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 includes in particular, Hrodna and Brest voblasts, as well as parts of today's Minsk and Vitsebsk oblasts. The city of Bialystok (Belarusian: Беласток, Bielastok) with surroundings was included in BSSR in 1939 but was returned to Poland after the Second World War. The city of Wilno (Belarusian: Вільня, Vilnia, today's Vilnius), also included in the BSSR, was given by the USSR to the Republic of Lithuania which soon after that became the Lithuanian SSR.
In 1918, the territory later known as West Belarus has been declared part of the Belarusian People's Republic. The territorial claims of the newly proclaimed independent Belarusian state included territories with a Belarusian majority and were determined basing on the 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 People's 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 People's Republic, including the western part of Belarus as well.
Map of the Belarusian People's Republic, 1918
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 a macroregion called Kresy Wschodnie or Eastern borderlands.
The exiled government of the Belarusian People's Republic issued numerous protests which have been ignored by the Soviets and Poland.
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
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.
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.
According to the Riga Peace Treaty, the Polish government was obliged to guarantee rights of ethnic Belarusians to develop their culture and language. However, in practice these rights were constantly violated.
A major part of the West Belarusian population received the annexation of West Belarus by Poland with apathy and scepticism. The Polish military treated the local population badly. The Polish administration often introduced harsh repressive measures (pacyfikacja) against the West Belarusian population.
The Polish government had negotiations with the West Belarusian political leadership but unlike the Soviets it refused to grant the former Western part of the Belarusian People's Republic any, even symbolic, form of autonomy within the Polish national state and abandond the earlier ideas of creating a federal state on the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Following the intentions of the majority of the Polish society, the Polish government introduced harsh policies of polonization and assimilation of Belarusians in West Belarus. The Polish official Leopold Skulski, an advocate of polonization policies, is being quoted as saying in the Sejm in late 1930s: "I assure you that in some ten years you won't be able to find a single [ethnic] Belarusian [in West Belarus]"
Belarusian media in Poland faced increased pressure and censorship from the authorities. Out of 23 Belarusian newspapers and magazines published in 1927, by 1933 only 8 were left five years later.
Orthodox Christians also faced discrimination in interwar Poland. This discrimination was also targeting assimilation of Eastern Orthodox Belarusians. The Polish authorities were imposing Polish language in Orthodox church services and ceremonies, initiated the creation of Polish Orthodox Societies in various parts of West Belarus (Slonim, Bielastok, Vaŭkavysk, Navahrudak).
Belarusian Roman Catholic priests like Fr. Vincent Hadleŭski who promoted Belarusian language in the church and Belarusian national awareness were also under serious pressure by the Polish regime. Starting from 1921, the Polish Catholic Church issued documents to priests prohibiting the usage of the Belarusian language rather than Polish language in Churches and Catholic Sunday Schools in West Belarus. A 1921 Warsaw-published instruction of the Polish Catholic Church criticized the priests introducing the Belarusian language in religious life: “They want to switch from the rich Polish language to a language that the people themselves call simple and shabby”.
Before 1921, there were 514 Belarusian language schools in West Belarus. In 1928, there were only 69 schools which was just 3% of all existing schools in West Belarus at that moment. All of them were shut down by the Polish authorities by 1939. The Polish officials openly prevented the creation of Belarusian schools and were imposing Polish language in school education in West Belarus. The officials explained this with the fact that the limited edition of a first-ever textbook of Belarusian grammar was written no earlier that 1918. The Polish officials often treated any Belarusian demanding schooling in Belarusian language as a Soviet spy and any Belarusian social activity as a product of a communist plot.
The Belarusian civil society resisted polonization and mass closure of Belarusian schools. The Belarusian Schools Society (Belarusian: Таварыства беларускай школы), led by Branisłaŭ Taraškievič and other activists, was the main organization promoting education in Belarusian language in West Belarus in 1921-1937.
According to Belarusian historians, the authoritarian Polish regime used mass arrests and tortures against the population of West Belarus which has provoked protests from the population and increased the loyalty of West Belarusians towards the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, Belarusian partisan units arose in many areas of West Belarus, mostly unorganized but sometimes led by activists of Belarusian left wing parties. In the spring of 1922, several thousands Belarusian partisans issued a demand to the Polish government to stop the violence, to liberate political prisoners and to grant autonomy to West Belarus. Protests were held in various regions of West Belarus until mid 1930s.
Compared to the (larger) Ukrainian minority living in Poland, Belarusians were much less politically aware and active. The largest Belarusian political organization was the Belarusian Peasants' and Workers' Union, also refereed to as the Hramada.
Hramada received logistical help from the USSR and Comintern and was a cover for the more radical illegal Communist Party of West Belarus. It was therefore banned by the Polish authorities, its leaders were sentenced to various terms in prison and then handed out to the USSR, where they were killed by the Soviet regime
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". Many ethnic Belarusians initially welcomed unification with the Belorussian SSR, but 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.
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.
Collectivization, deportations and ethnic cleansing
The Belarusian political parties and the society in West Belarus often lacked information about repressions in the USSR and was under strong influence of Soviet propaganda. Because of bad economic conditions and national discrimination of Belarusian in Poland, much of the population of West Belarus welcomed the annexation by the USSR.
However, soon after the annexation of West Belarus by the USSR, the Belarusian political activists had no illusions as to the friendliness of the Soviet regime. The population grew less loyal as the economic conditions became even worse and as the new regime carried out mass repressions and deportations that targeted Belarusians as well as ethnic Poles.
Immediately after the annexation, the Soviet authorities carried out the nationalization of agricultural land owned by large landowners in West Belarus. Collectivization and the creation of collective farms (kolkhoz) was planned to be carried out on a more slow pace than in East Belarus in the 1920s. By 1941, in the western regions of the BSSR the number of individual farms decreased only by 7%; 1115 collective farms were created. At the same time, pressure and even repressions against larger farmers (called by the Soviet propaganda, kulaki) began: the size of agricultural land for one individual farm was limited to 10ha, 12ha and 14ha dependind on quality of the land. It was forbidden to hire workers and to lease land.
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.
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 and ethnic cleansing of Poles are being signified by the state.
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- From the Third Constituent Charter by the Rada of the Belarusian People's Republic: The Belarusan People's 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.
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В отношении белорусов и национальных меньшинств польское правительство при помощи государственного аппарата, учебных заведений, печати, католической церкви проводило политику насильственной полонизации. Белорусы были лишены возможности обучаться на родном языке. Из 514 белорусских школ, действовавших в Западной Беларуси до 1921 г., к 1939-ому не осталось ни одной. В 1938/1939 учебном году в Западной Беларуси не посещали занятия более 100 тыс. белорусских детей. Не случайно поэтому, как свидетельствуют данные на начало 1939 г., 35% населения не умело ни читать, ни писать. Административно-полицейские власти преследовали всякую гражданскую активность, идеологическое инакомыслие, проявление национального самосознания западно-белорусского населения путем штрафов, арестов, карательных экспедиций, пацификаций (превентивного усмирения), массовых судебных и политических процессов. Тысячи коммунистов, комсомольцев, беспартийных активистов из рабочих, крестьян, прогрессивной интеллигенции были брошены в тюрьмы. Через созданный в 1934 г. Берёза-Картузский лагерь за 5 лет его существования прошли (по неполным данным) более 10 тыс. заключенных.
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