The Soviet Occupation of Poland - part 2
Text: The Soviet Occupation of Poland, with an introductory note by J. B. Morton, Free Europe, London, 1940 First days of Occupation
Photos: Ministry of Information WW2 IWM Print Collections
The first contacts between the population of Poland and the Bolsheviks - who for twenty years had been kept beyond a fortified border - aroused profound astonishment on both sides. All witnesses are unanimous in stating that the Bolshevik troops on entering this part of Poland (which was generally regarded as a poor and backward region) were seized with admiration for the extraordinary wealth and abundance of the country into which they marched.
On the other hand, even the poorest (Polish) peasants were startled by the appearance of extreme misery of the invading troops. It is true that they possessed tanks and long columns of lorries, but the soldiers themselves were in rags, they looked underfed and were generally low-spirited. Shrewd observers soon discovered that demonstrations of motorised forces often consisted in a circular movement intended to make their number appear more formidable. The machines broke down frequently, and Bolshevik vehicles towed by Polish cars became a familiar sight.
The Bolshevik troops were generally well disciplined and evidently provided with ample money to buy any goods which seemed to them specially attractive. The shops in Eastern towns of Poland - three weeks after the mobilisation and diverse passages of troops and refugees - were certainly not well supplied, but watches, sweets, and various trifling objects of doubtful value, such as fly-paper, seemed to delight the invaders particularly.
First days of Occupation
In one case known to the author a Russian non-commissioned officer in Wilno hesitated in exchanging a barrel of petroleum for a watch, but showed joyful surprise on ascertaining that the watch actually worked and surrendered his barrel without any further delay. A commissar found such delight in a hat adorned with a red feather that he purchased half a dozen on the spot. In Wilno two "comrades" of the fair sex created a sensation on appearing in the theatre in dainty nightgowns, which they had purchased and mistaken for gorgeous evening dresses.
Unfortunatley, these comic incidents were only a prelude to tragic happenings which were to follow. Even so, they contributed towards the complete exhaustion of the small reserves of many goods which still existed in the occupied areas.
The first impression which the Russian invasion produced seemed to indicate that it might be limited to a military occupation, leaving country and people more or less in the situation which had previously existed. Business was allowed to be carried on, and employees in private and public undertakings were ordered to remain at their posts. The practice of religion was not visibly interfered with. Soon, however, the country, already flooded with immense crowds of refugees from the West of Poland retreating before the German invasion, witnessed a new tide of emigration from the East. Officers' families, civil administrators, commissars of different ranks made their appearance and above all the O.G.P.U., the dreaded political police, undertook its familiar tasks, and it became evident that the new rulers were bent upon reducing the seized provinces radically and mercilessly to the state and conditions prevailing in Soviet Russia.
Trouble started when accommodations for the newcomers had to be found. For the use of the Muscovite bureaucracy lodgings were seized in the towns, often crowded and with limited housing, as a result of damage done during the war. At the same time, the Bolshevik doctrine was applied that every room should accommodate no fewer than two persons.
The inhabitants' belongings were also subjected to strict regulations, inspired by the high principle that one change of clothes and underwear satisfies all legitimate aspirations of the individual. Everything in excess of this was liable to be confiscated. Numerous roving gangs, often consisting of the very scum of society, offered their services and undertook the task of searching apartments by day and night, laying hands on anything of value. Goods assembled in this way were exported into Russia, notwithstanding the recurrent assurance: "We have everything, and you shall also have everything."
The Soviet officials and their families produced an impression similar to that which accompanied the military invasion. "The women," writes an eye-witness, "wore rags wrapped round their feet or felt slippers, instead of shoes: they brought all their family belongings in one battered suitcase, and sometimes even an iron bedstead. Bedding was not known to them and the luxury of fresh linen was never dreamed of in the Soviet Republic, even by dignitaries and important women commissars. The pick of the Soviets sent out for display to this bourgeois country were ignorant of the simplest arrangements of everyday life. Accustomed to being herded together, they did not understand the superfluous habit of enjoying individual lodgings: bathrooms and kitchens they considered as uncanny inventions, and their way of feeding and housekeeping could - by its extreme misery and primitivity - only make one think of the simplicity of requirements attributed to cave-dwellers."
But personal belongings were in no way the sole object of measures amounting to seizure and spoliation. Under one pretext or another, be it reorganisation, nationalisation, or any other formula in which the Bolshevik terminology abounds, the whole country, as time went on, was subjected to the most ruthless plunder. It must be observed, however, that the invaders acted step by step and with a great deal of cunning. They did not take extreme measures at once, but availed themselves of all the possibilities which every phase of their proceedings afforded them.
Most Polish officials and employees had received three months' salary in advance before the withdrawal of the Polish forces. Here then the Soviets considered themselves as having simply taken the place of the former authorities and institutions and made these people work without pay for three months, at the expiration of which most of them were dismissed.
Trade was allowed to be carried on as long as the stocks of goods lasted, and Polish currency was maintained as legal tender. The value of the Polish zloty was fixed as equal to that of the rouble. As the current rate was 12 to 1, all transactions were carried on in zloty and the merchants came into possession of considerable sums in cash received for their stocks - which they sold out. The whole life of the population continued to be relatively normal. Then, suddenly, on December 21, 1939, the zloty was declared as withdrawn from circulation - no equivalent whatever being provided for the unfortunate possessors, only a few insignificant exceptions were made in favour of certain public institutions. Simultaneously, all bank deposits above 300 zloty were seized, and the amount thus wantonly suppressed amounted to 1,500 million zloty, or 60,000,000 British pounds sterling.1
The sudden abolition of the zloty meant the destruction of such humble remnants of well-being as still existed in the country. Prices soared and the markets showed a sudden lack of many commodities, as the country people would not sell their produce for a currency which they distrusted. It was then that a system of barter began to develop on a large scale, and the standard of living experienced a violent depression.
"Nationalism" Of Property
More or less simultaneously the process of nationalisation of commerce was put into practice. In reality it amounted to the seizure of all available stocks of goods, especially in the wholesale stores where some quantities still existed. All these supplies were carried off to Russia. The value of goods thus seized in the city of Lwów alone is estimated at about 400,000,000 pre-war zloty or 15,000,000 British pounds sterling - and at about 80,000,000 British pounds sterling in the whole occupied area. Of the 8,500 shops existing in Lwów, 6,500 were in consequence closed, and of the rest, only 500 remained in the hands of their proprietors; 1,500 were transformed into co-operative societies of different kinds, subject to incessant inroads by the Soviet authorities, and carrying on in a most precarious way.
At the same time all buildings were declared to be the property of the people, and it is only with the greatest effort that the proprietors of small houses (used as their personal residence) succeeded in preserving the use of them. But this was in the larger centres; in the provincial towns the arbitrary decisions of local officials were in no way restrained.
Industrial establishments met with a similar fate, but were subjected to special proceedings in which the old nomadic instinct of carrying off loot seemed to be uppermost. Thus in Wilno during the first Bolshevik occupation the workmen employed in a well-known factory of wireless receivers, Electrit, were induced to carry unanimously a resolution that the whole establishment be transferred to Smolensk. The same thing happened to the Courland Oil Factory. The plant was actually removed to Russia, the workmen and a good many others volunteered for work in the new locality. Some 1,000 persons, families included, decided to move. They, however, soon returned to Wilno, where in the meantime they had lost their livelihood. They were utterly disgusted with the conditions of life in Russia.
In accordance with a motion passed by the "National Assembly of Western Ukraine and White Russia," a similar fate was in store for many of the 9,000 factories of different kinds and sizes in the occupied area. Naturally the largest and best-equipped establishments were first to attract the attention of the ingenious reorganisers. The plant of the up-to-date and important sugar factories of Chodorów and Horodenka, south-east of Lwów, those of the electric works of Czortków, Kołomyja and Stanisławów in the same region, the fine spinning jennies and looms of many firms in Białystok have disappeared, to supplement the flourishing industry of Soviet Russia. The railway workshops in Lwów, Stanisławów and Przemyśl were emptied, and even the equipment and furniture of the Agrarian Bank in Lwów and of many other public institutions was not allowed to remain. Movable goods were taken away, wherever they could be found, such as timber from the Polish State forests, hay and straw from the big estates, reserves of grain, sugar, tobacco, of spirits owned by the State Monopoly, cement, hides and textiles, iron ore, coal, wrought iron and pig-iron, also medical supplies, such as cotton wool, bandages, iodine.
In this respect the treatment which the country received at the hands of its invaders, who claimed to have come to protect it against possible hazards, bears a close resemblance to the Tatar invasions of these parts in former centuries.
The fate of owners of industrial establishments as well as of the directing staffs was that meted out to all persons tarnished with the sin of possessing property. In the country most of the mansions were plundered or burnt down in the first days of the invasions, valuable collections were destroyed, libraries were scattered and dumped into rivers. The landowners fled, frequently taking with them only the clothes in which they stood. Much less seemed to threaten the independent craftsmen of different trades who possessed 67,000 workshops in the occupied provinces, with an annual output estimated at 1,200 million zloty. But the men of this class also were ruined, for they sold out in the first months of the occupation such stocks of ready articles as they possessed. The money they held was suddenly abolished, and they ended by being thrown out of work because of the total lack of raw materials, which had completely disappeared from the markets. In exchange for all the goods carried away, the much-vaunted national stores introduced by the Bolsheviks contrived, after four months' intense efforts, to offer the public some very inferior matches, dirty salt, and soap and herrings, the latter remarkable for their reek of cod-liver oil. Stationary stores in some places only contain portraits of Lenin and Stalin beside gramophone records of the "International."
(1) The zloty, still in circulation within the German occupation, preserved a certain value, but it fell in relation to the rouble to between 25 per cent and 50 per cent of its former rate of exchange, and became an object of every kind of unscrupulous transaction on the "black bourse," with all the misery and hardship, which is the lot of the public under such circumstances