Poland First To Fight
Soviet Invasion of Poland

The Soviet Occupation of Poland - part 1



Text: The Soviet Occupation of Poland, with an introductory note by J. B. Morton, Free Europe, London, 1940
Photos: Ministry of Information WW2 IWM Print Collections



Introductory Note by J. B. Morton

This pamphlet arrives at an opportune moment. So much has happened, and upon such a gigantic scale, since the invasion of Poland, that there is a tendency to forget that Soviet Russia is holding down by force half the territory and one-third of the population of our ally. When M. August Zaleski told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Polish Council that Poland considers herself to be at war with Soviet Russia, surprise was expressed, and even disapproval in those quarters where Marxist aggression is excused or called by another name. But this is an idea to which we must become accustomed. Poland, like the rest of Europe has two enemies.

We in Britain have been told a great deal about the Germans in Poland, but very little about the Russians. The scarcity of news has led many to imagine that conditions under Russia are not as bad as they might have been. The information supplied by the present publication will enable the reader to form his own conclusions on this matter.

The account given in these pages of what is occurring in Poland's Eastern provinces is extremely valuable for two other reasons. It is authentic, and it is restrained. It is more concerned with facts and figures than with the rhetoric of indignation. The historical sketch of the Eastern provinces will be particularly useful for English readers, many of whom have been told (and have believed it) that most of the territory seized by the Russians was really Russian territory, and that the Red armies were merely taking back what belonged to them, and perhaps a little bit more. The author of this pamphlet answers that blatant lie very effectively.

Soviet Invasion of Poland 1939
Red Army soldier guarding a Polish PWS-26 trainer aircraft shot down near the city of Równe (Rivne) in the Soviet occupied part of Poland, 18/09/1939

It is of the utmost importance for British people to understand something of the past history and present agony of Poland, not merely because that country is our ally but also because posterity will, to a great extent, judge our contribution to the reconstruction of Europe by our attitude to Poland. History and geography have made Poland an outpost of Christendom, and when she once more has been liberated, her task will be what it has ever been: to stand as the warden of the marches.

The Soviet Occupation of Poland

On September 17, 1939, at 2:15 a.m. the Polish Ambassador to the U.S.S.R., M. Waclaw Grzybowski, was summoned to the Soviet Foreign Office. On arriving at the Kremlin, he was received by M. Potemkin, who read him a Note to the effect that the Soviets regarded the Polish Government as disintegrated, and the Polish State as having in fact ceased to exist. All agreements concluded between the U.S.S.R. and Poland were in consequence declared to have ceased to operate. Poland bereft of leadership had become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises constituting a threat to the U.S.S.R. Furthermore, the Soviet Government could not view with indifference the fate of the kindred Ukrainian and White Russian people living on Polish territory, and, in existing circumstances, left defenceless.

Accordingly, the Soviet Government had ordered its troops to cross the Polish border and take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia. At the same time, the Soviet Government proposed to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders, and enable them to live a peaceful life.1

There existed between Poland and the Soviet Republic a pact of non-aggression dated July 25,1932, which on May 5, 1934, was extended until December 31, 1945.

Notwithstanding the strong misgivings aroused in all quarters by the new pact concluded on August 23, 1939, between the Soviets and Germany, in the first days of the war between Poland and Germany a general impression prevailed of a certain good will on the part of the Soviets towards Poland. On August 27 Izvestia published an interview with Marshal Vorosilov who stated that the new understanding with Germany would not prevent Russia from supplying raw materials and even war materials to Poland.2

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 1939
Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of Germany; Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union supreme leader; and Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, at the signing of the Treaty of Non-Aggression between two countries, in reality the pact of demarcation of Europe, 23/08/1939

Along the entire Russian border it had been noticed that the tone of Russian broadcasts was not at all unfriendly towards Poland, and on certain frontier stations - much to the amazement of those who were informed - special arrangements were being made in great haste in order to facilitate the transport of goods into Poland. At Mołodeczno, it was rumoured, a large convoy of lorries had been rushed over the frontier by night in early September. The Polish Government certainly had difficulties in keeping in touch with its local representatives. Since September 5 it was constantly moving owing to German bombing. But complete tranquillity reigned in the Eastern Provinces of Poland. Mobilisation had taken place under normal conditions and perfectly smoothly; all public authorities were functioning without interruption.

In the light of events it is unnecessary to stress the evident bad faith of the Soviets. The perfidy of Moscow's diplomatic language was vividly reminiscent of many similar documents of the 18th century, when Russia, with Berlin as chief accomplice, undermined the old monarchic Commonwealth of Poland.

In any event, the entrance of the Russian troops was such a surprise, not only to the population but also to the civil and military authorities, that in many places it was thought that the Bolsheviks had entered Poland as allies against Nazi Germany. These doubts were, of course, very soon dispelled. In many places communist "fifth columns" made their appearance with accompanying incidents of violence and plunder. The more determined Polish commanders swerved eastwards, and a new phase of warfare began between the Carpathians and the Dźwina, which lasted another three weeks.


The northern provinces involved in the invasion knew the Russians well. The provinces of Volhynia (Wołyń), Polesie, Nowogródek, and Wilno as well as Białystok had been subjected to the Russian Empire for more than a century. But Lwów, Stanisławów and Tarnopol had seen the Russians only once, in 1914, and had never been under Russian rule: they had been annexed by Austria in the first partition of Poland in 1772.

The territory invaded, and later incorporated by Russia with the so-called Soviet Ukraine and Soviet White Russian Republics, after a farcical election on October 29, 1939, was the poorer and more backward part of Poland. For this there are many reasons. The mineral resources of the Eastern Carpathians are smaller than those of the Western district of Silesia. The immense marshes of the Prypeć exclude the possibility of cultivation of large tracts of land, also consist of very poor soil.

To the north of them the climate is very severe, and the soil is in general not very fertile. But, above all things, the former Eastern Galicia, wedged in between the Carpathians and the Russian border (with an economic outlet only towards the West at a distance of more than 250 miles of hilly and difficult country), had always been the most neglected and poverty-stricken of the provinces of the Austrian Empire.

As for the western confines of Russia, until 1914, they were certainly the most abandoned and underdeveloped part of Europe. After the Polish risings of 1830 and 1863, these lands were deliberately neglected and wasted by the Tsarist Governments, and the building of a few railways late in the 19th century was quite insufficient to raise the standard of living and economic activity in such vast regions. Even the much more densely populated "Kingdom of Poland," with its large centres like Warsaw and Łódź, with its coal mines of Dąbrowa with its numerous and enterprising population, had experienced the extreme difficulty of improving conditions under Russian rule.

After the re-establishment of Poland in 1918, conditions in the Eastern Provinces had improved in many respects. Artificial frontiers were set aside, and a natural exchange of goods between neighbouring territories developed. The first roads were built, railway lines improved and transport greatly accelerated. Many towns, now administrative centres (such as Brześć, Baranowicze, Pińsk, etc) were developed to a remarkable degree. Many large estates laid waste by the war were parcelled out, and the intricate system of peasant land tenure was converted into separate holdings. Education was promoted, about eleven thousand schools were opened3; the University of Wilno was reinstated and recovered some of its former lustre; so did the "Lyceum" of Krzemieniec. Churches were erected or restored, and religious orders took up their beneficent activities.

Soviet Invasion of Poland 1939
Senior Political Worker G. Gilmanov of the Red Army talking to peasants at the village of Dubowicze in the Soviet occupied part of Poland as part of the political re-education campaign, 29/09/1939

Owing to the new outlet on the Baltic, there was a remarkable development of the timber industry, the exploitation of forests being subjected to strict governmental control. Considerable tracts of marshland and pasture were drained and reconditioned fisheries established.

In the northern regions, the production of flax and the manufacture of yarn and linen were greatly advanced. Industry, so far as conditions permitted, began to thrive.

The oil-fields of Borysław were developed: oil refineries were built and mineral gases rationally exploited. The large centre of textile industry in Białystok underwent a considerable revival.

Agriculture in general made visible progress, and the development of dairy produce was remarkable. A wide system of co-operative organisations, both Polish and Ukrainian, was established, and the standard of living of the population was rising slowly but steadily.

In short, the Eastern Provinces of Poland, when war broke out on September 1, 1939, represented a vast agricultural area, dotted here and there with industrial centres, not devoid of a decided elementary prosperity, although awaiting many necessary developments, and hampered - as was the whole of Poland - by an evident lack of capital.

The present condition of these provinces cannot be understood or equitably judged without reference to their political history. It is all the more necessary to keep the historical past in mind when considering the ethnographical aspect as well as the psychology of the population.


Of the territory at present occupied by the Bolsheviks every square mile had belonged to the Polish Commonwealth ever since the 14th century. The southern part was conquered from the Hungarians (1340-1352) by Casimir the Great. The northern part was included in the union of Poland and Lithuania in 1386.

The two countries after a period of purely personal union became a homogeneous State in 1569. For centuries the whole political and cultural life of these countries has theretofore been Polish. It is an anachronism to speak of nationalist movements when referring to bygone centuries, and Poland always was a country of outstanding tolerance. Whereas the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries led to bloody wars in the whole of Western Europe, in Poland they remained entirely within the spiritual sphere. It is largely to be attributed to this tolerance that in the south-eastern provinces of Poland, which stretched in those days beyond the Dnieper, the adherents of the Greek Orthodox Church remained very numerous. When the power of the Polish state declined, this religious minority became a tool in the hands of the rulers of Moscow, who planned its disintegration.

Later violent social upheavals and military revolts of the Cossacks foreshadowed the appearance of modern Ukrainian aspirations. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that from the 14th century an uninterrupted flow of Polish colonists made its way towards the East, very strongly affecting the ethnographical aspect of these regions.

The Polish territory at present under Soviet occupation represents some 74,700 square miles, with about 12,000,000 inhabitants, that is to say, almost exactly one-half of the area and roughly one-third of the population of the entire country. According to the census of 1931, of the inhabitants 4.5 million were Poles, over 4 million Ruthenians (or Ukrainians), over 1 million White Russians, over 1 million Jews, about 150,000 Russians, 90,000 Germans, about 40,000 Czechs and about 40,000 Lithuanians.

Soviet Invasion of Poland 1939
Lieutenant Y. Krivosheyev of the Red Army and one of his soldiers trying to make friends with visibly unhappy local children in the village of Kiewły (Kevly) in the Soviet occupied part of Poland, 8/10/1939

The entire Ukrainian or Ruthenian population is grouped in the four provinces of the South-East, whereas the largest grouping of White Russians is to be found in the province of Polesie - containing the marshes of the Prypeć - in the province of Nowogródek and the Eastern part of the province of Białystok. The northern territories adjoining the district of Wilno, handed over to the Lithuanians, though eccentrically situated, contain a very high percentage of Polish population, reaching 90% in some parishes.

The whole Polish population is Roman Catholic. Those who claim to be White Russians are most frequently followers of the Orthodox church, if they do not belong to numerous sects which still continue to develop in certain parts. The Ukrainian population of Volhynia is on the whole Orthodox, whereas in the former Austrian territories, it belongs almost exclusively to the Greek Uniate Church.4 It is, therefore, an outstanding feature of the situation that no less than 8 million Catholics of the two rites have been subjected to Bolshevik domination, even if we do not take into account that hundreds of thousands of refugees, who found themselves in the occupied area, profess the same faith. Jews are fairly uniformly scattered over the whole territory, but mostly grouped in the cities and small towns.


(1) Polish White Book, pp. 189-190

(2) Ibid, p 187

(3) Of these 4,800 elementary schools were situated in territory formerly under Austrian rule. The odd 6,000 in the northern voivodships were completely new foundations

(4) In 1594 a Church Union was brought about in Poland. At that time a considerable part of the Greek Orthodox Church in Poland submitted to Rome, but retained oriental ritual and ancient Slavonic liturgy. Known as the Uniate Church, it was wide-spread in eastern Poland. Ruthlessly suppressed by the Tsarist Government and Orthodox Russia, it remained a characteristic feature of "Eastern Galicia" under Austrian rule and was claimed as a national religion by the Ruthenians, especially since the Ukrainian movement has become conspicuous




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