S T A L I N ' S  E T H N I C  C L E A N S I N G

Tales of the Deported 1940-1946
ISBN 1 872286 88 7

The Fortunes of the Military Settlers during 1939-45

In Memory of Maria Zajdlowa, who in the “inhuman land” with great tenderness cared for my grandmother, Antonina Stobniak.

The military settlers came to the Eastern Borderlands in the spring of 1921, and with the determination of soldiers, began the daunting work on the land given to them as reward for their fight for Poland’s independence in the years of  World War I. The legal base for giving land to the soldiers was the act of Sejm (the Polish Parliament) of 17 December 1920. The idea behind the soldiers’ settlement in the eastern part of the country was to increase the number of Polish people in those territories where the Ukrainian and Byelorussian population prevailed. Soldiers were expected to take part in the economic and cultural life of those backward provinces and to boost modern methods of farming. Their accomplishment over 18 years was considerable. On their farms they introduced new methods of agriculture, popularised the co-operative idea, encouraged the growth of farmers’ associations and also took an active role in the agricultural and social affairs of their region. This involvement in local concerns drew the military settlers closer to their Ukrainian and Byelorussian neighbours, so obliterating the initial prejudice generated in many cases by the tensions of Borderland politics. Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasants copied the settlers’ farming methods, and benefited from their help and advice, although – under pressure from their nationalistic organisations – they could not forget that the settlers had been apportioned land which they themselves had hoped to acquire. Actually large parts of the land given to the soldiers was no man’s land, which belonged previously to the tsar’s family, the Russian government and Russian landlords. This was supplemented by land taken away from Polish landlords in the framework of land reform.

This process of military settlement was stopped after two years in 1923, but throughout the period between the two wars, in those territories which came within the ambit of land reform, civilian settlement by purchase was available. The policy of strengthening the Polish element in the Eastern Borderlands, especially during the thirties, whereby land was sold to Polish settlers came up against very serious criticism from the Ukrainian and Byelorussian political parties. Their representation in the Sejm spoke against the policy.

The entry of the Red Army into the eastern territories of the Polish Republic on 17 September 1939, and the Soviet-German treaty which divided Poland between those two countries, was the start of a tragic chapter in the history of the Borderland military settlement.

After the Invasion by the Red Army

Those lands inhabited by the military settlers – i.e. the provinces of Wołyn, Polesie, Białystok, Nowogródek and Wiłno, with the exception of a part annexed for a short time to Lithuania, found themselves completely in the hands of the USSR. From the very beginning the settlers became aware of their future outlook. In 1920, as soldiers of the Polish Army, they had contributed to the victory over the Red Army, the present occupant who had not forgotten that defeat. The Soviet method of liquidation of inconvenient nations, social groups, or individuals was well known to those borderland people. They were also unsure, given the changed conditions, how their Ukrainian and Byelorussian neighbours would act, especially as many of them had welcomed the Soviet soldiers with flowers and banners. Could it be that given the breakdown of the existing order of law serious disharmony would arise, as often happened in places where national, class, cultural and religious differences existed? 

To a large degree the settlers’ premonitions proved correct. As the stories in this book show, directly following the 17 September Soviet invasion, Ukrainian and Byelorussian gangs made attacks on many military settlements involving looting and killing. Indeed apprehensive of such assailants armed with knives and axes, the settlers’ families went to bed fully dressed and the men folk slept within reach of their own weapons. 

Immediately following the army came officials of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) who began the introduction of Soviet administration. In the villages local committees were formed with Ukrainians and Byelorussians as members. The attacks continued while the new authorities looked on. Large scale excesses were suppressed because the Soviet interests were not served by nationalistic agitation from the Ukrainians and Byelorussians. Near Łuck (Wołyn) in the Osada Szczurzyn, just five days after the Soviet entry, during the night Ukrainians murdered most of the settlers, only those who managed to flee being saved [account of Dioniza Gradzik - Choroś  art. no.085]. At the same time seventeen settlers were murdered in the Grodno region, ten of whom were from Osada Lerypol and a further seven from Osada Budowla. 

Within the first week of the Red Army’s entry the NKVD, together with local committees, began arrests among various Polish groups, some of whom were military settlers. Since the documents which granted the authority for these arrests are unknown it is very difficult to discover what criteria were involved. For example: in Nowogródek district the NKVD arrested 23 settlers of the total 43 in the Osada Puzieniewicze, and a few settlers in the Osada Niechniewicze, while in others only individuals or no-one at all were taken [account of Halina Juszcak - Kojder art. no.127]. In the Osada Krechowiecka in Wołyn consisting of 86 settlers, there were no attacks, nor was anyone arrested. Maybe it depended to some degree upon denunciations or the settling of personal scores among the local population.

In Równe on the 24 September the NKVD arrested Dezydery Smoczkiewicz, the Chairman of the Wołyn Council of the Settlers, and on 27 October in the Osada Jodkiszki near Lida, Władysław Malski, a senator and member of the executive Committee of the Association of Settlers was arrested. During the first three weeks following the Red Army’s entrance on the territories annexed to Byelorussia, the NKVD arrested 2,708 people, amongst whom were 110 military settlers. The foremost reason given for the arrests of settlers was their involvement in the Polish-Bolshevik war [account number 12966 of Henryk Poszwiński, Polish Institute and Silorski Museum Arcives KOL 138/292]. There were instances where after a few days the settler was released from arrest, perhaps at the intervention of local people. However, these were singular, happy exceptions because in the majority of cases all traces of the arrested were lost, and only now are families finding their names listed as murdered by the NKVD in documents made available by the Russian and Ukrainian authorities. 

Very rapidly the administration of the annexed land was transformed into the Soviet model. This was undertaken by the army, the NKVD and by the newly arrived Soviet party activists appointed to the higher administrative posts. Ukrainians and Byelorussians were placed in the lower bureaucratic levels. On 22 October, ‘elections’ to the local Councils were organised. These, organised on the Soviet pattern, gave the voters no alternatives. A few days later on 26-28 October in Lwów and 28-30 October in Bialystok, there were meetings of the Supreme National Assemblies during which resolutions were passed annexing Polish territories to the respective Soviet Republics of the Ukraine and Byelorussia. In both of these Assemblies it was resolved to confiscate ‘landowners land’ without recompense to which in the resolution of the National Assembly in Lwów was added: “the question of the settlers’ land was handed over to the peasant committees”. The next stage of Sovietisation was a decision of the Supreme Council of the USSR, according to which Polish citizens who found themselves on 1-2 November 1939 on land taken over by the USSR became Soviet citizens.

Official attacks upon the settlers began the moment the Red Army entered. On the afternoon of 17 September leaflets were scattered from a plane over Łuck proclaiming that the landlords and settlers were to be crushed. Edited in Lwów, a newspaper printed in Polish “Słowo Żołnierza” (The Soldier’s Word), later retitled “Czerwony Sztandar” (The Red Flag) wrote on 20 September: ‘The needy peasants, noting the approach of the Red Army, on their own have settled grievances with their hated enemies – landowners, Polish officials and settlers. Two weeks later S. Dzierżyńska, after describing military settlers as sons of wealthy peasants (kulaks), maintained ‘this clique must have been a sure support in the fighting against the revolutionary movement of workers and the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peasants as well as in the war against the Soviet Union, being prepared by the Polish Government’. In the proclamation concerning the election to the Ukrainian Supreme Assembly, it was triumphantly declared: ‘There are no more landowners, whereas the spongers from monasteries, flunkies, high officials and lickspittles – the settlers are already deprived of the authority to rule the land of the people’. Most of the delegates to the Assembly expressed themselves in a very similar vein. According to Professor M. Pańczyszyn, ’35,000 settlers like spiders, were sucking the last drop of life blood from the Ukrainian peasant’. While J. Szkałubyna, a peasant from the Province of Stanisławów went so far as to say that: ‘The resolution concerning the apportionment of land meant that the richest parcels of land passed into settlers’ hands who, being armed, brutally oppressed our peasantry by stirring up national hatred. They beat the peasants, and if the slightest resistance was exhibited in our village, the settlers attacked, and the peasants were beaten to unconsciousness or even to death’. In the Byelorussian Assembly many accusations were aimed at the military settlers described as ‘faithful servants of Polish fascism’ as our ‘unrelenting enemies’ and demanded ‘clear them from our land’.

The military settlers along with ‘landowners’ and ‘capitalists’ were spoken of as the most hostile group for whom there was no place in the Soviet order. To reinforce such demagogic assertions false data were provided about the number of military settlers which actually exceeded 9,000 people in the whole Eastern Borderland. Notwithstanding this the pronouncements issuing from the Assemblies put the figure at 37,000 military settlers in the territories named Western Byelorussia, and another 35,000 on the land called the Western Ukraine. It is quite clear that the term ‘military settlers’ pinpointed and hastened the campaign against them, and included those civilian settlers who had nothing to do with the army, but who had acquired their land precisely by those same methods and conditions of allotment used in all other Polish territories.

There is no doubt whatsoever that these attacks, inspired from the highest levels, were monitored all the way down to the final encounter with the settler group. Moreover such action was not long in coming.  Even by November some committees had started evicting settlers. That happened in the Równe district of Wołyn where many settlers received an order to quit their homes. Examples are such Osadas as: Krechowiecka, Hallerowo, Bajonówka, Jazłowiecka, Bolesławice, Woronów. On more than one occasion the settlers’ families were given just a few hours to pack the possessions accumulated over 18 years. Similar instances occurred in the Grodno District (Osada Budowla and others). As is shown in the accounts related here quite often local families moved into the settlers’ homes without permission, and simply divided the settlers’ property between the two families, but there were also certain Ukrainian and Byelorussians who not only did not actively participate in the destruction of settlers, but actually positively helped them. The family of the writer of these words experienced such help.

Deportation to the Soviet Union 10 February 1940

The deportation of whole groups of the civilian population from their place of origin to different geographic and climatic territories in which to live was, in the Soviet Union, a well tried and well known policy by which the ruling party retained power. Fictitious tales of menace from such groups to the existing system led to merciless repression upon millions of people, and they even included children and old people. The Polish population on those territories overrun by the Soviet Union in September 1939, by the first months of 1940 shared the same fate as the Russian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian ‘enemies of the people’ who, from the early 1920’s had been dispatched to the forests of North Russia and Siberia where living conditions were beyond endurance. In many cases the deported Poles were housed in posioleks (settlements) built by these earlier deportees.

In the period from the appearance of the Red Army on Polish territories, and the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany – i.e. 17 September 1939 and 22 June 1941, there were four mass deportations of civilian populations – Polish citizens, namely:                                                                                                                              9/10 February 1940
                                                                                                       12/13 April 1940
                                                                                                       28/29 June 1940
                                                                                                       14-20 June 1941

According to estimates published up to 1990 the total number of deported civilians (not including POW’s, nor people arrested, nor those recruited into the Red Army), reached somewhere between 980,000 and 1,200,000 people. This number, now that part of the deportation documents from Russian archives have been made available to the public, is presently the subject of verification. A Russian historian, Alexander Guryanov, connected with the association ‘Memorial’, by using the lists of railway transports involving the deported civilian population, estimates the number to be 315,000 with margin of error of between 10,000 and 15,000. On the other hand the Committee of Army Activists from the Polish Ministry of National Defence estimates the number deported to be about 352,000. In 1993 historians from the Historical Institute of the University of Wrocław, provisionally reckoned the number of deportees to be about 330,000 of which 220,000 (63.6%) were Polish nationals. These numbers are undergoing further scrutiny and cannot therefore be asserted as a final figure.

The military settlers were taken away during the first deportation in the night of 9-10 February 1940. According to the first calculations made after the war, some 220,000 people were taken at that time, but the most recent research lowers this figure to 140,000-150,000. In the Soviet documents these February 1940 deportees are described as ‘special deportees – settlers or sometimes as ‘former Polish settlers, and foresters’. Similar terminology is used in Polish documents. However interpretation of the word ‘settler’ requires explanation because quite often in writings on the subject it is used with the addition of the word ‘military’ which is a misconception. In the Eastern Borderlands, during the 1930’s, there were 9,000 military settlers and a large number of civilian settlers, only a small number of whom belonged to the Association of Settlers. As we have no lists of the personnel who composed the deported people, it is very difficult to establish how many of these belonged to the group of military settlers. Only an estimation is possible.

It is known from numerous observations, as well as from the stories contained in this book, that not all the settlers’ families were deported to the Soviet Union because at an earlier date some of them illegally crossed the border into Polish Western territories occupied by Germany. Besides that, on the day of deportation, some family members were away from home, whilst others managed to escape. It is possible to accept with a fair degree of probability that, at the most, 90% of the settlers – i.e. 8,000-8,100 found themselves being deported, together with their families in February 1940. Judging by the stories reported in this book it is calculated that the average family consisted of 5.5 persons, and this complies with accounts gained from other sources. It is therefore possible to estimate that 44,000 – 44,600 persons originating from military settlers’ families were deported. That constitutes almost one third (30-32%) deported in February and 12-14% deported in 1940-41 of the civilian population – Polish citizens. This means that one in five of Polish nationals deported to the USSR – not counting POW’s and prisoners – came from the families of military settlers.

The term ‘settler’ applied to all those deported in 1940 is very wide of the mark because it includes not only military and civilian settlers, but also forest rangers, and quite a number of Polish peasants who had lived in the Borderlands for decades. In the February deportation there were also those of Ukrainian and Byelorussian extraction who were likely to be forest rangers. 

That February deportation, as well as the three which followed, was prepared using details supplied by the NKVD under the supervision of the Commissar of Internal Affairs, Lavrentii Beria. On 5 December 1939, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR had already undertaken resolution number 2001-558 concerning the deportation of settlers’ families and those of the forestry service from the territory of the western parts of the Ukraine and Byelorussia which had been confirmed by Stalin’s instructions of the 19 and 25 December. More detailed instruction on this subject was issued on 29 December. Neither of these resolutions clearly specifies the reasons for the deportation of the settlers. Professor Chackiewicz from Minsk is of the opinion that the settlers’ “guilt” was their military past and their loyalty to the ‘bourgeois’ Polish Government. Undoubtedly this is true but one can also add that the NKVD was apprehensive that the military settlers, the majority of whom owned firearms, would support anti-Soviet demonstrations and were also influenced by feelings of possible retaliation for the events of 1920.

Instructions described the settlers as spetzpereselenzty, (special deportees) and defined that they could take only clothing, underwear, shoes, bedding, kitchen and dining utensils, one month’s supply of food for all the family, small agricultural and domestic implements, personal valuables and money without limit. The total weight of luggage was not to exceed 500 kg per family. The entire farm together with its land and equipment had to be turned over to the local authority.

The act of evicting the ‘settlers’ in any particular district consisting of 250-300 families was supervised by a threesome of officials led by the district head of the NKVD. To help him he had the services of a large number of confidential workers like Party members, the militia and local activists. In Byelorussia there were 4,005 ‘threesomes’ in 37 operational territorial divisions employing 16,279 people of whom 11,674 had been brought over from East Byelorussia part of the USSR. The overall supervision of the February deportation was performed by Beria’s deputy, V.V. Chernyshev, aided in the Ukraine by L.A. Serov and M. Merkulov, and in Byelorrusa by L.F. Tsanava.

The lists of the names of the military settlers and members of their families was completed by 5 January 1940. Although those compiling the lists did not give their true reason for doing this the settlers began to suspect there existed some hidden agenda involving further arrests or maybe even deportation, but they thought this would only involve the settlers themselves and, perhaps, young male adults. But during the night of 9/10 February, when in some regions the climate dipped to -40 degrees, stood a member of the NKVD accompanied by militia men and more often than not, a known local activist. After having had a decree of deportation read out to them they were ordered to pack indispensable items and food, and to do this were often allowed little more than half an hour. ‘Get ready with your possessions’ (sobiraisya s veshchamy) ordered the Soviet official, the behaviour of whom was often over -zealous. In many cases the father settler was held under the sight of a rifle barrel, leaving his wife to pack their belongings, while simultaneously calming her weeping children woken in the middle of the night and terrified by the situation. Equally it happened that the ‘authorities’ representatives helped to pack and advised the taking of a lot of food, especially warm clothing and such useful articles as a sewing machine for example. They cautioned: ‘you are travelling a long way and there you won’t eat honey from spoons’ [account of [account of Różena Gordon - Reich  art. no.087]. Any resistance was out of the question and where it occurred it only led to the escape of no more than one person. Armed resistance was the exception. In the district of Wołkowysk on Osada Koładycze (Kaledicze), the settler Leon Wysocki offered armed resistance, but was killed during the shoot-out. 

The NKVD possessed detailed information on each individual member of the families. There were instances where the older children who were at schools away from the osadas were taken that same night from where they were lodging, and brought to the point of transport where their families were assembled. There were also less pleasant instances when the settlers’ children who had been absent from home during the deportation were winkled out a few days or even weeks later, and deported to different places from that of their family [account of Bronisława Kacperek - Bielińska art. no. 078 and T. Sobierajski art. no.103].

The Ukrainian and Byelorussian population’s attitude towards the deportation of the settlers was very varied. The daughter of a settler from the Wilno Province remembered: ‘In front of our house stood a group of locals from the nearby village, many of these had previously worked for us, and they now waited to plunder our home following our departure; but mother went back into the house again, and after a while there came the noise of shattering glass and crockery, the smell of kerosene, which she poured over what remained of our possessions’ [account of Ola Barton - Nowicka  art. no.114]. In his later letter, following the plans executed in Byelorussia, the local head of NKVD, Tsanava, reported that the local population had been passive in its attitude, though information from some districts indicated that the action met with their approval which was shown by the help they gave in providing local transport, and by their takeover of abandoned properties. Given these facts, it is very difficult to form a general opinion, since anxiety concerning their own fate, especially since at that time some Ukrainians and Byelorussians were amongst the deported, could have influenced the behaviour of the local people.

Those deported were transported to railway collecting points, sometimes a dozen or so kilometres distance, and were then allocated to the specially brought in trains. According to the ruling of the 29 December one transport (echelon) was to consist of 55 trucks of which one passenger coach was reserved for the escort, and one for the first-aid help. In each truck, bolted from the outside, were to travel 25 people but as is shown by many reports, the number was much higher, even exceeding 50 people per truck. ‘Medical care’ was supposed to be provided by a medical orderly and two nurses. During the journey there was to be one hot meal and 800 grams of bread per person in every 24 hours. In reality there were days when the escorts did not open the trucks and the food supply was limited to hot water and the odd loaf of bread supplemented by a drop of soup which had to last for a few days for everyone in the truck. The stove, situated in the middle of the truck, did not give off enough heat and there were times when during the night, women’s hair froze to the sides of the truck. In these conditions people were sick, dying and even children being born. An opening in the wagon floor served as a toilet which, to keep up appearances, the deported screened with a blanket. 

Though the completion of the transport was all but done in one day, for some reason, it was prolonged into the next two days. After that delay the trains moved east. The crossing of the border caused tears and the singing of patriotic and religious songs such as “We will not Forsake our Land” and “Into Thy Care”. Meanwhile from the very onset of the deportation the regional NKVD heads sent reports of the progress of the action to their superiors who, in their turn, sent information every two to four hours to Beria.

The journey to the appointed destination lasted over three weeks. Though they tried not to show it, people were physically and mentally exhausted. It is worth quoting a fragment of one story:

‘The train hurried on but in the evenings stopped at some station or other when the doors were opened and a few men from each wagon went off to collect water, and sometimes bread and soup. Up to this day I recall how our fathers still soldiers at heart, even in these circumstances, when they were hemmed in by armed guards marched as they marched off with their buckets showed scant regard for the rifle butts, and sang ‘Our hearts and soul are joyful when the 1st Brigade is attacking Russians’ and other legionnaire songs. Day after day passed, either in travelling or being held up in some sidings’.  [account of Maria Póżniak - Turczyńska  art. no.080].

Arrival at the last major railway station, in most cases this was Kotłas (Archangel Region), did not mean the end of the journey. Depending upon the final destination further travel was by sledge, local narrow gauge railway or river coal barges, the last option of which in this desperately severe weather was particularly difficult to withstand.

In spite of the few weeks of planning the resettlement procedure was chaotic in the extreme. Included in the transport lists were people who should not have been such as the infirm and the desperately sick. Konradov, the Chairman of OTP Gulag NKVD (Special Branch of NKVD supervising the deportation) in his letter to the Deputy Commissar of the ministry of Internal Affairs (undated), gave a very long list of people who were deported without reason. Among them appears the name of a military settler from Wołyn. Companion of the Order Virtuti Militari Klemens Grzybowski, deported to NKVD Uzlag in Molotov region on whose personal questionnaire someone made this note: ‘Do not deport, bound for unknown destination’. 

According to the report submitted by the commissars supervising the resettlement the deportation of 10 February 1940 was made up thus:

●      Number of families                     26,790             139,286 persons
●      Planned number of families     (27,563)          (147,957) persons
Of these:
●       from West Ukraine                     17,206             89,062 persons
                                                               (17,753)           (95,065) persons
●      From West Byelorussia                 9,584             50,224 persons
                                                                 (9,810)           (52,892) persons      

The actual number deported is slightly lower than planned because some of the families were away from home or people were sick as well as various other reasons. When comparing the actual number with that of the plan for the February deportation, one notes that 8,671 people avoided exile, but a considerable number of these were deported in the following months. Different sources provide similar information. According to reports sent to Beria in April 1940 by the above-mentioned Konradov, the total of deported settlers numbered 139,590 who came from 27,468 families. The document entitled ‘Information concerning the special deportees listed by lands and counties’ gave the April 1940 total as 139,169 persons. Similar numbers to this are arrived at by considering the materials used in the military convoys according to which the number deported in February 1940 was between 140,000 and 143,000 persons.

In the Soviet Special Posioleks

Those settlers deported in February were taken mainly to the North East Region of European Russia, but also to some districts in the Urals, East and West Siberia, and a small number to Kazakhstan. From existing NKVD documents dated 1 April 1941 it appears that of the 134,491 deported settlers 38,622 (28.7%) were to be found in the Archangel region, 13,562 (10.1%) in the Sverdlovsk region, 13,339 (9.9%) in the Krasnoyarski Kraj, 11,513 (8.6%) in the Ivanovsk region and 9,954 (7.4%) in the Autonomous Komi Republic. These were the main concentrations of those who had been deported in February 1940. From the total number deported in February, 61.5% (85,779 people, 17,077 families) were put to work for the People’s Commissariat of the Forest Industry (NARKOMLIES), and the next 16.5% (23,026 people, 4,573 families) to the woodworking plants COLES supervised by the People’s Commissariat of Transport, 13.9% (19,458 people, 3,951 families) to the People’s Commissariat controlling Base Metals, and the remaining 8.1% to a variety of other economic commissariats.

As for the group of military settlers whose 106 stories appear in this book 72% were deported to the Archangel region, 9% to the Urals (Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk), 6% to the Vologda region, 6% to Eastern Siberia (Irkutsk), 2% to Western Siberia, 2% to the Autonomous Komi Republic, and the remaining 3% to other regions of European Russia. With very few exceptions the military settlers’ families were located in the forests employed in felling, transporting and working timber.

The deportees were housed in special camps called specposiolki (special posioleks). In NKVD documents two numbers are used, namely 317 and 115, in reference to specposiolki allotted to special Polish settlers. The governance of these specposiolki was in the hands of the NKVD. The management and administration of the posioleks was regulated by certain instructions and directives which set out the scope of the Commandant’s authority, the settlers living conditions, their duties and limitations and the expected penalties for ‘offences’. The cost of the posioleks’ administration was borne by the special settlers, and 10% of their monthly wage was deducted for this purpose. In one settlement there lived 100-500 families, and according to the regulations, each family had the right to a separate room or to be given a place in a barrack of at least 3 square metres of living space per person. The reality was diametrically opposite to the rules but, when all is said and done, this was the usual characteristic feature of the Soviet system in every aspect and at every level.

The NKVD knew perfectly well what the real living conditions were in the posioleks; proof of this is in the Russian archives where there still exist various notes, reports and accounts from that period. In June 1940 the Committee of the Krasnoyarski Kraj forwarded this information: “As yet normal living conditions do not exist for the deportees. Families housed in communal barracks are very cramped, poorly supplied with food (even as regards basic needs), and the medical care for them is sparse which leads to epidemic illnesses”. Beria also informed Stalin that ‘in all the posioleks of the Altai Kraj, the barracks are not prepared for the winter; lack of stoves and unglazed windows’. According to an NKVD official from the Autonomous Komi Republic in all the camps’ medical centres, there was no medicine of any kind’. Similar reports were sent from other regions.

According to Soviet legislation all children should go to school, but as is clear from a letter written in July 1940 by V. Potemkin, the Commissar of Education to A. Y. Vyshinsky, Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, out of 510 deported children in the Chelyabinsk region only 256, about half, were in schools because no places existed for the rest. In the Gorky region it was worse because not one of the 827 children were in school, due to lack of appropriate accommodation.

Although the official reports admitted faults, scarcities and shortcomings on different levels they were still miles from the truth. In reality the conditions of the deported were considerably more dreadful. This is testified by the numerous published memoires of those who suffered these experiences, among them the writers of stories in this book. Inhuman conditions - severe frost, hunger, laborious work - caused high death rates, despite people trying to help themselves as much as they could. Whatever possessions they had brought with them from home they exchanged for food and, during the summer, they supplemented their provisions with berries and wild mushrooms gathered in the forests. All sorts of different illnesses were endemic while scurvy and night blindness were common because of the lack of vitamins. In the barracks it was very difficult to maintain conditions of hygiene because for years bugs and other vermin had multiplied there. In one account the writer very tersely, but emphatically points out: ‘to describe the conditions of hygiene in the posioleks, even by the word ‘primitive’ would be an overstatement. Hygiene at that time in Soviet territories just did not exist, despite their reminding us at every possible occasion of just how high their culture was using as an example the number of voshoboykas (de-lousing centres)’ [account of Dorota Jasińska - Jarosz art. no.074].

NKVD reports state that in the period from bringing the settlers to the posioleks to January 1941, 6,432 people died, 4.6% of the deportees and to July 1941 the total number of dead increased by 4,125 to 10,557 people; approximately an increase by 3% to 7.6%. Using information included in this book alone, dealing with a total of 657 people from military settlers’ families, it is estimated that in the period from 1940 to the last months of the war, 114 people died – i.e. 17.4% or an average of about 4% per year. One must however add that almost all these families left the USSR in 1942 causing their living conditions to undergo fundamental changes for the better, and the mortality rate to decrease considerably. It must therefore be accepted that mortality among the military settlers’ families during their exile was in excess of 5% per year.

Life in the posioleks was under far-reaching control and all ‘transgressions’ were liable to a fine or a few days in custody. Even being twenty minutes late for work was punishable by three months hard labour along with a 25% deduction from wages. In this area the powers of the Commandant of the posiolek were very wide, with the settlers having no possibility of questioning his decisions. Instances of arrest are mentioned in a few accounts – as for example: ‘One settler’s wife was arrested and taken from the posiolek for officiating in the month of May evening devotions to the Blessed Virgin. Three settlers suffered the same fate for expressing anti-Soviet views. The general fear of being arrested created a mutual suspicion towards denunciation, and the avoidance of uttering any frank opinions about the Soviets’ [account of Marian Marzojty (Morzajew) art. no.112]. However they did not submit in their struggle. They celebrated their religious and national feast days when they sang their patriotic and religious songs. The thought of their eventual return to their osadas never left the military settlers themselves, nor any member of their families. The twelve year old daughter of a settler from Wołyn, Barbara Morawska, expressed this in her poem which became the song of the Poldnevista posiolek in the Gorky region:

We settlers live in the extensive clearing
of Poldnevista posiolek deep in these ancient forest
On this land cleared of trees whose trunks have buil
these homes assigned to them and called barracks                          
Men are toiling in the brick works or wood mills
But, at each free moment dream plans for the future
Everyone’s dream is to return to their own soil
And use their common effort to regain their homeland.


Hope came with the Polish-Soviet treaty signed on 30 July 1941 and with the issuing of a decree of amnesty on 12 August 1941, plus the concurrent resolution of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee VKP (b) and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR viz – ‘The procedure for the release and directing of those Polish citizens to whom the amnesty applies according to the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR’. To those included in the amnesty was returned their Polish citizenship and the right to settle unconditionally in Soviet territories. The majority decided to take advantage of this, and especially so, as news reached them of the formation of a Polish army in the regions of Kuybyshev and Saratov. This army at the beginning of 1942 was moved to the Asiatic republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizia. Tens of thousands from the north set off south aiming mainly for the Soviet Asiatic republics in the belief that, in a warmer climate, and closer to nearby formed Polish centres, life would be easier and freer. The journey lasted a long time, often over two months, with very often long delays and drifting from place to place. A military settler’s daughter recalls this journey: ‘as the posiolek disappeared below the horizon the wind of freedom caressed our faces. Thus began a long, strenuous journey. We changed from one train to another, often without tickets. We even hid in a Red Cross train conveying wounded Soviet soldiers. We stopped at stations to acquire bread or milk. We stole vegetables from fields. We tried to acquire provisions by all manner of means. Bread was rationed – one loaf per day for the whole family. We didn’t always have ration cards. Quite often we didn’t leave the train as we were afraid that it would go without us. There were many occasions when people didn’t manage to board the train’. [account of Alicja Robinson - Jankowska art. no.070]. Many large families, especially those with small children stayed behind in the posioleks.

The Last War Years

After their coming south to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia and the Altai Kraj, new and unforeseeable difficulties confronted them. It was by no means easy to find work or accommodation, and there was a dearth of food. Typhoid, red and common dysentery raged, and the death rate rose even higher than it had been in the north.

From 7 August 1941 an Embassy of the Polish Republic existed in the USSR and opened 19 delegation centres, and provided a network of social workers for the protection of Polish citizens, ten such centres being in Kazakhstan and Soviet southern Asia. At the time of the rupture of Polish-Soviet relations in April 1943, 271,325 Polish citizens came within the ambit of the Embassy. The breadth of this work was enormous but to a large extent not very satisfactory. It has been estimated that 72% of orphans were in the care of orphanages, 6.5% of invalids had shelter, education reached just 20% of children, and 11% of the work tackling malnutrition affected 19% of children and 11% of the invalids. The distribution of food, clothes and medicine, provided by the Polish Government, or sent as gifts by ally agencies was dealt with by the Embassy’s delegates or social workers. However, because of the transport difficulties caused by the Soviet authorities, only 57% of the 6,300.5 tons of the aid received was actually distributed. The Embassy’s welfare activities faced constant hindrance from the Soviet authorities including the arrest of its social workers.

Some military settlers and their offspring joined the new Polish army, and by this means managed to leave the USSR in 1942. Similarly their families and a few thousand Polish children were evacuated. Those who did not manage this, spent the next three years in exile. In 1942 there were two evacuations of the military and the civilian population from the USSR, namely in March/April and in August. They totalled 115,742 people of whom 78,470 were soldiers and 37,272 civilians, 13,948 of the latter being children. The soldiers were assimilated into the battle formations of the armies of the Western Powers while the civilians and children were placed in temporary camps in Persia (Iran), India, British East Africa, the Middle East and even Mexico. In all these places were the wives, sisters and children of military settlers, yet a substantial number of such relatives remained behind on Soviet soil. From the middle of 1942 Soviet repression of the Polish representative units increased. On 15 January 1943, the Council of People’s Commissars, without notifying the Embassy of the Polish Republic, issued a decree whereby they placed all the Polish centres under Soviet control, and on 25 April 1943 Polish-Soviet relations came to an end. In February 1943, and therefore before the break down of diplomatic relationships, the Soviets again began forcing Poles to accept Soviet citizenship. Those who refused were imprisoned in which state quite a number died. Amongst these were military settlers [account of Witold Stępień art. no.049].

The liquidation of the social welfare units only changed for the worse what was an already difficult situation for the Polish population. This is illustrated by the account of a settler’s young son in exile in Kazakhstan: “Survival is now the order of the day as we search for something suitable to eat. We are forced to gather plants but must be careful not to be poisoned, or go blind, as had once happened with something that looked like a beetroot. Tulip bulbs, for example, are not edible. The most precious acquisition would be a captured dog or cat, but this is almost impossible. There are some creatures, for example, lizards and frogs whose turn has not come yet. For the moment they can wait” [Account of Witold Stępień art. no.049].

In March 1943 the Union of Polish Patriots (ZPP) was formed. This was a pro-Communist and pro-Soviet organisation. It began to form Polish Army units to fight alongside the Red Army. Into this force many military settlers and their sons were recruited. Many of these fought and perished near Lenino and during the Pomeranian campaign. The Union of Polish Patriots decided to take over the work of acting on the behalf of the remaining Polish population in the USSR. The number of these was estimated at 289,700. To this end they created a Department of Social Services which began by attending to the distribution of the provisions left over from the activities of the Polish Embassy. The ZPP had an easy run in as the Soviet Government gave them permission to use all they had collected in their liquidation of the Polish Embassy; besides which relations between the Soviets and ZPP were friendlier than those with the Polish Government in London. In the middle of 1944 following the ZPP’s request, the Soviet Government provided aid for the Polish population by way of 2,305 tons of food and a quantity of footwear and fabrics. Really a case of the proverbial drop in the ocean. The ZPP also raised the question of the moving of Poles from the northern territories to the south where the climate was more bearable. This was originally forwarded at the end of 1941 by the Polish Ambassador Professor Kot, and later by General Sikorski in conversation with Stalin. This time the Soviets agreed, and in the period May-December 1944, in two separate groups, over 53,000 people were moved from the Autonomous Komi Republic, the north and Asiatic regions of the Russian Federation, Siberia and some parts of the region of Kazakhstan to the southern part of European Russia and the Ukraine. The ZPP also claimed certain achievements with regard to the protection of children though it is difficult to call them successes. From the total number of children aged 4-18 estimated at 56,800 only about 22,000 – i.e. 39% were receiving some kind of care via institutions such as kindergartens and children’s homes. 

Two months after the end of the war on 6 July 1945, a new agreement was signed between the pro-Communist Polish Provisional Government of National Unity and the USSR about the rights of changing Soviet citizenship, and the evacuation of the Polish and Jewish nationalities living in the USSR who had held Polish citizenship before 17 September 1939. Evacuation began at the end of 1945, but only involved 22,058 people. This movement peaked in the first half of 1946 when 217,144 people returned to their homeland after six years in exile. Altogether up to 1949, 266,000 people returned from the USSR.

There is no means of knowing just how many military settlers with their families left the Soviet Union either as civilians or with the army under the command of General Anders in 1942, nor the number repatriated to Poland following the end of the war. On the basis of observation it is quite possible to assert that the latter group was the more numerous. However they were not able to go back to their homes as according to the Yalta Conference of February 1945, the Polish Eastern Borderland became a part of the USSR. Many such families settled in the western part of Poland incorporated after the war, where the possibility of building a new life was easier than in the more populated other Polish territories. One can also assume that some settlers’ children who were taken into Soviet children’s homes after the death of their parents are unaware of their ancestry, and remain to this day in Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Descendants of the military settlers of the Borderland it is now possible to meet in many parts of the globe. All remembrance of life on the osada, held with nostalgia by the second generation – the settlers’ children born on the osadas – will disappear with them. The military settlement itself will remain only as an episode in the history of the Polish Eastern Borderland.

Janina Smogorzewska’s history and social context of the military settlements leading in the inter-war years translated from “The Eastern Borderlands of Poland, Memories of Military Settlements 1921-1940” -click here.

Janina Stobniak-Smogorzewska’s Obituary  click  here           

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