The existence of Kresy and the use of the word Kresy date back centuries. The word Kresy means Borderlands, here meaning the eastern border of Poland with Ukraine, Soviet Russia and Lithuania. This border has changed many times over the years. Poles had lived there for 400+ years and were as much native to this land as were many other ethnic groups, including Ruthenians, Belarussians and Ukrainians. Poles were the overall largest minority, and the Polish language was the most widely-spoken language in all cases except for in the Stanisławów province.
The osadnicy (settlers or colonists) were expected to take part in the economic and cultural life of these backward provinces and to boost modern methods of farming. Their accomplishment over 18 years was considerable. Not only were the Poles very keen to maintain their Polish culture and traditions, but on their farms they introduced new methods of agriculture, popularised the co-operative idea, encouraged the growth of farmers’ associations. These modern farming methods also proved to be beneficial to the local Ukrainians and Byelorussians, and the relations between the osadnicy and non-Polish locals, particularly at the beginning, were generally amicable.
They also took an active role in the agricultural, social and cultural affairs of their regions. This involvement in local concerns drew the settlers closer to their Ukrainian and Byelorussian neighbours and thus reduced the initial prejudice generated in many cases by the tensions of Borderland politics.
However, economic difficulties of the newly-established state, as well as strong opposition to the idea of the creation of soldier/civilian settlements along the eastern border of Poland, brought this to an end in 1923.
Life in pre-war Kresy has been recorded by large numbers of people ranging from the nobility to the peasant and, what is clear from this primary evidence, is that they were in the main extremely enterprising and resourceful, determined to forge a life for themselves and their families, determined to maintain and promote their culture and traditions.
This region was also the heart of Classical Romantic Poland. The beautiful mystical environment wherein flourished the greatest Polish writers, such as Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. The national poet of Poland, Adam Mickiewicz, was a native of Kresy and the wild breath-taking beauty of the Kresy landscapes inspired many artists.
These Kresy lands held a very special place in the imagination of pre-war Poles. They were the lands that bred some of Poland’s most illustrious leaders and patriots. Kresy was the birthplace of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Supreme Commander of the Polish National Armed Forces who led the 1794 Kościuszko Uprising. He fought in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s struggles against Russia and Prussia, and on the American side in the American Revolutionary War.
Shortly before the Battle of Warsaw on 7 August 1920, the Premier of Poland, Wincenty Witos, announced that, after the war, volunteers and soldiers who served on the front would have priority in the purchase of state-owned land, while the soldiers to receive medals for bravery would receive land free-of-charge. On 17 December, the Sejm (Polish Parliament) passed two Acts allowing the demobilised soldiers to apply for land parcels and referred to over 20 powiats (counties) in the eastern voivodeships (provinces) of Poland. Some of the osady/farms (lands awarded to the osadnicy, the military settlers) were built from scratch, out of the wilderness; others had come from post-tsarist Russian and post-Polish estates. The osadnicy came from all social classes.
However, in reality, there were more applicants than free land and even the recipients of the Virtuti Militari had to pay for their plots. Civilian settlements (kolonia) by purchase were also available. The cost of the land itself was to be repaid by the settlers five years after the start of the programme where these had been bought.
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