Three major issues have been deeply imprinted in Polish collective historical memory regarding relations with Soviet (and earlier, czarist) Russia. The first is the partitions and the so-called "deportations" (from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century), which constituted repression of political opponents or prisoners of war and their families. The second is the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920, crowned by the "Miracle on the Vistula," and the third is the Katyn massacre, which followed the USSR's aggression on September 17, 1939, under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. One could also add to them the "liberating" march on Berlin by the Red Army, which left behind looted and deliberately destroyed homes, raped women and the corpses of Polish soldiers of the underground. Poles probably also remember Stalinist terror, often carried out by the hands of Polish-speaking (though not always) comrades brought in on Russian tanks, but the first three issues a Pole encountered on the street would mention with fairly high probability.

 

Communist terror

 

Even though all of the above-mentioned - let's call them - "historical grievances" prove the permanent and often barbaric harassment of Poland by its eastern neighbour. There is one more historical episode, the significance, eloquence and drama of which are not inferior to the others. We are talking about the planned extermination of Poles on ethnic (but also religious) grounds, sometimes referred to as the "Holocaust of Poles" to illustrate the tragedy of the situation, the so-called "Polish Operation of the NKVD," which took place between 1937 and 1938.

 

The operations, which targeted the Polish population living in the areas incorporated into the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics under the 1921 Riga Treaty, as well as Poles in Odesa, Kyiv, Moscow, Leningrad, and Siberia, were initiated based on People's Commissar for Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov's order number 00485, dated August 11, 1937. 

 

According to researchers at Russia's Memorial, "in less than 16 months, more than 143,000 people were arrested, nearly 140,000 were tried, including at least 111,091 sentenced to death, which is 80 per cent of the accused." However, these are estimates, due to the lack of access to Russian and Belarusian archives. Some historians, however, claim that as a result of the Russian genocide, more than 200,000 Poles died during this time. According to Soviet sources, some 29,000 people of Polish nationality were to be sent to the gulags.

 

“Terror in the first communist utopia hit various social and national groups, sweeping in waves from time to time from Ukraine and Belarus to Kamchatka, from the White Sea and the Arctic Ocean to Mongolia. The Bolsheviks' goal was to maintain power over an ethnically diverse population in which Russians did not even make up half (43 per cent of the population), to gain full control of the state and to build a "new society," including by exterminating large segments of the population perceived as not loyal enough, including the Orthodox and Catholic clergy, peasants, the intelligentsia, business owners, and representatives of minorities, who were, after all, the "majority," reads the IPN publication "The NKVD Polish Operation 1937-1938," by Anna Zechenter.

 

They tried to "appease" Poles 

 

Before the "Great Terror" took place in 1937-1938, the USSR authorities had pinned some hopes on assimilating Poles into the communist reality by creating two autonomous regions, the so-called "Marchlewski Region" (Julian Marchlewski's Polish National District in Ukraine in 1925) and "Dzerzhinsky Region" (Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Polish National District in Belarus in 1932). This procedure, however, did not pass the test from their point of view, so opposing forced collectivization and, just as importantly, opposing atheist Catholics, Poles were ultimately treated as "enemies of the people" by the Soviet regime.

 

 

"(...) The authorities ended the Polish "national experiment" with particular zeal because the residents of both districts felt bound to their national tradition and Catholicism. The failure to establish kolkhozes, of which dramatically fewer were established than in other autonomies, made the Bolsheviks realize that their intentions had been pointless."

 

As a result, in 1935 "Marchlewski Region" was dissolved, three years later "Dzerzhinsky Region" was dissolved, and Poles began to be massively deported to Kazakhstan, northern Karelia and the Belarusian and Ukrainian SSR. According to NKVD reports cited in the IPN material, "the two largest deportations to Kazakhstan in 1936 involved about 100,000 Poles." Although they had already been sent to deportations since the mid-1930s, it was the NKVD's so-called Polish operation that sealed their fate.

 

The final solution to the Polish case

 

People's Commissar of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov's Order No. 00485, dated August 11, 1937, declared Poles to be "spies at the service of Warsaw intelligence."

 

Arrested Poles were to be divided into groups: "The first category, which includes all spy, sabotage, pest and insurgent intelligence groups, is subject to execution. The second category, less active than them, is subject to imprisonment in prisons and gulags with a sentence of 5 to 10 years." The end of the operation was scheduled for November 20, 1937. 

 

“One of the pretexts for the repression of Poles was to be alleged membership in the defunct (since 1921) Polish Military Organization, and "sentences" were to be undertaken by “two NKVD’s officers”. The type of offence was described briefly: "Polish counter-revolutionary," "enemy of the Soviet Union," "Polish kulak," "Piłsudzki supporter," "active Catholic activist," or "member of the Polish counter-revolutionary POW organization." No care was taken with appearances, no fabrication of evidence.”

 

Based on such qualifications, the documents, which were called scrapbooks, were presented for approval by the "central two," that is, Yezhov and the Procurator General of the Soviet Union Andrey Vyshinsky, but this was a mere formality.

 

“Very good! Keep digging and remove this Polish dirt," Stalin wrote in the margins of Yezhov's report after less than three weeks of repression, from which he learned that more than 23,000 Poles had already been arrested.

 

The NKVD’s officers were in a great hurry and often killed Poles (most by shooting them in the back of the head) before the documents of the so-called "two officers" reached Lubianka for approval. Traces of the crime were obliterated by dumping the bodies of the murdered people in pits located in forests, including Bykovnia and Kuropaty, but their nameless graves are also found in other places in the former USSR.

 

Whom they did not kill, they sent to the gulag

 

Four days after issuing the first order, Yezhov issued a disposition specifying the treatment of the families (mainly women, as well as children) of those arrested. In order 00486, he recommended that "they should be sentenced to 5-8 years on charges of knowledge of counter-revolutionary activities of relatives," and this regardless of their condition.

 

Children (including infants) were sent to state-run institutions, which were supposed to raise them to be "good" communists. Care was taken not to place siblings in the same institutions. Women and 15-year-olds were treated as "socially dangerous and capable of anti-Soviet activity" and punished with a stay in a gulag or labour colonies.