West Belarus (Belarusian: Заходняя Беларусь, Zachodniaja Bielaruś) is the name used in reference to the territory of modern Belarus which belonged to the Second Polish Republic between 1919 and 1939. The territory forming today's western part of Belarus include in particular, Hrodna and Brest voblasts, as well as parts of today's Minsk and Vitsebsk oblasts.
In 1918, the territory later known as West Belarus has been declared part of the Belarusian Democratic Republic. The territorial claims of the newly proclaimed independent Belarusian state included territories with a Belarusian majority and were determined basing on earlier ethnographic research by ethnographers Yefim Karsky (1903) and Mitrofan Dovnar-Zapol'skiy (1919).
By 1919, the Bolsheviks took control over large parts of Belarus forced the government of the Belarusian Democratic Republic into exile. A Soviet republic - the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was declared by the Bolsheviks on roughly the same territory as the Belarusian Democratic Republic, including the western part of Belarus as well.
Pursuant to the Treaty of Riga signed in March 1921 between Poland, Soviet Russia (on behalf of Soviet Byelorussia) and the Soviet Ukraine (thus ending the Polish-Soviet War), the territories of Belarus were divided between the newly reborn Second Polish Republic and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The area that became part of Poland formed the central part of the Kresy macroregion.
The new borders established between the two countries remained in force throughout the interwar period, up until the outbreak of World War II following the 17 September 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. They were later redrawn during the Yalta Conference and Potsdam Conference. In Soviet times, the annexed territory was called West Belarus as opposed to East Belarus.
Second Polish Republic
Thousands of Poles settled in the area in the years that followed the Peace of Riga., many of them were given land by the government (see Osadnik). In the elections of November 1922, a Belarusian party (in the Blok Mniejszości Narodowych coalition) obtained 14 seats in the Polish parliament (11 of them in the lower chamber, Sejm). In the spring of 1923, Polish prime minister Władysław Sikorski ordered a report on the situation of the Belarusian minority in Poland. That summer, a new regulation was passed allowing for the Belarusian language to be used officially both in courts and in schools. Obligatory teaching of the Belarusian language was introduced in all Polish gymnasia in areas inhabited by Belarusians in 1927.
Compared to the (larger) Ukrainian minority living in Poland, Belarusians were much less politically aware and active. The largest Belarusian political organization, the Belarusian Peasants' and Workers' Union Hramada, received logistical help from the Soviet emissaries, and financial aid from the Comintern. By 1927 Hramada was controlled entirely by agents from Moscow. It was banned by the Polish authorities, and further opposition to the Polish government was met with state-imposed sanctions once the connection between Hramada and the Soviet Communist Party of Western Belarus was discovered.
Tensions between the increasingly nationalistic Polish government and various increasingly separatist ethnic minority groups continued to grow, and the Belarusian minority was no exception. Likewise, according to Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, the USSR considered Poland to be "enemy number one". During the Great Soviet Purge, the Polish Autonomous District at Dzyarzhynsk (Polish: Kojdanów) was disbanded and the Soviet NKVD undertook the so-called "Polish Operation" (from approximately August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938) – a program of deportation and shootings that targeted Poles in East Belarus. The operation caused the deaths of to 250,000 people – out of an official ethnic Polish population of 636,000 – as a result of political murder, disease or starvation. Amongst these, at least 111,091 members of the Polish minority were shot by NKVD troykas. Many were murdered in prison executions, according to Bogdan Musial. In addition, several hundred thousand ethnic Poles from Belarus and Ukraine were deported to other parts of the USSR.
The Soviets also promoted Soviet-controlled East Belarus as formally autonomous, in order to attract Belarusians living in Poland. This image was attractive to many West Belarusian national leaders and some of them, like Francišak Alachnovič or Uładzimir Žyłka emigrated from Poland to East Belarus, but very soon became victims of Soviet repression.
In 1939, the Soviet invasion of Poland was portrayed by Soviet propaganda as the "liberation of West Belarus and Ukraine". Some ethnic Belarusians who had initially welcomed unification with the Belorussian SSR, changed their attitude after experiencing the Soviet system. From 1939 on, with the exception of a brief period of Nazi occupation, almost all Belarusians previously living in Poland would live in the Belorussian SSR.
Soviet invasion of Poland
Soon after the Nazi-Soviet Invasion of Poland in September of 1939, the area of West Belarus was annexed into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic following staged elections decided by the NKVD in the atmosphere of complete terror. The citizens were told repeatedly that the deportations to Siberia were imminent. Their ballot envelopes were numbered so as to remain traceable.
Annexation of West Belarus by the USSR
The Soviet occupational administration organized their elections into a National assembly of West Belarus (Belarusian: Народны сход Заходняй Беларусі) on October 22, 1939, less than two weeks after the invasion. The so-called Elections to the People's Assemblies of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus took place under total control of the NKVD secret police and the Party agents from Russia. At times, the Belarusian civilians extracted from homes were brought to the voting halls under armed escorts. Their envelopes were numbered and oftentimes already sealed. On October 30, the National Assembly session held in Belastok passed the decision of West Belarus joining the USSR and its unification with the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. These petitions were officially accepted by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on November 2 and by the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR on November 12.
However, the Soviet rule was short-lived. The corresponding terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed earlier in Moscow were broken, when the German Army entered the Soviet occupation zone on June 22, 1941 (see German invasion of Poland and Soviet invasion of Poland) After Operation Barbarossa, most of West Belarus became part of the Generalbezirk of Belarus, part of Reichskommissariat Ostland.
Two years later, at the insistence of Joseph Stalin during the Tehran Conference of 1943, the Allies formally agreed that most of West Belarus would remain part of the Belorussian SSR after the end of World War II in Europe. Only the region around Białystok (Belostok, Biełastok) was to be returned to Poland.
The Polish population was soon forcibly resettled. West Belarus in its entirety was incorporated into the Byelorussian SSR (BSSR). It was initially planned to move the capital of the Byelorussian SSR to Vilnius. However, the same year Joseph Stalin ordered that the city and surrounding region be transferred to Lithuania, which some months later was annexed by the Soviet Union and became a new Soviet Republic. Minsk therefore was proclaimed the capital of the enlarged BSSR. The borders of the BSSR were again altered somewhat after the war (notably the area around the city of Białystok (Belastok Voblast) was returned to Poland) but in general they coincide with the borders of the modern Republic of Belarus.
Deportations and ethnic cleansing
Under the Soviet occupation, the Western Belarusian citizenry, particularly the Poles faced a "filtration" procedure by the NKVD apparatus, which resulted in over 100,000 people forcibly deported to eastern parts of the USSR (i.e. Siberia) in the very first wave of expulsions. In total, during the next two years some 1.7 million Polish citizens were put on freight trains and sent from the Polish Kresy to labour camps in the Gulag.
According to the first Polish national census of 1921, there were around 1 million Belarusians in the country. There are historians who estimate the number of Belarusians in Poland at that time to be perhaps 1.7 million or even up to 2 million. In the 1921-1926 period, the newly-independent Poland did not have a consistent policy towards its ethnic minorities yet. The Belarusians in Western Belarus had to contend with the trend towards Polonization and their schools in 1921 were facing financial problems.
After the 1930 elections in Poland, Belarusian representation in the Polish parliament was reduced and in the early 1930s the Polish government started to introduce policies intended to Polonize minorities. Use of the Belarusian language was not being promoted in the light of the fact that the limited edition of a first-ever textbook of Belarusian grammar was written no earlier that 1918. At the onset of World War II only 44 schools teaching in Belarusian still existed in Poland. Meanwhile, refugees from Western Belarus were arrested by Soviet authorities and frequently executed, Kurapaty graves contain many products from Poland - cloths, shoes. The most prominent victim of NKVD was the activist and linguist Branislaw Tarashkyevich. Frantsishak Alyakhnovich was liberated in 1933 after several years in Soviet camps and exchanged toward Tarashkyevich.
Presently, Belarus unofficially celebrates September 17 as the Day of reunification of West Belarus and the BSSR. Nevertheless, there are different opinions regarding this date in the Belarusian society. No political repressions against West Belarusians, collectivization or deportations of Poles, nor their ethnic cleansing are being signified by the state.
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- From the Third Constituent Charter by the Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic: The Belarusan Democratic Republic should include all those lands where the Belarusan people constitute a numerical majority, namely: the Mahileu region, the Belarusan parts of the regions of Miensk, Horadnia (including the cities of Horadnia, Bielastok, and others), Vilnia, Viciebsk, Smalensk, and Charnihau, as well adjacent parts of neighboring gubernias, inhabited by Belarusans.
- Map of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus
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- (Belarusian)Уладзімір Снапкоўскі. Беларусь у геапалітыцы і дыпламатыі перыяду Другой Сусветнай вайны
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