Poles were the first to be punished

One year from now – on 11 August 2017 – 80 years will have passed since the NKVD started a genocidal operation targeted at Poles living in the Soviet Union. For this reason, 2017 is to be proclaimed as the year of the “Polish operation”. I suppose that “the forgotten genocide” alluded to in the title of your recent book is not as forgotten as it used to be…

Mikolaj Ivanov, historian: “The forgotten genocide” appeared as a subtitle already in my first book about “the Polish operation” published 20 years ago. A year ago, I published another book whose title expressed the same...  Nothing has changed since then. I hope that the new government, new authorities, will help us make up for these many years of neglect. I have been proclaiming for years that Poles were, chronologically speaking, the first nation to be punished. Also the scale of persecution experienced by Polish people during the times of “great terror” is unprecedented, even when compared to other vicious experiments pursued by Stalin, as until 1937, people had been killed based on what group within society they came from, rather than their nationality. In 1937, there were one million two hundred thousand Polish people living in the Soviet Union. At least 200,000 of them were murdered during the “Polish operation”. It is as if every second adult man was murdered in today’s Poland. Ten times more people were killed than in Katyn, almost as many as those killed during the Warsaw Uprising. This figure does not account for a countless number of Belarusians and Ukrainians with Polish-sounding names. They died as Poles. During interrogations, they were asked “why have you concealed for so many years that you are a Pole?” No one was looking for real agents, it was just that the Kremlin had decided to trigger the machine of terror and that Poles would be the best victims upon whom to unleash a wave of fear and hatred. Terror became the basic tool used by Stalin to exert his power. Everything what Lenin would say about the so-called socialist democracy was rejected as unnecessary liberalism.

Were 200,000 Poles to be murdered according to that order?

Stalin might not have planned to kill as many as 200,000 Poles, but once this machine of terror started to gain momentum, it was no longer controlled. In Minsk, the commander of the NKVD received the following instructions: 10,000 Poles are to be arrested within one month. There are documents confirming how he did this. He would take a telephone directory, then a registration list, and looked for Polish surnames. Stanislav Shushkevich, a former Belarusian president, told me what it looked like in his family. His father was Belarusian and his mother was a Pole, a poet. The father tried to defend himself when he was interrogated claiming that was not a Pole. Yet the mere fact that his wife was Polish was enough for the interrogators to sentence him. This was a real massacre of Poles. Once in Ukraine, in the town of Dovbysh (before the war, it was called Machlewsk in honor of Julian Marchlewski) which continues to be inhabited mainly by Poles, its parish priest introduced me – on the steps of the local Catholic church – to Helena Trybel, the mother of Yuriy Yekhanurov – the then Ukrainian Prime Minister. She was a child of victims of the “Polish operation”. Helena Trybel told me that her father returned from work one day and said to the whole family: “We are no longer Poles. Do not dare to say any Polish word from now on”. Denying being Polish did not save their lives any way. Both her father and brother died. Ms. Trybel told me something symptomatic: being a Pole in the Soviet Union in 1937 was just like being a Jew in the Third Reich. And there is no exaggeration in that at all. This really was genocide on an unprecedented scale.

Why have you devoted your professional life to the “Polish operation” rather than focus on other issues?

I was born in Brest on the Bug River, in the center of the pre-war Polish Republic. I was raised by a Russian school which would instil in me a Soviet consciousness. I arrived in Poland forty years ago and I am still impressed by the way Poles care about their historic memory and the graves of their ancestors. When I first visited Poland, I went to a cemetery on 1 November. I could not understand what was going on there... Probably in no other country are there such well-tended cemeteries. Now, after having lived in Poland for forty years, I cannot comprehend something else: how is it possible that people of a nation which shows so much respect for their ancestors, have completely forgotten about their compatriots murdered in the Soviet Union in 1937? Does it mean that today’s Poles remain prisoners of the communist propaganda which claimed that there were no Poles on the other side of the Bug River, but only Polonized Belarusians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians?

I think that this is not quite the case. After all, throughout the period of the People’s Republic, Poles were forced to believe in the lie about Katyn – and yet they refused to buy into the lies.

Poles do remember about Katyn because each officer who was shot to death there had children living in Poland. Andrzej Wajda was one of such children. We’re talking about intelligentsia commemorated with monuments erected in Toronto or near London. The case of the “Polish operation” is different. Not only did the families of murdered Poles live outside Poland, but they were also intimidated by the authorities in a terrible way. All those living in the Soviet Union would feel fear. This sort of fear was instilled also in me by my mother, and I am serious about this. Everyone who grew up in the Soviet Union still feels this fear. This is the reason why this issue has not been examined by researchers, people responsible for shaping the collective memory of Poles - there was no one to stand up for those victims. Besides that a peasant from a village somewhere near Zhytomyr was not a professor from Krakow. Is the blood of a Polish peasant from a village near Zhytomyr, who treasured his Polish identity and Catholic religion and was faithful to them, for whom Warsaw was like an icon, worth less than the blood of an officer murdered in Katyn? This lie can be said to be ten times worse, as the number of Poles killed in Katyn was 20,000, while that of those murdered under the “Polish operation” was 200,000. I consider them to be the Polish elite as well. Most of those Poles believed that, sooner or later, Poland would regain its historical borders. They had lived in these areas for generations, believed that another war would soon break out and they would be undoubtedly liberated by Polish troops. Communists, however, resolved to use them to destabilize the Second Polish Republic.


Let’s start at the beginning. Polish communists: Feliks Dzierżyński, Julian Marchlewski and Feliks Kon, decided – together with Lenin – that Poles living in the nascent Soviet Union should be given as much freedom as to make them believe in communism. It was assumed that if the Soviet authorities showed them their soft side, Poles would sooner or later become staunch communists and it would be possible to use them against the Polish Republic. For example in Zhytomyr, where the Russian authorities had previously been destroying everything associated with the Polish identity and convincing Poles that the sooner they surrendered to russification, the better for them, children of newly arrived communists were sent to a Polish school... Of course, children were indoctrinated with communist propaganda in these schools but, most importantly, this was done in Poland! Although children were familiarized with Mickiewicz’s works, they did not study those by Sienkiewicz, as communists considered to him represent fascist Poland! Nonetheless, these schools were good enough to make parents of other nationalities send their children there, and 40% of students were not Polish. These schools were the best stocked and children were given food during their lunch break (one should remember that this was a time of famine). They had the best textbooks and the best teaching staff.

How did it change the life of the Polish community?

Children out of the sudden started teaching their parents the Polish language. Communists created in Ukraine a pseudo republic called by them Dzierżyńszczyzna and one in Belarus called Marchlewszczyzna (Polish Autonomous Districts in the Soviet Union). They left a great deal of freedom not only to Poles, but for some time they even gave some freedom to the Polish Catholic Church. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, Vatican would provide its active support in the fight against famine in 1921-1922. We should remember that Soviet newspapers kept writing that the Second Polish Republic was a prison of nations where ethnic minorities were persecuted, whereas, surprisingly, Poles living in the Soviet Union were treated almost perfectly there!

What was this all for?

To show citizens of the Second Polish Republic, Belarusians and Ukrainians that joining the Soviets pays off. Those efforts included even interrogating arrested Poles by the NKVD in Marchlewszczyzna and Dzierżyńszczyzna... in Polish! Poles living there eagerly accepted Polish schools, churches, theaters and cinemas. However, once collectivization had been started, it turned out that the actual achievements were not as considerable as those described by Polish communists in their reports intended for the Central Committee of the CPSU(B). Poles were reluctant to join collective farms. They were grateful to the Soviet authorities for the autonomy they enjoyed, but wanted to preserve their Polish identity. They accepted communism superficially only, as the ideology did not move their souls. Then came 1935. The Soviet Union was preparing to clash with the capitalist world, and Stanislaw Kosior, Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Ukraine, showed Stalin that Dzierżyńszczyzna and Marchlewszczyzna were white spots on the collectivization map. Stalin concluded then that it was not possible to turn Poles into a loyal minority, and that they would always be a kind of fifth column. What is more, it seemed that in case of war, Poles would not only refuse to support Moscow, but they would support the Second Polish Republic instead. This was even more probable because the NKVD reported that 5% of Poles living in the Soviet Union had served in the Polish army during the 1920 war.

So Stalin decided to murder them, didn’t he?

He first decided to relocate all Poles from the area of Zhytomyr and other regions of Ukraine to Kazakhstan. At that time this was done still quite peacefully, so each family was allowed to take with them their cows, sheep and grain stocks. Relocated Poles were replaced with labour leaders, e.g. from Kharkiv, and loyal collective farmers from the East, who in the case of war guaranteed to support the Red Army. The border with the Polish Republic was a significant problem for Stalin from a strategic point of view. Therefore, Soviet propaganda presented Poland as the avant-garde of world capitalism. Every newspaper warned that Poles were preparing to attack the Soviet Union. People of the older generation living in the post-Soviet areas, such as my mother, associate words like fascism or fascist primarily with Poland. Everywhere one went there were references to “fascist Poland”, even much more often than about fascist Germany. This was the reason why Stalin came to the conclusion, in 1937, that killing Poles would be a perfect deterrent.

What kind of deterrent?

One through which Stalin would be able to unleash terror. Before that, a similar role was served by aristocrats and bourgeois, killed at the time of red terror under Lenin’s rule. Later on, those were kulaks. To unleash great terror, Stalin came up with the idea to murder Poles. This idea proved to be not a bad one, as murdering Poles intimidated the Soviet peoples. Today’s Stalinists claim that Stalin did the right thing by murdering Poles. If it had not been for the “Polish operation” – they argue – we would have not won the Second World War. I have really heard such opinions! And so, in August 1937, the NKVD started murdering Poles. Communists would commit their crimes, documenting them in a very detailed way. Separate files were kept for every person killed – all those documents must be kept somewhere. Unfortunately until now, these materials have not been properly examined, and the only monument – a symbolic birch cross – erected to commemorate the victims is to be found on the cemetery in pre-war Marchlewsk. The inscription on the monument reads: “To all those who do not have their graves in the territory of great Russia”.

You were one of the first people who tackled this issue. When was it?

I arrived in Poland in the early 1980s to give a lecture on the history of national minorities in the Soviet Union. At the University in Wrocław, I was talking about Jews, Belarusians when out of a sudden Prof. Wojciech Wrzesiński asked me about Poles, why I was not saying anything about the Polish minority in the Soviet Union. I was a little bit ashamed that I did not know anything about Poles. When I returned to Minsk, I immediately went to the archives to start rummaging, as this issue seemed extremely interesting to me. I went through old newspapers and saw how many Poles lived in the Soviet Union and how successfully they fostered their Polish identity there. Yet there was one thing that sparked my concern: what happened to Marchlewszczyzna and all that extremely extensive Polish autonomy? Why is there no trace of it? Why is it a taboo for researchers, also Polish ones?

Recently published studies show that Polish middle school students know nothing about Poles in the East. They consider them to be some Orthodox "Russkies". In any case, young Polish people do not consider them Poles at all.

That is why we want to show them that those “Russkies” died in the name of Poland. It is true that they often did not even know the Polish language. It is true that they often had no opportunity to cultivate Polish traditions. Nonetheless, in spite of living in a hostile environment, they retained their Polish identity and never renounced it. It seems, unfortunately, that today’s Poland has forgotten about Poles in the East and about their tragic experiences. Either way, it is not only the state that can be blamed, as I must admit that the Catholic Church in Ukraine and Belarus has not been particularly propitious to Poles either. The tendency to impose Ukrainian and Belarusian values on Catholics living there is becoming increasingly strong, and it is after all the Church that has been a mainstay of Polish identity in these areas. I wish that we could be given at least one page in history textbooks. Nowadays, not a single textbook has even one mention about the “Polish operation”. The awareness of the nation really can be changed. Until recently, no one in Russia knew about Katyn. Now, after the TU-154 crash in Smolensk, every third Russian knows what happened in Katyn. I don’t know why Putin agreed to show Andrzej Wajda's Katyn twice on prime time public television. Russians are, after all, a nation that, having gone through their tragic experiences of the 20th century, can sympathize with others. Lots of flowers appeared in front of the Polish embassy on the morning after this film had been shown on TV! If we managed to make some filmmaker interested in the “Polish operation”, perhaps it would become known to the world as well. If not, maybe we could manage to produce some cartoon strip, just anything that could spark people’s interest?

Would this not be another sensitive issue in Polish-Russian relations?

No one intends to make our nations conflicted. After all, Russians have suffered no less than Poles. Solzhenitsyn himself wrote that the Bolshevik revolution broke the spine of the Russian nation. It is not possible to build friendly relations with Russia in the future on lies and oblivion.

Have you never been embarrassed to show your Russian identity in Poland?

There was indeed a time when I was a little bit embarrassed. I even considered changing my surname to that of my Polish wife. In the end I realized, however, that it is not possible to give up your own identity. I have noticed that I sometimes happen to exaggerate in emphasizing my Polish identity, as if I were a neophyte. Views proclaimed by me were sometimes more nationalistic than those voiced by Poles. I find it normal, anyway. I simply keep thinking about this identity of mine – both Polish and Russian – I do think a lot. Now, I try to emphasize both of them all the time, I am not ashamed of my Russian identity. I live in Oborniki Śląskie which is not a big town. Sometime I have some friends over. And Poles, once they have had a little bit to drink, usually start singing Russian songs. Then people spread rumors that the Russian mafia has its meeting point at Iwanow’s in Oborniki (laughing)...

rzeczpospolita-logo.jpg Interviewed by Michał Płociński

Source: Rzeczpospolita, Plus Minus

Mikolaj Ivanov is a Polish-Russian historian, a lecturer at Opole University and a member of the honorary committee tasked with preparing next year’s event marking the 80th anniversary of the genocidal “Polish Operation” carried out by the NKVD against Poles living in the Soviet Union.