Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937–38)

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The Polish Operation of the NKVD in 1937–1938 was a mass operation by the NKVD against purported Polish agents in the Soviet Union during the period of the Great Purge. It was 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 execution of 111,091 Poles[1] and those accused of working for Poland.[2] The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order № 00485 signed by Nikolai Yezhov.[3] Not all, but the majority were ethnic Poles according to Timothy Snyder: he gives 85,000 as a "conservative estimate" of the number of executed Poles.[4] The remainder were 'suspected' of being Polish, without further inquiry.[3]

NKVD personnel reviewed local telephone books and arrested those persons with Polish-sounding names, in order to speed up the process. In Leningrad alone, they rounded up almost 7,000 citizens. A vast majority of such "suspects" were executed within 10 days of arrest.[5] In the fourteen months after the adoption of Order № 00485, 143,810 people were taken into custody, of whom 139,885 were sentenced by extrajudicial organs, and 111,091 executed (nearly 80% of all victims).[6]

It was the largest ethnic shooting and deportation action during the Great Terror.[7]

Yezhov and Stalin sharing insights, USSR, 1937

Order № 00485[edit]

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.[3] 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".[8] Stalin demanded the NKVD to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth."[9] The operation was the second in a series of national operations of the NKVD, carried out by the Soviet Union against ethnic groups, inluding Latvian, Finnish, German and Romanian, based on a theory about the fifth column residing along its western borders. The Party classified these peoples as a "hostile capitalist surrounding." Historian Timothy Snyder suggests that this justification was intended only to support the state-sanctioned campaign of mass-murder in order to eradicate Poles as a national (and linguistic) minority group.[9]

Scale of the Polish Operation and its victims[edit]

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 were 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 had lived since the Partitions, as well as from the southern Urals, northern Caucasus and the rest of Siberia, including the Far East.[6]

The following categories of people were arrested by the NKVD during its Polish operation, as described in Soviet documents:

The operation took place approximately from August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938.[10] 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 (known as the "dry guillotine" of slow death by exposure, malnutrition, and overwork);[11] 139,835 victims in total.[12] This number constitutes 10% of the total number of people officially convicted during the Yezhovshchina period, based on confirming NKVD documents.[13]

The Operation was only a peak in the persecution of the Poles, which spanned more than 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."[10] Historian Michael Ellman asserts that the 'national operations', particularly the 'Polish operation', may constitute genocide as defined by the UN convention.[14] His opinion is shared by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who calls the Polish operation of the NKVD 'a mini-genocide.'[15] Polish writer and journalist, Dr Tomasz Sommer, also refers to the operation as a genocide, along with Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz among others.[16][17][18][19][20][21][22]

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 generally sentenced to deportation to Kazakhstan for an average of 5 to 10 years. Their children were put in orphanages to be brought up as Soviet, with no knowledge of their 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.[23]


  1. ^ Goldman, Wendy Z. (2011). Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin's Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-19196-8. p. 217.
  2. ^ Snyder, Timothy (January 27, 2011). "Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse?". The New York Review of Books. p. 1, paragraph #7. Retrieved June 12, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Н.В.Петров, А.Б.Рогинский. "Польская операция" НКВД 1937–1938 гг. (in Russian). НИПЦ «Мемориал». Retrieved May 27, 2012. Original title: О фашистско-повстанческой, шпионской, диверсионной, пораженческой и террористической деятельности польской разведки в СССР 
  4. ^ Snyder, Timothy (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00239-9. pp. 103–104.
  5. ^ Joshua Rubenstein. "The Devils’ Playground". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2011. Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and a co-editor of The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories. 
  6. ^ a b Robert Gellately, Ben Kiernan (2003). The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective.. Cambridge University Press. p. 396. ISBN 0521527503. Polish operation (page 233 –) 
  7. ^ "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. 
  8. ^ Original doc. (see full text in the Russian language) entitled: "О фашистско-повстанческой, шпионской, диверсионной, пораженческой и террористической деятельности польской разведки в СССР." Хлевнюк О. В. Политбюро: Механизмы политической власти в 1930-е гг. М., 1996.
  9. ^ a b Matthew Kaminski (October 18, 2010). "Savagery in the East". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  10. ^ a b Prof. Bogdan Musial (January 25–26, 2011). "The 'Polish operation' of the NKVD". The Baltic and Arctic Areas under Stalin. Ethnic Minorities in the Great Soviet Terror of 1937-38. University of Stefan Wyszyński in Warsaw. p. 17. Retrieved April 26, 2011. UMEA International Research Group. Abstracts of Presentations. 
  11. ^ Dr. Eric J. Schmaltz. "Soviet "Paradise" Revisited: Genocide, Dissent, Memory and Denial". GRHS Heritage Society. Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  12. ^ OA Gorlanov. "A breakdown of the chronology and the punishment, NKVD Order № 00485 (Polish operation) in Google translate". Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  13. ^ McLoughlin, References, p. 164
  14. ^ Michael Ellman, Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited PDF file
  15. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar, page 229. Vintage Books, New York 2003. Vintage ISBN 1-4000-7678-1]
  16. ^ Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (2011-01-15). "Nieopłakane ludobójstwo (Genocide Not Mourned)". Rzeczpospolita. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  17. ^ 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. 
  18. ^ "Rozstrzelać Polaków. Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim (To Execute the Poles. Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union)". Historyton. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ "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. 
  22. ^ "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. 
  23. ^ Michał Jasiński (2010-10-27). "Zapomniane ludobójstwo stalinowskie (The forgotten Stalinist genocide)". Gliwicki klub Fondy. Czytelnia. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]