Polish Operation of the NKVD
|Polish Operation of the NKVD|
|Part of the Great Purge|
Nikolai Yezhov and Stalin, USSR, 1937
|Location||Soviet Union, modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others|
|Deaths||+ / - 111,091|
22% of the Polish population of the USSR was "sentenced" by the operation (140,000 people)
|Perpetrators||Soviet Union (NKVD)|
The Polish Operation of the NKVD (Soviet security service) in 1937–1938 was a mass operation of the NKVD carried out in the Soviet Union against Poles (labeled by the Soviets as "agents") during the period of the Great Purge. It was ordered by the Politburo of the Communist Party against the so-called "Polish spies" and customarily interpreted by the NKVD officials as relating to 'absolutely all Poles'. It resulted in the sentencing of 139,835 people, and summary executions of 111,091 Poles living in the USSR. The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order No. 00485 signed by Nikolai Yezhov. The majority of the shooting victims were ethnically Polish, but not all (with several others belonging to various minority groups from the Kresy macro-region, ex. Ruthenians) these groups in the Soviet worldview had some element of Polish culture or heritage, and were therefore also "Polish". The remainder were 'suspected' of being Polish, without further inquiry, or classed as possibly having pro-Polish sympathies. In order to speed up the process, the NKVD personnel reviewed local telephone books and arrested persons with Polish-sounding names.
The Polish Operation was the largest ethnic shooting and deportation action during the Great Purge campaign of political murders in the Soviet Union, orchestrated by Nikolai Yezhov. It is also the largest killing of Poles in history outside any armed conflict.
NKVD Order № 00485
The top secret NKVD Order No. 00485, titled "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 from Yezhov was titled, "On fascist-resurrectionist, spying, diversional, defeationist, and terrorist activity of Polish intelligence in the USSR". Stalin demanded the NKVD to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth."
The "Order" adopted the simplified so-called "album procedure" (as it was called in NKVD circles). The long lists of Poles condemned by a lower NKVD organ (so-called dvoika, a two-man team) during early meetings, were then collected into "albums" and sent to the midrange NKVD offices for a stamp of approval by a troika (a three-man team; a communist official, NKVD leader, and party procurator). Poles were the first ever major Soviet population group to be sentenced in this manner. After the approval of the entire "album", the executions were carried out immediately. This procedure was also used later on in other mass operations of the NKVD.
The "Polish Operation" was a second in a series of national operations of the NKVD, carried out by the Soviet Union against ethnic groups including Latvian, Finnish, German and Romanian, based on a theory about an internal enemy (i.e. the fifth column) labelled as the "hostile capitalist surrounding" residing along its western borders. In opinion of historian Timothy Snyder, this fabricated justification was intended only to cover-up the state-sanctioned campaign of mass-murder aiming to eradicate Poles as a national (and linguistic) minority group. Another possible cause, according to Snyder, might have sprung from the necessity to explain the Holodomor, the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine, which required a political scapegoat. A top Soviet official Vsevolod Balitsky chose the Polish Military Organization which was disbanded in 1921. The NKVD declared that it continued to exist. Some Soviet Poles were tortured in order to confess to its existence, and denounce other individuals as spies. Meanwhile, the Communist International helped by revisiting its files in search of Polish members, producing another bountiful source of made-up evidence.
Targets of the operation
The operation took place approximately from August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938. 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 of Poland, as well as from the southern Urals, northern Caucasus and the rest of Siberia, including the Far East.
The following categories of people were arrested by the NKVD during its Polish Operation, as described in Soviet documents:
- "Active" members of the Polish minority in Soviet Union (practically all Poles).
- All immigrants from the Second Polish Republic.
- 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 remaining in the Soviet Union.
- Members of the Polish Military Organisation listed in the special list (most of them were not members of that organisation).
Although the Soviet authorities claim that the executed victims were ethnic Poles, a part of those killed were actually ethnic Belarusians, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians mistaken for being ethnic Poles due to their surnames or religious denominations. 47.3% of the total number of "Poles" who were arrested in Belarus were actually ethnic Belarusian Catholics, of whom many declared themselves to be Poles in the 1920s. They made up 14.2% of those arrested in the Polish Operation across the Soviet Union (September–November 1938). 13.4% of those arrested were ethnic Ukrainians. 8.8% of the arrested were ethnic Russians.
Killing process and death toll
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; 139,835 victims in total. This number constitutes 10% of the total number of people officially convicted during the Yezhovshchina period, based on confirming NKVD documents.
According to historian Bogdan Musiał: "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 or deported." Musiał is also of the opinion that "it does not seem unlikely, as Soviet statistics indicate, that the number of Poles dropped from 792,000 in 1926 to 627,000 in 1939." Timothy Snyder gives a conservative estimate of 85,000 confirmed Poles executed simultaneously across the country.
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. Orphaned children without relatives willing to take them 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 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.
In Leningrad, the NKVD reviewed local telephone books and arrested almost 7,000 citizens with Polish-sounding name with the vast majority of such nominal "suspects" were executed within 10 days of arrest.
According to historian Michael Ellman, "The ‘national operations’ of 1937–38, notably the ‘Polish operation’, may qualify as genocide as defined by the UN Convention, although there is as yet no legal ruling on the matter". Some others do consider it genocide according to the International Law. Historian Terry Martin, refers to the "national operations", including the "Polish Operation", as ethnic cleansing and "ethnic terror". According to Martin, the singling out of diaspora nationalities for arrest and mass execution "verged on the genocidal". Historian Timothy Snyder called the Polish Operation genocidal: "It is hard not to see the Soviet "Polish Operation" of 1937-38 as genocidal: Polish fathers were shot, Polish mothers sent to Kazakhstan, and Polish children left in orphanages where they would lose their Polish identity. As more than 100,000 innocent people were killed on the spurious grounds that theirs was a disloyal ethnicity, Stalin spoke of "Polish filth"." Norman Naimark called Stalin's policy towards Poles in the 1930s "genocidal;" however he doesn't consider the Great Purge genocidal because it targeted also political opponents.
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Polish operation (page 233 –)
- Wendy Z. Goldman (2011). Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin's Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-521-19196-8.
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Original title: О фашистско-повстанческой, шпионской, диверсионной, пораженческой и террористической деятельности польской разведки в СССР
- Timothy Snyder (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books. pp. 103–104. ISBN 978-0-465-00239-9.
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- Original document. Full text of the Order in the Russian language. "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.
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Official documents of the State Security Administration show that 'ethnicity alone was sufficient grounds for arrest.' – Dr. Iryna Ramanava, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
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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.
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- Paczkowski, Andrzej (1999), "Poland, the "Enemy Nation"", in Stéphane Courtois; et al. (eds.), Black Book of Communism, pp. 372–375