On August 11, 1937, NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov by order number 00485 ordered “the complete liquidation of Polish espionage networks”. Of 143,000 people arrested in the USSR on charges of espionage for Poland in 1937–38, 111,000 were executed, most of them Poles.
The Poles were the first social group in the USSR that Stalin sentenced to extermination for national reasons. “Polish Operation” meant shooting dead almost one-fifth of all Poles who, after the Riga Treaty, found themselves within the borders of the Soviet Union.
According to Soviet 1926 census, 782,300 Poles lived in USSR, mainly in Belarus and Ukraine, also in large concentrations of Polish population in Moscow, Smolensk and Leningrad. After the defeat of bolsheviks near Warsaw in August 1920, when hopes collapsed for the spread of the revolution to Poland, the communists decided to create a semblance of a Polish Soviet republic in the USSR as an ideological weapon against Poland. In 1925, the Polish national region in Volhynia was established under the name Marchlewszyzna. In 1932 the Polish National District was created in Belarus, named after Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
It quickly turned out that Polish regions were extremely resistant to collectivization. Polish peasants did not want to join the collective farms and were very attached to Catholicism. In the mid-1930s, the Soviet authorities concluded that the experiment of creating “Soviet Poland” had failed. Polish regions were liquidated and thousands of Poles were deported to Kazakhstan. Today, ca. 100,000 people of Polish origin in Kazakhstan are largely descendants of citizens from Marchlewszczyzna and Dzerzhinsky. But this was only the beginning of the repressions.
In the Soviet press, a hunt began for Poles portrayed as “fascist spies”, “saboteurs” and “pests.” The campaign was launched on the basis of intelligence intrigue. Allegedly the Soviet Union was threatened by agents of the secret Polish Military Organization, an organization dating back to the Polish-bolshevik war.
On August 11, 1937, after receiving the approval of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bolsheviks), Nikolai Yezhov issued operational order No. 00485, which envisaged the arrest of specific groups of Poles living in the USSR and punishment in “two categories”. The first category, covering the vast majority, i.e. almost 80 percent of persons targeted by the operation were murdered; the rest were sent to prisons and labour camps. According to Russian memorial association, 143,000 were repressed, 139,000 convicted, and 111,000 were shot. Most of those sent to labour camps soon died of overwork, hunger and disease. The order stipulated that after husband’s arrest, his wife would also be arrested, and for the very fact of being the wife of an enemy of the people, she would be sent — usually to Kazakhstan — for 5 to 10 years. Children of the enemy of the people, in accord with this order, were sent to orphanages and family property was confiscated in full.
The most numerous victims were Polish peasants; from some villages all men were taken away whom NKVD managed to arrest, to be shot. In cities, NKVD resorted to such methods as catching people found by name in telephone books, although there were few phones in the USSR. The campaign also engaged electricity bill collectors, who were also agents of the secret police. When visiting the apartments of electric energy consumers or browsing the list of energy bill payers searched for people of foreign, hostile nationality.
Polish communists were also victims of the “Polish Operation”. The Communist Party of Poland (KPP) initially supported Piłsudski’s coup d’état in May 1926. The Communist International later reprimanded the party for this “May error”. Stalin wrote that KPP was “sick of Trotskyism” and was “right-wing”. So the party was dissolved and almost all senior activists were murdered — 3,000. up to 5,000 victims according to various sources.
When organizing subsequent “national” operations, the head of NKVD Yezhov ordered his men to follow the principles of “order 00485” – the one that concerned Poles.
Translation by Piotr Bein, 24.6.2020, from 80 LAT TEMU SZEF NKWD WYDAŁ ROZKAZ ZAPOCZĄTKOWUJĄCY „OPERACJĘ POLSKĄ”
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