Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937–38)

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Polish Operation of the NKVD
Part of Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union (1937–1938) [1][2]
Nikolai Yezhov conferring with Stalin.jpg
Yezhov and Stalin, USSR, 1937
Location Soviet Union, modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others
Date 1937–1938
Target Ethnic Poles
Attack type
Prison shootings
Deaths At least 111,091 Poles executed
Perpetrators NKVD security forces

The Polish Operation of the Soviet NKVD security service in 1937–1938 was a mass operation of the NKVD carried out against purported Polish agents in the Soviet Union during the period of the Great Purge. It was ordered by the Politburo 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 ethnic Poles,[3][3][4] as well as those accused of working for Poland.[5] The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order № 00485 signed by Nikolai Yezhov.[6] The majority of the victims were ethnically Polish but not all, according to Timothy Snyder, who gives a conservative estimate of 85,000 confirmed Poles executed simultaneously across the country.[7] The remainder were 'suspected' of being Polish, without further inquiry.[6]

In order to speed up the process the NKVD personnel reviewed local telephone books and arrested persons with Polish-sounding names. In Leningrad alone, almost 7,000 citizens were rounded up this way. A vast majority of such nominal "suspects" were executed within 10 days of arrest.[8]

The Polish Operation was the largest ethnic shooting and deportation action during the Great Terror campaign of political murders in the Soviet Union, orchestrated by Joseph Stalin.[9][10]

Order № 00485[edit]

First page of one of the copies of the Order No. 00485, archived by the Kharkov branch of the NKVD.
Main article: Order № 00485

The top secret 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.[6] 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".[11] Stalin demanded the NKVD to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth."[2]

The "Order" also established simplified the so-called "album procedure" (as it was called in NKVD circles). The long lists of prisoners condemned by the lower NKVD organs during the initial investigations, were collected into "albums" and sent to the midrange NKVD offices for a stamp of approval. After the approval of the entire "album" the executions were carried out immediately. This procedure was also used in other mass operations of the NKVD.[12]

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.[2] Historian Timothy Snyder wrote that 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.[2] Another possible cause according to Snyder might have sprung from the necessity to explain 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.[13]

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.[3]

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.[14] 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);[15] 139,835 victims in total.[16] This number constitutes 10% of the total number of people officially convicted during the Yezhovshchina period, based on confirming NKVD documents.[17]

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."[14] Historian Michael Ellman asserts that the 'national operations', particularly the 'Polish operation', may constitute genocide as defined by the UN convention.[18] His opinion is shared by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who calls the Polish operation of the NKVD 'a mini-genocide.'[19] Polish writer and commentator, Dr Tomasz Sommer, also refers to the operation as a genocide, along with Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz among others.[1][20][21][22][23][24][25]

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.[26]


  1. ^ a b Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (2011-01-15). "Nieopłakane ludobójstwo (Genocide Not Mourned)". Rzeczpospolita. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d Matthew Kaminski (October 18, 2010). "Savagery in the East". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c 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 –) 
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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 
  7. ^ Snyder, Timothy (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00239-9. pp. 103–104.
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ "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. 
  10. ^ Uilleam Blacker, Alexander Etkind, Julie Fedor (2013). Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe. Introduction (Palgrave Macmillan). p. 21. ISBN 1137322063. Retrieved 18 February 2015. 
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Werth, Nicolas (20 May 2010). "The NKVD Mass Secret National Operations (August 1937 - November 1938)" (PDF). Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. MassViolence.org. pp. 4 of 10. ISSN 1961-9898. Retrieved 7 August 2015. 
  13. ^ Timothy Snyder (2005), Sketches from a Secret War Yale University Press, p. 129. ISBN 030010670X
  14. ^ a b Prof. Bogdan Musial (January 25–26, 2011). "The 'Polish operation' of the NKVD" (PDF). 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. 
  15. ^ Dr. Eric J. Schmaltz. "Soviet "Paradise" Revisited: Genocide, Dissent, Memory and Denial" (PDF). GRHS Heritage Society. Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  16. ^ O.A. Gorlanov. "A breakdown of the chronology and the punishment, NKVD Order № 00485 (Polish operation) in Google translate". Retrieved April 26, 2011. 
  17. ^ McLoughlin, References, p. 164.
  18. ^ Michael Ellman, Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited PDF file
  19. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar, page 229. Vintage Books, New York 2003. Vintage ISBN 1-4000-7678-1]
  20. ^ 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. 
  21. ^ "Rozstrzelać Polaków. Ludobójstwo Polaków w Związku Sowieckim (To Execute the Poles. Genocide of Poles in the Soviet Union)". Historyton. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 
  22. ^ Andrzej Macura, 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. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ "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. 
  25. ^ "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. 
  26. ^ Michał Jasiński (2010-10-27). "Zapomniane ludobójstwo stalinowskie (The forgotten Stalinist genocide)". Gliwicki klub Fondy. Czytelnia. Retrieved April 28, 2011. 

Further reading[edit]