On February 10, 1940, USSR authorities carried out the first of four mass deportations of Polish citizens, displacing ca. 140,000 to designated areas of Russia and Siberia. The deportees died of cold, hunger and exhaustion during the transport.
Stalin and his entourage were aware that the occupation of the eastern half of Poland (Kresy) and the propaganda of “incorporation” into Soviet Belarus and Ukraine republics did not accomplish the subordination of Poland’s territories. In the autumn of 1939, the efforts of the Soviet terror apparatus focused on the arrests of Polish officers who, hiding in the main cities of Kresy, constituted a basis for the emerging structures of the Polish underground state. On October 5, the head of the NKVD, Vsevolod Mierklov, signed an order to draw up lists of potential enemies of the new government. Under Soviet terror, they meant proscription lists. The attention of the Soviet security and “justice system” focused on the largest centers of Polish population. On the night of December 9 to 10, 1939, at the behest of gen. Ivan Serov, NKVD began mass arrests of Polish officers.
At the same time, the Soviets began resettling refugees who before September 1939 lived in areas occupied by the Germans. A large part of those deported were Jews. Most of them were taken to the eastern areas of Belarus and Ukraine. The deportations also affected Polish and Ukrainian peasants resettled to Bessarabia and Bukovina. Autumn and early winter resettlements covered a total of ca. 80,000 people. However, as in mass deportations 1940–1941, the deportees did not end up in kolkhozes, special settlements and forced labor camps, but in ordinary settlements and cities.
Therefore, these deportations did not solve the dilemma of Polish elites hostile to the new government. On December 2, 1939, NKVD head Lavrenty Beria sent Stalin a document in which he proposed the organization of a great deportation of military settlers. The Council of People’s Commissars made final decision on December 5, 1939. Over the next two months, preparations were made to implement it; lists were drawn up and “local intelligence” was gathered.
At the end of December, the NKVD decided to extend the campaign to forest guard officers, and then to their families. The Soviet security officers decided that because foresters knew the terrain and could use weapons, they are a base for a potential guerrilla movement. Almost immediately, NKVD structures in Belarus and Ukraine began to prepare name lists of deportees, instructions for sequencing the displacement, regulations for so-called special settlements, and employment of deportees by individual branches of the Soviet economy. NKVD and local Soviet administration structures in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan republics also began to work. The whole action was to be supervised personally by Vsevolod Mierkulov.
Finally, 150 375 people were listed for deportation: 99,065 from”Western Ukraine” and 51,310 from “Western Belarus”, and 139,764 people ended up in transports. Beside forest service officers and military settlers, fugitives from bolshevik Russia, and even peasants who received or purchased farmland of parcellled-out private and state property. Poles constituted almost 82 percent of all deportees, Ukrainians ca. 9%, Belarussians 8%, Germans 0.1%, and other nationalities (Russians, Jews) ca. 1.3%. By the Soviet principle of collective responsibility over 58,000 deportees were younger than 16 years.
February 10, 1940, NKVD deportation took place in terrible conditions, a death sentence for many. Temperature reached as low as minus 40° C. A dozen to several dozen minutes were given to the deportees to pack up for transport. Sometimes no baggage was allowed. A teenager from the Dubien county in Volhynia described how NKVD officers barged into his house:
“They descended like wolves, holding revolvers and daggers, and began to destroy holy images, break furniture, name-calling us Polish bourgeoisie. They kept their eyes on my father, asking him about a weapon that Daddy didn’t have, so they began to tear out floor boards, empty the wardrobes, and break beds. After destroying our house for an hour, we were told to pack up but were allowed to take only some clothes and 5 kg of flour for a family of 5. Like prisoners, under a revolver we were led to a sleigh and as a laughing stock were taken through the city to the station.” — W czterdziestym nas Matko na Sibir zesłali. Polska a Rosja 1939–1942
The deportees were loaded into goods wagons with barred windows, fifty people sometimes more per wagon. The journey to the deportation place sometimes took several weeks. Conditions during transport were terrifying, people were dying of cold, hunger and exhaustion.
A resident of Grodno, the wife of a non-commissioned officer of the Polish Army, recalled:
“The journey was simply indescribable. Not only hair, clothes and quilts froze to the walls in our sleep, but also the wagons shook while driving so that people fell on burning stoves and to the ground, sustaining serious injured. They did not give us water for three days; when we caught snow through the windows, and the policeman noticed, he hit his rifle butt on the dish and the hand holding it. Finally, on March 4, we arrived at the Kwites settlement in the Irkutsk oblast, Tayshet region. In the barracks they placed us we were told that we should forget our rotten Poland forever, and here we should finish our lives, not forgetting that we all have to work…” — W czterdziestym nas Matko na Sibir zesłali. Polska a Rosja 1939–1942
After reaching their destination, the deportees faced slave labor, misery, illness and hunger. They were deployed in 115 special settlements spread throughout almost the whole the uninhabited part of the Soviet republic of Komi and in the oblasts of the Russian Federal SSR – Archangel, Chelyabinsk, Chkalov, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, Krasnoyarsk Kray and Altai.
Preparations for the next deportation began already in March 1940. Subsequent deportations of Polish citizens took place in April and June 1940. The last deportation began on the eve of the German-Soviet war at the end of May 1941. In total, according to NKVD data, about 340,000 people were deported in four deportations. Soviet goal was to exterminate the elite and the nationally aware Polish population; the Soviets were to break up the social structure, while providing the totalitarian Soviet empire with workforce.
The number of all victims among Polish citizens under Soviet occupation in 1939–1941 is not fully known to date. According to the estimates in the “Black Book of Communism”, Soviet repressions between September and July 1941 affected more than 1 million residents of Kresy – that is, every tenth citizen of the Republic of Poland who lived or ended up on this territory. At least 30 thousand people were shot and the mortality rate among prisoners and deportees is estimated at 8 to 10 percent, or 90 to 100 thousand people.
Michał Szukała, Dzieje.pl (PAP)
Translation Piotr Bein, 24.6.2020, from 80 lat temu ZSRS przeprowadził pierwszą z czterech masowych deportacji Polaków