled "On fascist-resurrectionist, spying, diversional, defeationist, and terrorist activity of Polish intelligence in the USSR". Stalin himself demanded to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth." The operation was the second in a series of national operations of the NKVD, carried out by the Soviet Union against ethnic diasporas including Latvian, Finnish, German and Romanian, based on a theory about the fifth column residing along its western borders, and the Party's pronouncement of a "hostile capitalist surrounding." On the other hand, Timothy Snyder suggests that the argument was intended only to provide justification for the state-sanctioned campaign of mass-murder meant to eradicate Poles as a national (and linguistic) minority group.
Scale of the Polish Operation and its victims
The largest group of people with Polish background, around 40 percent of all victims, came from the Soviet Ukraine, especially from the districts near the border with Poland. Among them, tens of thousands of peasants, railway workers, industrial labourers, engineers and others. An additional 17 percent of victims came from the Soviet Byelorussia. The rest came from around Western Siberia and Kazakhstan where exiled Poles lived since the Partitions, as well as from southern Urals, northern Caucasus and the rest of Siberia including the Far East.
The following categories of people were arrested during the Polish operation of the NKVD, as described in Soviet documents:
- "Active" members of the Polish minority in Soviet Union (practically all Poles).
- All immigrants from Poland.
- Political refugees from Poland (mostly members of the Communist Party of Poland).
- Former and present members of the Polish Socialist Party and other non-communist Polish political parties.
- All prisoners of war from the Polish-Soviet war that remained in the Soviet Union.
- Members of Polska Organizacja Wojskowa listed in the special list (most of them were not in fact members of that organisation).
The operation took place approximately from August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938. According to archives of the NKVD: 111,091 Poles and people accused of ties with Poland, were sentenced to death, and 28,744 were sentenced to labor camps ('dry guillotine' of slow death by exposure, malnutrition, and overwork); 139,835 victims in total. This number constitutes 10% of the total number of people officially convicted during the Yezhovshchina period with confirming NKVD documents. The Operation was only a peak in the persecution of the Poles, spanning over a decade. As the Soviet statistics indicate, the number of ethnic Poles in the USSR dropped by 165,000 in that period. "It is estimated that Polish losses in the Ukrainian SSR were about 30%, while in the Belorussian SSR... the Polish minority was almost completely annihilated." Historian Michael Ellman asserts that the 'national operations', particularly the 'Polish operation', may constitute genocide as defined by the UN convention. His opinion is shared by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who calls the Polish operation of the NKVD 'a mini-genocide.' Polish writer and journalist, Dr Tomasz Sommer, also refers to the operation as a genocide, along with Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz among others.
Almost all victims of the NKVD shootings were men, wrote Michał Jasiński, most with families. Their wives and children were dealt with by the NKVD Order № 00486. The women were being sentenced to deportations to Kazakhstan for an average of 5 to 10 years. Their children, put in orphanages to be brought up as Soviet, with no knowledge of their own origins. All possessions of the accused were confiscated. The parents of the executed men – as well as their in-laws – were purposely left with nothing to live on, which usually sealed their fate as well. Statistical extrapolation, wrote Jasiński, increases the number of Polish victims in 1937–1938 to around 200–250,000 depending on size of their families.
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