The fruits of Poland’s half-century of communist subjugation included not only murder, humiliation, and attacks on culture and faith. It also saw plunder on an unprecedented scale.
The imposition of the Soviet system, forced tribute, economic collapse, the role of a colonized country, lies about our supposed victory in World War II – all of this was concisely summed up to me in a conversation I once had with a fisherman. When in the seaside resort of Jantar in the late 1970s I tried to buy a smoked eel, the fisherman showed me several fine, freshly caught specimens and assured me that he was obliged to give them up for export to West Germany. “These are for the ones who lost the war!” he declared sarcastically. His bitter irony captured the quintessence of the situation of the Polish People’s Republic after decades of the hegemony of the “brotherly” Soviet Union and the effects of the rule of the Polish communists who were installed in power here.
We must search in vain in his words for any trace of the gratitude to Moscow that was demanded of the Poles for their “liberation from fascist occupation” and the introduction here of a “system of social justice.” He rather felt grievance against the West for serving us up such a fate…
I saw Poland betrayed…
The leaders of the “Big Three” committed a monstrous historical wrong against us shortly before and after the end of the war. Anglo-American politicians gave up the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (among which only Poland had not collaborated with the Third Reich) to the Soviet sphere of influence, happily accepting Stalin’s assurances that “democratic” elections would be held there. It was like giving a sheep into the care of a wolf. The diktat of the victorious powers condemned Poland – the country that first put up armed resistance to Hitler, fought him the longest and most uncompromisingly, and incurred the greatest losses – to the Soviet yoke. The drama began as soon as the Red Army crossed Poland’s pre-war border.
Without the help of the Soviets, the Polish communists had not the slightest chance of taking power in the country. They received that power from the new occupiers in an absolutely unlawful manner. Until the start of July 1945, the Polish government-in-exile was recognized as a subject in international law by everyone except Soviet Russia. The true results of the referendum held in June 1946 and the parliamentary elections of January 1947 proved that three-quarters of Poles did not want communism. The results of both votes were falsified according to the instructions of NKVD officials and under their supervision. They also taught the Polish Office of Security (UB) the art of ruthless terror, marked in particular by the murder of political opponents.
The United States ambassador to Poland, Arthur Bliss Lane, resigned in protest when his alarming reports from Warsaw were ignored in Washington, and went on to write the book I Saw Poland Betrayed. But the democratic West had no wish to intervene against assaults on the foundations of democracy…
Two years earlier it had breathed a sigh of relief when the leader of the Polish People’s Party (PSL) in the London-based government, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, agreed to become deputy prime minister in the Interim Government of National Unity, thus legitimizing Stalin’s communist puppets who had formed the Polish Committee of National Liberation. He also agreed to the giving up of half of the territory of the Second Polish Republic – 69,000 square miles in the eastern borderlands – to the USSR. Their conscience soothed, the Anglo-Americans withdrew their recognition of the legal Polish Government-in-Exile…
In return, and despite the reluctant attitude of the allies in Potsdam, Stalin awarded “People’s” Poland 39,000 square miles of territory in the west (up to the Oder–Neisse line) and part of East Prussia. Several million Germans were expelled to the west, to be replaced by Poles resettled from the Soviet Union: in 1945–46 these included 148,000 from Lithuania, 226,300 from Belarus, and over 750,000 from Ukraine. Almost a quarter of a million people came to Poland from deeper in the USSR, half of whom were Poles. During the second so-called repatriation (it was of course a depatriation) in 1955–59 another quarter of a million Poles arrived in the People’s Republic.
Stalin acted like a gangster, compensating us for the land he took with plundered land that was not his. He profited even more from this, as we will see. Let us note here that, by sliding the Polish state from east to west as if on rails, Stalin performed a perfidious geopolitical maneuver, deepening the age-old Polish–German conflict and making himself the guarantor of our western border. This worked astoundingly well in the communist era, not only on the authorities, but also on Polish society. It stopped working only at the start of the 1990s, following the signing of a pact between the finally sovereign Poland and the German Federal Republic.
In the hands of the NKVD
In 1944, in the recaptured Polish territory centered on Lublin, repressions were carried out on an enormous scale, with the involvement of both the Red Army front-line units and the NKVD. Things had been similar some days earlier in the areas around Vilnius and Lviv, where Polish Home Army soldiers were imprisoned after fighting alongside the Soviets against the Germans, and representatives of the legitimate government-in-exile were arrested if they revealed themselves. The aim was to break the backbone of the forces loyal to the legitimate Polish government, particularly in the areas around Białystok, Warsaw, Lublin and Rzeszów, where a third of the Home Army’s forces were operating. The situation repeated itself in the summer of 1945, after fighting had ended.
The largest “round-up of white Poles” was the sweep of the Augustów Forest carried out by vast Soviet forces between July 12 and 19. The occupying forces were aided by officials of the Polish Office of Security (UB) and a company of the Polish People’s Army (LWP). Of the Poles captured, 592 were murdered. Their remains have still not been found, just like those of 252 handed over to the communist authorities in Lithuania and 1090 who were held for further investigation. Almost two thousand Poles in total!
Resistance to the Soviet occupation arose mainly as a form of self-defense. Wherever the Red Army came, robberies, murders and rapes multiplied. What drove Poles to take up arms, then, was not just the attack on our freedom and sovereignty, but the destruction of family homes and villages, and the need to escape arrest, torture and execution. In early 1945 the Home Army was replaced by the Armed Forces Delegation (DSZ), and this in turn was succeeded by the Association of Freedom and Independence (WiN). Other pro-independence organizations were active alongside the WiN, particularly those that grew out of the national movement, such as the National Military Organization and the National Military Union.
Troops loyal to the legitimate government, the “Indomitables”, fought regular battles against the “red plague” in 1945, including at Kuryłówka on May 7, Las Stocki on May 24, and Miodusy Pokrzywne on August 18. Dozens of communist prisons were stormed, and the prisoners freed. On occasion whole cities or towns were taken over, as happened in Radom, Radomsko, Włodawa, and Biłgoraj. In May and June 1945 the Polish communists sent several army divisions to hunt down the resistance fighters, but these operations were ineffective.
The Soviets treated the Polish lands as a front-line area subject to their authority. In 1945 there were five NKVD divisions operating in Poland: the 57th, 58th, 59th, 63rd and 64th (and later also the 62nd). All of them had the task of combating the Polish underground, and most were subordinate to front commanders. Only the 64th Division reported to the NKVD instructor at the Ministry of Public Safety. This instructor (the real chief of the NKVD) was first Ivan Serov, and then Nikolai Selivanovsky. The NKVD’s 64th General Division of Internal Forces operated until November 1946, mainly in the areas around Lublin and Rzeszów, under the command of Major General Serebryakov.
Soviet officers had a concealed presence in the security apparatus: in Polish positions, performing various roles behind the scenes – in administration, personnel, finance, arms supplies, etc. – and also as advisors in Soviet positions, with no pretense to be Polish officers. There were several hundred of them from the beginning – from county level upwards until 1947. Later they remained only in the provincial authorities and in the Ministry of Public Safety, where several of them were present in each department. The founding principle of the system was carried over from the NKVD: the political police must watch over everything. Not only declared enemies, but the whole of society. Everyone is a suspect. This meant that whole organizational structures were imported intact from the Soviet Union.
NKVD special units captured soldiers from the Polish independence organizations and placed them in what had recently been Nazi concentration camps, such as the Majdanek camp near Lublin, and the Gross-Rosen camp in Rogoźnica. Ministry of Public Safety documents reveal that in April 1945 there were 16 camps functioning in Poland, containing 27,826 prisoners. In the second half of the year the number of camps rose to 28. From January 1945 to August 1946, a total of around 47,000 people were held there.
The largest NKVD camp operated from December 1944 at the site of the Pocisk ammunition factory in Rembertów. It served as a collection point ahead of deportation to deep inside the Soviet Union. On the night of May 20–21, 1945, the camp was stormed by a Home Army unit. What had recently been the Warsaw concentration camp on Gęsia Street was run by the NKVD from January to May 1945, and then by the UB until 1949. Approximately 1,800 people were executed or died there.
The resistance of the independence organizations could not last forever. Soldiers were killed, they lost their support network in the terrorized villages, and finally lost hope: first for a third world war, and then for a change in the situation following elections. In the end, only desperados were left. The last of them (“Lalek”) held out until October 1963.
A million prisoners!
It was said that in the Stalinist era, people could be divided into three groups – current prisoners, former prisoners, and future prisoners. There were always many thousands of political prisoners in the cells, and they would be executed, beaten or tortured. Just like in the Soviet Union…
According to statistics from the Ministry of Public Safety, in 1950 there were 122 operational prisons in Poland. Between 1945 and 1956, all of them were overflowing. The standard from the interwar period which required 13 m3 for each prisoner was not respected; in 1945 it was reduced to 8 m3, which meant an area of two square meters for each prisoner, and at the start of the 1950s the standard was reduced further to 5 m3 (Rawicz, Fordon) or even to 1 m3 (Warsaw, Lublin Castle). The total number of people imprisoned or arrested at some time between 1945 and 1953 was about a million. Around 14,000 people a year were convicted on political charges.
From 1948, prisoners started to be assigned to hard labor in mines in Upper and Lower Silesia or quarries in southern Poland and Pomerania. The Polish version of the Gulag Archipelago was created.
Political prisoners were subjected to various forms of harassment and psychological blackmail; beatings were an everyday occurrence, and “controlled dying” was practiced (doctors were not called to severely sick prisoners – the politician Kazimierz Pużak was one of those who died in this way). Soldiers of the NSZ and NZW national organizations were treated with particular cruelty.
Kazimierz Moczarski listed 49 types of torture to which he had been subjected. Apart from simple beatings and being made to sit on the leg of an upturned stool, there were more sophisticated ways, both psychological and moral, such as his being shut up in a cell with the SS war criminal Stroop. The “conveyer”, where he was interrogated non-stop for many days and nights, resembles the questioning of Zbigniew Stypułkowski in Moscow before the trial of 16 Underground State leaders whom the Soviets had treacherously abducted in the winter of 1945.
According to incomplete data from the Central Prisons Board, in the years 1944–56 there were 2,810 death sentences carried out in prisons; recent research indicates that the true number is closer to 4,500 executions, carried out mostly in investigative prisons.
A colonial system
To see what comes of doing business with a more powerful gangster, let us examine the matter of reparations from Germany after her defeat. At the Yalta conference the total was set at 20 billion dollars, and in Potsdam it was specified that the USSR would receive its part through the “taking of appropriate items from the Soviet occupation zone and German assets located abroad.”
At the same time, the Soviets undertook to meet Polish claims: 15 percent of their part of the reparations. In that way they reduced Poland to the role of a supplicant, going to Moscow to beg for the transfer of our due portion of the goods taken out of Germany.
Stalin took advantage of the situation: on August 16, 1945, he told the Polish representatives to sign an agreement in which Poland undertook to supply the Soviet Union with coal at a special contract price, starting in 1946. In the first year 8 million metric tons were to be delivered, then 13 million in each of the next four years, and 12 million annually thereafter. A secret protocol set the price at $1.22 per ton, which was less than 10 percent of the market price, not enough even to cover the costs of mining and transport. This was at a time when coal was the most sought-after item in the world…
We should add that in the agreement the Soviets magnanimously renounced “any claims to German property in the whole territory of Poland, including that part of German territory that passes to Poland.” This generosity resulted from the fact that the Soviets had previously managed to strip those territories bare. From our “recovered lands” and occupied German areas, they took away, for example, 5,000 kilometers of railway tracks (!) and dismantled and took with them more than 4,000 production plants (including 1,119 in Poland). They also took cereals and cattle feed, and drove herds of cows and horses to the east. The robbery was carried out by special motorized “trophy brigades”, employing around 100,000 experts, including art historians, who selected the works that were especially worth taking.
Stalin also forced Poland and other countries of its bloc to forgo the American Marshall Plan, which helped other countries of Europe in their post-war reconstruction. No one in the “people’s democracies” dared say no to Stalin, as they valued their own lives and health, as well as high positions in the state and party. Decisions as to what was or was not permitted were taken during bilateral talks, for which reprobates were invited to Moscow, or at conferences of Cominform, which was set up in 1947 in Szklarska Poręba, and had its headquarters first in Belgrade, and later (following the conflict with the Yugoslav general secretary Tito) in Bucharest.
Strategic questions were resolved by Stalin himself. In 1949 he made Marshal of the Soviet Union Konstantin Rokossovsky commander-in-chief of the Polish army, and placed Russians in many other key posts, including in the Military Information Service, which looked for enemies and conspiracies mainly among officers of the Polish armed forces who had incautiously returned to their homeland after the war. Many of them paid for this with their lives. After the events of October 1956, Rokossovsky and his team were recalled to the USSR, but Soviet (later Russian) forces remained stationed in Poland until 1993.
In 1955, after Stalin’s death, the communist countries were formed into a military block, named – to our shame – the Warsaw Pact. The stated reason was the supposed threat of an invasion by Western imperialists, but the true aim was to prepare and carry out an attack on Western Europe. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński revealed the plans to the Americans, and later we too learned of the deadly threat of a retaliatory nuclear strike on Poland.
Conglomerates of the “mediocre but faithful”
Economic matters were resolved by the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon, established in 1949 and headquartered in Moscow. The introduction of payments using the so-called transferable ruble – which had high purchasing power, but was worthless outside the countries of the bloc – allowed the Soviets to make enormous profits. For example, they bought ships from Polish shipyards after we had bought the equipment for them from the West for dollars. The Russians then dismantled the equipment, and we – under the repair guarantee – had to buy it again from scratch. This was pointed out to me by our shipyard workers during the great strike of 1980. Comecon continued to function up to the end of the 1980s.
Soviet ideological and political pressure left its mark in the fields of culture, science, education, tradition and customs, relations with the church and with other states, but it was in the economy that it led to the most visible stagnation and regression. The system of central planning and state control of the means of production – with preference given to the armaments industry – led to a grotesque expansion of the coal and steel behemoth. This had a negative impact on other production sectors, leading to general impoverishment. Except for the first three-year plan (1946–1949), none of the subsequent (five-year) plans were fulfilled.
To avoid workers’ protests, in both five-year periods of Edward Gierek’s rule (1971–1980) – after the lean years under Władysław Gomułka – the Polish state took out loans from the West, expecting them to be repaid thanks to investments in the production of attractive goods and the purchase of those goods. However, Soviet pressure again led to money being thrown away on huge projects (such as the Katowice Steelworks), and given the mental inertia of the “mediocre but faithful” decision-makers, the wastage of energy and raw materials, and the reluctance of workers to carry out pointless work, the ambitious plans came to nothing. In the Soviet-type system of real socialism, they stood no chance anyway.
However, Poland differed positively from the other communist bloc countries and the USSR itself in several respects. There was the Roman Catholic Church, which emerged victorious from the authorities’ repressions; the peasantry, which survived attempts at collectivization in the 1950s and retained possession of 85% of cultivable land; the surviving private manufacturing and trading sector; and Polish traditions of freedom. A change to the Soviet system was something that the rulers feared even to speak about. Some Polish intellectuals and workers, however, were not afraid. The triumphant homecoming visit of Pope John Paul II (in June 1979) foreshadowed the formation of the Solidarity trade union. Not long after this, Ronald Reagan became U.S. President, and would help bring about the fall of the “evil empire.” The yoke was broken.
Traces nevertheless remain in the psyche of many Poles; for example, in the idealization of the communist past by officials of the Soviet system and their families, and in a tendency toward underhand dealings and collaborationism. Here and there bad habits remain – wastefulness, rudeness, irresponsibility, shoddiness… These traces will no doubt continue to be felt for some time… (And I could now buy smoked eel, although my age and diet would not permit me to eat it. When I was young and healthy and living in the Polish People’s Republic, there were no eels on sale for a full four decades…)
This article was published in 2021 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.