Punishment cell block of one of the subcamps of Vorkutlag, 1945. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Russian Federation State Archive/ausstellung-gulag.org)

Russian terror against the Poles reflects Moscow’s fear of freedom which has been Poland’s organizing principle in the Eastern Borderlands of Western Civilization.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Siberia: 1939-1956

Although we concern ourselves here with the victims of the Gulag and the crimes of the Communists, our introduction would be incomplete without a reference to the Nazis. Namely, we should become familiar with a broader framework, in particular Poland’s predicament between September 1939 and June 1941, and, perhaps even more generally, the Second World War and its aftermath.

Upholding their alliance with the Third Reich, the Soviets complemented the Nazi invasion of Poland of September 1, 1939, with an assault of their own on September 17. Following the destruction of the Polish armies, the allied powers divided the captured territory among themselves. Hitler annexed western Poland to the Reich and established a German colony in central Poland, dubbed Government General (Generalgouvernement — GG). Meanwhile, Stalin incorporated eastern Poland into the USSR. Both totalitarian powers subjected the citizens of Poland to terror. It commenced immediately during the invasion in September 1939.

The modus operandi of the Nazis and Communists was eerily similar. Before the regular armed forces stormed in, there operated diversionary groups of local sympathizers of Hitler and Stalin as well as criminals and other disgruntled members of the Polish society, in particular from among the ethnic minorities. While many of the ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) were active in the west in support of the Wehrmacht, some of the Belorussians and Jews fought for the Red Army. Depending on their ideological preferences, some of the Ukrainians supported either the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. The subversives occasionally received support from either Nazi or Soviet commando teams inserted behind the Polish front lines. Then, as the enemy armies rolled in, special secret police squads followed in their wake. The Nazi Einsatzgruppen in the west were bloodier than the NKVD squads in the east. Both targeted the leadership stratum of the Christian Poles. However, the Nazis also focused on the Jewish community. Further, in the early stages of their occupation of Poland, both the Germans and Soviets deported over a million Polish citizens. Berlin in part cleansed ethnically western Poland and mass transferred the victims to Government General. In eastern Poland Moscow waged ethnic and ideological warfare against the Poles, while persecuting the minorities mainly along the ideological lines. Both occupiers deported millions of its enemies to forced labor and concentration camps of the Siberian Gulag. However, the Nazis uniquely slated the Jews for a total annihilation and dispatched them to death camps and mass executed them, in particular after June 1941, when the German rule extended to Poland’s eastern lands for the following three years. Until Hitler’s attack on Stalin, the rate of the Soviet executions of the Polish citizens had been comparable, and some of the Siberian penal colonies can be considered in essence extermination camps because of the severity of the living and climatic conditions.

In any event, to appreciate the predicament of the Poles in the Gulag, we need to focus now on eastern Poland under the Soviet occupation between September 1939 and June 1941. The captured territory was subjected to a Leninist and Stalinist revolution from above. In essence, in less than two years the occupiers inflicted upon the hapless captive people all the totalitarian aberrations it had taken them twenty years to implement in the USSR. The Communists falsified an election where 99.9% of the population allegedly “voted” to join the happy Soviet family of nations, thus acquiring, against their will, the citizenship of the USSR. Next, the Kremlin repressed religion and terrorized the population, in particular the so-called “enemies of the people.” Moscow confiscated eastern Poland’s state, community, and private property. Many, if not all, synagogues and some churches were converted into warehouses, cooperatives, and other Soviet institutions. It is further important to stress that wholesale property confiscations accompanied individual arrests and deportations.

Christian Poles were overrepresented among Stalin’s victims, while Jews came second. This is even more remarkable if we remember that ethnic Poles of Catholic religion were a minority in the Eastern Borderlands (Kresy). They constituted about 40% of the population. The Ukrainians were the largest ethnic group in the south-east followed by the Belorussians in the north-east. There were also Jews, Lithuanians, and others. Eventually all of them suffered under the Communist regime.

As mentioned, the Red Terror commenced already during the Soviet offensive of September 1939. It was the domestic revolutionaries and criminals who committed most acts of violence against the Poles at this stage. They also targeted some Jews, members of the propertied classes and active anti-Communists in particular. At this point, in late September and early October 1939, the Red Army and the NKVD killed fewer “enemies of the people” than it arrested. Ultimately, Stalin’s forces put a check on the waxing wave of anarchy fueled by the rage of the local Reds and their affiliates. Afterward, the Red Terror became a highly organized phenomenon.

In the fall of 1939 the Communists first focused on the Polish military and police. They took up to 450,000 POWs during the course of the fighting and its immediate aftermath. A number of the POWs, officers in particular, was shot on the spot. Perhaps 250,000 of the POWs were released after disarming and a further 43,000 after vetting. They included mostly national minorities, who were allowed to return home. In addition, in a prisoner exchange, the Soviets swapped with the Nazis approximately 42,000 Christian Poles born in the territories which had just come under German control. Most of the remaining rank-and-file Polish POWs, an estimated 65,000, were dispatched for slave labor in the Gulag. Meanwhile, the officers, policemen, and border guards were interned in three camps: Ostashkov, Starobelsk, and Kozelsk. In the spring of 1940, almost all of them, approximately 22,000, were mass murdered.

By that time, the NKVD had commenced arrests of various other “Polish lords” – splendid ethno-class enemies. These included Polish civil servants, foresters, politicians, merchants, businessmen, clergymen, military settlers, large farmers, noble landlords, reserve officers, charity workers, boy scouts, and members of the free professions: teachers, lawyers, physicians, and others of the intelligentsia. The criteria applied for the repression combined Polish ethnicity with one’s identification with the Polish culture and freedom as well as class origin and personal history. It was as common to meet in jail a prince of blood as a modest peasant who fought in the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1920, enjoyed subsequently a small land grant from the Polish government, distinguished himself as a community leader by facilitating a local irrigation project, and participated in the anti-Soviet resistance from the fall of 1939. A member of a philatelist club could be slated for repression as well because membership in any “bourgeois” organization was suspect and stamp collectors were mistrusted as potential spies for their foreign contacts.

In general, the Communists repressed members of the broadly understood Polish Catholic elite. The same applied to the Jewish elite, religious, traditionalist, capitalist, and Zionist, in particular the right-wing Revisionist. But the Jewish turn came only when the terror against the Poles was in a full swing. Last but not least, the NKVD lashed out at the Ukrainian and Belorussian nationalists. Preliminary research suggests that in the incorporated eastern Polish provinces the Soviet secret police jailed about 110,000 people, an estimated 40% of them Poles, for “counterrevolutionary crimes.” About 70,000 of the prisoners were sent to the Gulag. The first parties were dispatched in the fall of 1939 and the transports continued uninterrupted until the summer of 1941. Of the remaining 40,000 prisoners in jails in the Eastern Borderlands, the NKVD shot about half during the Soviet retreat in June and July 1941.

In addition to arresting and shooting various “enemies of the people,” the NKVD also dealt severely with their families. They were shipped to the Gulag in several successive waves of deportations of February, April, and June 1940 and May and June 1941. How many? According to the Polish-Government-in-Exile, 1.25 million people were shipped off from the Kresy. However, in the fall of 1941, the Soviet government claimed that there were only about 387,932 Polish citizens in the depth of the Soviet Union. That improbably included all deportees, prisoners, refugees, and volunteer laborers who traveled east under various circumstances between September 1939 and August 1941.

Currently, the revisionist historians embrace the claims of Stalin’s regime, some of them even advancing a figure of “over 300,000” deported, including 70,000 Jews who were overwhelmingly refugees from the Nazi zone. The revisionists base themselves on select Soviet sources, including cherry picked documents of the central command of the NKVD railroad troops. All serious scholars, however, have traditionally questioned the veracity of the Soviet statistics. The Communists notoriously falsified them at every turn. Why would it be different with the statistics of the deportations from eastern Poland? Further, the total of “over 300,000” deportees would have made sense if the secret police order of October 11, 1939, to keep 25 people per cattle track had been obeyed. Was it? According to a sample of five Christian Polish witnesses in the collection of 20 testimonies published by Tadeusz Piotrowski, there were 45 prisoners on the average per car: a minimum of twenty seven and a maximum of 70. Out of 169 Jewish witness depositions at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, California, fifty-eight persons recalled that there were 45 prisoners on the average per cattle track. In the worst case, eighty-five deportees were crammed into a railroad car. There is an impressive consistency in the witness testimonies. Unless we are ready to claim that the deportees succumbed to a collective delusion, we ought to treat the revelations of the revisionist historians with more than a grain of salt. Further, there are hardly any case studies of the deportations at the source and destination, transport by transport. Until such micro-studies materialize, we may just as well claim that between “over 300,000” and 1.25 million Polish citizens were deported to Siberia.

Theirs was often a nightmarishly murderous tale. An anonymous victim aptly described the spirit of the deportees in rhyme,

O żegnaj Polsko! Farewell Poland!

Ukochany Kraju, My beloved land

Bolszewicy nas wiozą The Bolsheviks are carrying us off

Do swojego „RAJU.” To their “PARADISE”

Tam – zamiast aniołów, Where – instead of angels,

Szatani panują The devils preside

I nam POLAKOM – preparing the graves

Groby montują. for us POLES

According to disparate witnesses, the trip to “Siberia” lasted on the average about two weeks. A few reported journeys of two month duration. The deportees lacked in food and water. They traveled in overcrowded and sealed cattle trucks with no privacy. The exiles were forced to defecate in public and suspend their hygienic routines. They suffered of blistering heat in the summer and frigid cold in the winter. Mortality rate was several times higher during the winter than summer deportations, especially among the very young, infirm, and old. Upon their disembarkation, many prisoners had to march for miles to their destination. Some took a boat, a truck, and even a reindeer drawn sleigh.

The majority of the Gulag-bound Poles were deported to remote settlements (posiolki) in central Asia, Siberia, and the Far East, particularly Kazakhstan. A minority was sent to slave labor camps (lageri). The posiolki were in essence forced labor camps. The exiles suffered of the extreme oscillation of the climate and the perverse inhumanity of their captors. Twelve hour work days were the norm. However, families were allowed to stay together. Children were given less strenuous work norms. Also, the enforcement of the discipline tended to be laxer which allowed the exiles to contrive more ways to survive. At the settlements, the deportees met strange people. Their involuntary “hosts” were mostly Sovietized Asians, many of them formerly nomadic. There were also other victims, including Russians, Ukrainians, Balts, Germans, Jews, and Koreans. The exiles were shocked to discover that Western customs did not apply. Only some stuck to the old ways. Religion in particular brought solace as well as patriotism. Conspiracies, escapes, and strikes occurred rather infrequent. In fact, active resistance was very rare, and consisted most frequently of trying to outwit the system by work shrieking and illegal food procurement. It was a matter of survival. Many of the deportees succumbed to the Communist ways of stealing and informing on one’s fellows. The survivors only occasionally note the random acts of individual charity on the part of the Soviets. Overall, cruelty, violence, fear, and crudity prevailed. Beating and imprisoning the recalcitrant was routine. Rape was not uncommon. Whoever failed to fulfill the work quota was denied food. Diseases were rampant and so was hunger. Death was a constant companion of the exiles, as the weak ones faded away one by one.

The camp experience was always much tougher. Some of the lageri were in essence extermination camps, in the northern arctic waste of the USSR particularly. The prisoners were separated from their families and usually confined by sexes. They were forced to slave at a variety of projects, including mining and timber cutting. Violence occurred daily. Beatings and torture were routine, and the brutality of the NKVD guards legendary. Prisoners were denied food for failing to meet the work quota and suffered solitary confinement for any act of open resistance. The unreasonable work quota system demanded of the prisoners to overwork which, in turn, weakened them, led to exhaustion, diseases, and, frequently, death. Both heterosexual and homosexual rape was prevalent. Criminal prisoners ran the camps informally. Political detainees were at the bottom of the pecking order. Acts of human solidarity were infrequent, yet duly noted by the survivors. Escapes and strikes were rare, as were other forms of organized resistance. The best one could hope for was to cheat the system. For instance, after the camp horses died of overwork at an installation near Orenburg, a Polish prisoner and his friends volunteered to assume the burden of the beasts. The commander agreed and they were officially designated as vridlovremenno ispolniashchii dolzhnost’ loshadi, or “temporarily fulfilling the function of a horse.” This entitled the human “horses” to claim the daily allotment of grain due to the animal according to the plan. Thus the prisoners managed to survive.

The precise statistics of death in camps and settlements are unavailable. Estimates vary from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands dead. It appears, however, that most victims perished upon their release from the confinement. And most were freed following the pact between the Polish Government-in-Exile and the Kremlin of July 30, 1941. Stalin magnanimously amnestied his Polish prisoners, who should not have been in the Soviet captivity in the first place; he permitted Polish diplomatic outposts to assist the deportees, who were starved and diseased; and, last but not least, the Soviet dictator allowed the establishment of a Polish army. It was led the erstwhile POW of the Soviets General Władysław Anders but it sorely lacked in officers, most of whom had been shot at Katyn.

Nonetheless, the amnestied Polish citizens flocked to the colors en masse. Civilians, women, children, and elderly, followed in their wake. Soon, however, the Communists excluded all non-ethnic Poles from volunteering. Moscow once again began treating Poland’s Jews, Ukrainians, and Belorussians as Soviet citizens. Nonetheless, a few of them managed to join the Polish exodus to Iran and further afield. Altogether between March and August 1942, 115,000 Polish citizens, including 72,000 military personnel, left the USSR. The troops soon were deployed on the Western front, while the civilians were concentrated in refugee camps in the Middle East, India, and Africa. After 1945, most of them scattered around the Free World, settling in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Argentina, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, after the departure of the Anders Army, the lot of the citizens of Poland remaining in the USSR worsened progressively. About 150,000 were forced to accept the Soviet citizenships. Over 1,000 people who objected actively were dispatched back to the camps. The lot of the rest appeared bleak. Then, unexpectedly, on April 14, 1943, the Germans notified the world public opinion about the discovery of the executed Polish officers at Katyn. The Polish Government-in-Exile petitioned the International Red Cross to investigate. On April 25, 1941, the Soviet Union unitarily broke off its diplomatic relations with Poland, claiming, in a fake fit of righteous indignation, that the Germans had perpetrated the crime of Katyn. Stalin also officially ordered a group of Communists from Poland to set up a puppet proto-government, the Union of Polish Patriots (Związek Patriotów Polskich — ZPP). Henceforth, the ZPP represented officially all the Poles in the USSR. Ironically, this led to an improvement in the lot of the deportees, prisoners, and refugees. From May 1943, some of them were recruited into a new “Polish” force under the Soviet command. By mid-1944 it grew in strength from a single division to an army of over 100,000 and became one of the important vehicles of returning home for the Poles in the USSR. A few open dissenters in the ranks of the Communist-led forces were of course dispatched back to the Gulag.

Meanwhile, in January 1944, the Red Army crossed once again Poland’s pre-war frontier in the east. It pushed the Nazis out and imposed its own brand of totalitarianism. Having re-annexed the Eastern Borderlands and established a puppet Communist regime in central and western Poland, the Soviets and their collaborators once again commenced mass terror against the Poles and others. Although less fierce than at the outset of the war, it nonetheless included assassinations, routine torture of prisoners, overloaded jails, concentration camps, and internal and external deportation, including to the Gulag. Between 1944 and 1947, at least 100,000 people were shipped off to Siberia from the territory of “people’s” Poland alone. A few of them had the dubious distinction of making the trip for the second time since 1939. They were usually the Gulag prisoners who had left the USSR with General Anders in 1942 but returned home after 1945. In the newly “liberated” Eastern Borderlands an estimated 50,000 Poles were dispatched to Siberia. However, over 2 million Poles were expelled from their households, expropriated, and shipped off destitute and downtrodden to “people’s” Poland. The expulsion mostly concerned the south-eastern provinces. After a short period, in the north-east, Stalin halted the process of “repatriating” Poles, who had “opted” for resettlement in “people’s” Poland. Hence, a sizable Polish minority remained behind in the Lithuanian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics. At the same time, between 1945 and 1947, most of the tiny band of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, along with a much more sizable group of Jewish Gulag survivors, refugees, and voluntary laborers, elected not to stay in the Soviet Union and moved uninhibited to central Poland, later escaping to the West.

For the next decade the Polish prisoners and others slaved away in the Gulag. The conditions remained pretty much as they had been during the Second World War. However, the profile of the exiles changed somewhat. Fewer women and children were arrested. Few compact families were deported between 1944 and 1947, although some remained from the earlier deportations. Further, many of the deportees were members of the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist underground, mainly the Home Army (Armia Krajowa). Ironically, these pro-Western fighters now shared the lot not only of the Axis allies of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, and Croatia, but also of the German Nazis and their French, Belgian, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, and Spanish collaborators who found themselves behind the Soviet barbed wire. Some of the Polish slaves were released in successive waves between 1945 and 1947. Others had to wait until the so-called “amnesty” and “repatriation” in 1955 or 1956. More than a few were disallowed from moving anywhere outside of the USSR or even leaving Siberia. Even after their release, all Gulag victims were put under routine Communist secret police surveliance and some were persecuted. That was particularly the case in the Soviet Union but also, to a lesser extent, in “people’s” Poland.

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We thank prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz for sharing this article.