Osadniks (Polish: osadnik/osadnicy, "settler/settlers, colonist/colonists") were veterans of the Polish Army and civilians who were given or sold state land in the Kresy (current Western Belarus and western Ukraine) territory ceded to Poland by Polish-Soviet Riga Peace Treaty of 1921 (and occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939 and ceded to it after World War II). The term is a Polish word, also a loanword used in Soviet Union.
Shortly before the battle of Warsaw on August 7, 1920, the Premier of Poland, Wincenty Witos, announced that after the war volunteers and soldiers who served on the front would have priority in purchase of state-owned land, while the soldiers to receive medals for bravery would receive land free of charge. The announcement was one of the means to repair the Polish morale, shaken after the retreat from the east. On December 17 the Sejm (Polish parliament) passed the Act on Nationalization of North-Eastern Powiats of the Republic and Act on Granting the Soldiers of the Polish Army with Land. Both of these acts allowed the demobilised soldiers to apply for land parcels. The acts of parliament applied for powiats of Grodno and Wołożyn of Białystok Voivodeship, as well as 20 other powiats in the eastern voivodeships of Poland.
In the spring of 1921 the first groups of settlers arrived to newly established settlements in Wołyń, which according to Polish historian Lidia Głowacka, were located in what formerly constituted the property of major landowners: the Russian treasury ("kazyonnye zemli") and the tsar's family, some secularised monasteries or lands abandoned by the Russian nobility retreating from the area before the German arrival in 1915. Some land was also purchased by the state from Polish nobility.
A typical plot of land had the area of under 20 hectares, though soldiers with a university diploma could in theory receive up to 45 hectares free of charge, to create the so-called exemplary farms. In reality however there were more applicants than free land and even the recipients of the Virtuti Militari medal had to pay for their plots. Although the government promised help to the settlers, in fact most of them received little but the land itself. At times the regiments in which the soldiers served provided them with forage and demobilized horses. The cost of the land itself was to be repaid by the settlers five years after the start of the programme, with the yearly rent set at between 30 and 100 kilogrammes of rye per hectare.
Permanent economical difficulties of the newly reestablished state as well as strong opposition to the idea of creation of soldier settlements along the eastern border of Poland, made the action to be halted in 1923. The action was equally opposed by local major landowners and peasantry. The earlier feared that their own property might also be nationalised and distributed among the settlers, while the latter group was enraged by the fact that the redistributed land had often been rented to them by the previous owners, the deals were made null and void by the Russian state's disappearance and the nationalisation.
By 1923, out of 99,153 applicants only 7,345 actually received the parcels. Out of hundreds of planned villages in the Wołyń Voivodeship only three were ever actually created, with 51 inhabitants altogether. The pace of the action was equally slow in other parts of the area. Altogether the land granted to the demobilized soldiers amounted to 1,331.46 km². Out of 8732 plots of land allotted to demobilised soldiers only 5557 have actually been settled by January 1, 1923. Some state-owned land parcels were also sold to civilians, establishing civilian or mixed settlements.
Although after the May Coup d'État of 1926 the action was restarted, it never gained significant momentum and came to a complete halt between 1929 and 1933. Altogether, the osadnik families received over 6000 km² of land. The government tried to revive the project once more after 1935, with little success. Because of the Great Depression the prices of basic food products dropped and all the settler farms were in the red, with the average debt reaching 458 złoty per every hectare of land (that is between 800 and 1700 modern Euro, depending on conversion method).
Most of the military and civilian settlers were members of the Settlers' Union (Polish: Związek Osadników). The organization, founded as early as March 1922, promoted self-organization of osadnik communities, provided them with cheap credits, scholarships at various universities of agriculture and founded a number of schools.
After the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland and incorporation of Kresy into the Soviet Union, the term became one of the categories of crimes in a Soviet penal system. Initially branded as kulaks, from the very first days became a target of Soviet propaganda as enemies of the people. Their property was often taken by the new authorities in violation of Soviet law and there were numerous cases of government-inspired violence against the "osadniks". This led approximately 10 percent of the settlers to abandon their homes and escape through the so-called Border of Peace to German-held General Government.
Since late 1939 osadniks were being deported en masse to Northern European Russia, Ural and Siberia according to the Sovnarkom Decree about special settlement and labor engagement of "osadniks" deported from Western areas of USSR and BSSR of December 29, 1939. It was broadened to include all formerly Polish citizens who purchased any land after 1918, be them real settlers from other parts of Poland or local peasants who bought land in neighbouring villages. Estimated 140,000 osadniks were deported on February 10, 1940, be they real or alleged osadniks. The majority of them (about 115,000) were of Polish nationality, also about 10,000 Ukrainians, 11,000 Belarusians, and about 2,000 others. In GULAG paperwork, osadniks were in a separate category of deportees: "special settlers — 'osadniks' and 'foresters'". After that three more waves of Polish deportations were carried out, classified with different categories. The largest deported Polish population was in Arkhangelsk Oblast; e.g., the whole Polish labor camps existed in the Kotlas area. High mortality of deported was reported; for example, by July 1, 1941 over 10,000 osadniks were officially reported dead. It is to be noted, that the original settlers formed a much smaller group than those who were labelled as osadniks by the Soviet authorities.
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- Павел Полян (2001). Не по своей воле... (Pavel Polian, Against Their Will... A History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR). ОГИ Мемориал, Moscow, 2001. ISBN 5-94282-007-4.
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- (Polish) Society of Civilian and Military Settler Families of the Kresy
- (Russian) Soviet repressions against Poles and citizens of Poland, by Memorial society