The Soviet Occupation of Poland - part 3
Text: The Soviet Occupation of Poland, with an introductory note by J. B. Morton, Free Europe, London, 1940 The Position of the Workers
Photos: Murphy Patrick, Chicago Tribune, IWM Archive Collection
The 120,000 workmen employed in the few industrial centres of the occupied provinces may have expected that they would be a favoured group of society, since a "Government of peasants and workmen" had taken over control. But even this minority met with nothing but bitter disappointment. The Bolsheviks boasted that they were going to suppress unemployment and raise output. As a rule workmen were not dismissed unless they happened to displease their new masters. On the contrary, the hours of labour were reduced to six or seven and considerable numbers of new hands were taken on. To have been imprisoned on the charge of Communist propaganda was a first-class qualification, regardless of technical ability. Soon it became evident that the much-advertised achievements of "shock workers," "order-wearers," and other "heroes of labour" in Soviet Russia were considerably inferior to the normal output obtained by less pretentious workmen in other countries.
In any case the general collapse of trade could scarcely result in any benefit to the working class. What happened in reality was a precipitate decline in the standard of living to a level which people in Western Europe can scarcely imagine. As a result of the substitution of the rouble for the zloty, the monthly earnings of workmen in Eastern Poland amount to 100-150 roubles, whereas prices have reached an unprecedentedly high level.
The Position of the Workers
In February, 1940, the free market price in Lwów of one kilogram of potatoes was 5-6 roubles, that of bread 5 roubles, of meat 30-50 roubles, of butter and lard 70 roubles. In Białystok fifty kilograms of Rye cost 700 roubles; one kilogram of sugar, 50-75 roubles; one kilogram of tea, 700 roubles. In Łuck the price of butter was 30 roubles, in Białystok 75 roubles. A pair of shoes in Lwów could easily be sold for 500 roubles. Of course, the official prices in the "national" stores are considerably lower, but there the supplies are so insufficient hat they never satisfy the demand. Nothing can be purchased without the drudgery of standing endlessly in queues and obtaining ration cards - which are refused to many people. The life of a working-man's family can be easily imagined, seeing that he is obliged to live on 150 roubles a month. Women have to secure jobs at all costs - an additional hardship which the Soviet regime brings with it.
The Position of the Peasants
According to current ideas, after the workmen, the peasants should have drawn some benefit from the Soviet occupation. In the opinion of an important London periodical the peasants are for the time being pleased with the change, having at last received the land for which they longed.1 It is a great mistake to over-estimate the area of agricultural land existing as large estates in Poland. In reality, in 1939 it averaged at about 16 per cent of the entire cultivable area, including meadows and pasture-land, and was still being parcelled out rapidly. Even the complete distribution of this land could not have had a decisive influence on the state of the peasant community as a whole, which in Poland represented well over three million holdings, one-half of which is under Bolshevik occupation. The sudden destruction of large agricultural enterprises was an additional blow to the welfare of the countryside. Not only did many labourers lose their work, but tremendous waste occurred - as is always the case in situations of this kind. Horses are scarce where armies have passed, the harvest was destroyed or removed by Bolshevik requisitions - if by no other means - livestock was actually distributed among the peasants, but was killed by them before winter set in, partly owing to lack of fodder, and partly to forestall Bolshevik regulations - which were very soon enforced. All livestock was registered and the sale of it prohibited without the consent of the local committee, which was in turn subjected to the control of many other authorities. It was also soon clear that the distribution of land was in fact illusory, as the greatest pressure was being exercised on the peasants to pool their allotments and to go in for collective farming on kolkhoz lines. All reports also agree that many estates have remained in the hands of the authorities and become State enterprises.
But the actual condition of the country people was influenced for the worse by the ruin of the natural and necessary exchange between town and country, even more than by the effect of these chaotic measures. The country folk have little enough to sell, and now there is nothing to buy. Clothes, shoes, underwear have become an unattainable luxury, ironware a precious and uncommon thing. Sheepskin coats - a necessity in that climate and the cherished belongings of every family - have frequently been requisitioned. In Lida, soon after the occupation, the sight of a wagon-load of primitive moccasins - the footgear of the poor - produced a painful sensation. It was, no doubt, intended to be an imposing contribution towards the well-being of the newly acquired province.
Apart from purely material wants and deficiencies, the life of the Polish country population under Soviet rule has been profoundly troubled and depressed by many other causes. Lavish words and fine promises have not prevented the Soviets from imposing enormous taxes exceeding the boldest estimate of the taxpayers' possibilities, taxes which sometimes amount to 230 roubles per hectare (about 2 acres). Also, from the first, Muscovite policy, running true to type, has not been satisfied with the ruin of the landlords and the intellectual classes, and has made the extermination of the richer peasants, or kulaks, one of its aims - in the prosecution of which it does not recoil from the most drastic methods.
These men, wantonly accused of sabotaging the Government plans for the formation of large collective farms, were seized and deported to distant districts in Russia. The practice is well known from extensive application in the U.S.S.R.
The area under Soviet occupation is too vast to have anything like a homogeneous distribution of property. In the south, in better conditions of climate and soil, small and very small holdings are the rule. In the north, larger peasant farms are very frequent. They were regarded in Poland, as in other countries, as a particularly valuable class of property both economically and socially. New holdings were not allowed to be formed below a certain size. In the east, the owners were often new settlers from the western provinces, sometimes ex-servicemen who had obtained land under a special law. The soulless mechanism of Bolshevik "reform" has struck these men with customary cruelty. And here we come to another and more tragic subject.
Forced Labour and Political Persecution
It was generally remarked that on first entering Poland the Bolsheviks proceeded with relative gentleness and moderation. The army was not used for measures of political repression. It was only when they had a strong grip on everything, when the entire personnel of their administrative offices had arrived, when local elements, well adapted to the job they were to carry out, were sufficiently organized and above all, when the dreaded political police was well in control, that the full blessings of the new order began to be showered on the population. The first step was the arrest of many persons active in public life. In Lwów the mayor, the deputy mayor (a Jew), two other members of the municipality, three members of the Polish Diet (one Jew and two Ukrainians), and two old professors who had been leaders of the Polish National Party were among the first to be arrested - and in some cases have died in prison since. In Wilno the proceedings were similar. A former rector of the university, a director of the Agrarian Bank, the president of the Court of Appeal, a well-known member of agricultural organisations, a barrister of repute and the director of a large fishery concern were among the first victims. It was also a striking feature of the Bolshevik methods that they turned with special malice against persons who had been known for their Communist sympathies. It appears that the divergence between the creed of Stalin and Trotsky was the underlying cause.
After that in many places (as for instance in Wilno, during its first occupation) strong pressure equivalent to constraint was brought to bear on specialists of all kinds, doctors and nurses, engineers and fitters, university professors and assistants, to prevail upon them to offer their services to the Soviet Government. At the same time certain categories of people were singled out for special reprisals. In this way the remnants of the Polish police were exterminated, while the whole personnel of the administration of justice - judges, public prosecutors and prison inspectors - were carried off to unknown places. The same fate overtook the entire forestry service, whether private or State-owned, although at first these men had been encouraged to remain at their posts. Soon it was known in all quarters remaining in contact with the occupied provinces through the refugees that any person suspected by the Bolsheviks would disappear in this way. To be suspected it was sufficient to be prominent in any sphere. To understand the frequency of these cases, it must be borne in mind that under Soviet rule the whole population is spied upon through an elaborate system of organizations, "cells," committees, etc., so that even those in the humblest position are apt to fall victim of denunciation. And this appears to be a method which Bolsheviks and Nazis have in common - to paralyse the community they wish to enslave by striking at the nerve centres even of a local and subordinate type.
Immediately after the abolition of the zloty, which deliberately deprived great numbers of people of their means of subsistence, special delegates made their appearance in Poland to engage workers for various enterprises in Russia. In fact, in Lwów, several thousand people registered for the coal mines of the Don, eight thousand for the forests of Samara and Kazan, but in other places the results were much more meagre. Consequently, compulsory registration was ordered, the pressure became direct and the ways of securing the necessary labour more and more brutal. That the inexhaustible reserve of man-power in Russia should be unable to supply workmen to the relatively modest industry it possesses may well be an object of wonder. It would appear that the conditions of work are such as to be exceedingly unattractive to men able to live otherwise. However that may be, the barbarous practice of deportation, a revival of the darkest ages of mankind, increased rapidly within a few weeks, and whole villages were carried off.
First applied to provide forced labour, it was practised more and more as a wholesale reprisal. In the province of Polesie it was used against villages in arrears with tax payment and grain deliveries, but it occurred in the East Carpathians no less than in the neighbourhood of Białystok, where the village of Zacisze was doomed to destruction in the same way. Another excuse for the atrocious proceedings appeared when train-loads of Poles were dumped into the German occupation, as caravans of Jews were being dumped on the Bolshevik border. To be carried on in a humane way, such operations would have demanded thorough and elaborate preparation. In reality they were put into effect under the most appalling conditions, the exceptionally heavy winter adding to the unutterable sufferings of the victims. Unheated cattle trains were the general mode of conveyance and a very high mortality resulted, especially among the children. Not the slightest regard was ever paid to the most elementary human feelings or necessities. Illness, childbirth, the absence of the nearest members of the family were no hindrance to the relentless execution of cruel orders. As a rule raids of the doomed houses or villages were made suddenly and at night, much in the style of slave hunting of former times. It was useless to ask for reasons, and any mode of appeal was unknown. In general, the dealings of the Bolsheviks are not marked by consistency and clear principles of action. The chaos produced by contradictory measures and arbitrary orders is one of the additional plagues attendant on their rule, and the unhappy population is always the sufferer.
(1) The Economist of May 25, 1940, p. 931. The Economist has since repeated the same assertions concerning the Soviet "agrarian reform' in Eastern Poland. The issue of October 5 contains a survey of conditions in that part of the country which, on the whole, bears out the picture drawn in this pamphlet. We feel bound, however, to question the allegation that the "Soviets won the political support of the peasantry." We maintain that even the material conditions for this did not exist. What great achievements can have been attained considering that eight years before the Bolshevik invasion, large estates represented the following percentage of the total area under cultivation: 13.5 in the voivodship of Lwów, 15.5 in Stanisławów, 19.3 in Tarnopol, 11.1 in Volhynia, 16.5 in Nowogródek, 19.1 in Wilno, 9.7 in Białystok and 22 in Polesie.; these figures have very considerably declined since. In speaking of the "obsolete semi-fuedal structure with its overgrown and backward landlord class" as being characteristic of agriculture in Eastern Poland, The Economist's contributor is merely repeating the hackneyed slogans of Soviet propaganda. Furthermore he states that 400 collective farms were established in Western Ukraine and 650 in Western White Russia. This only confirms our information, according to which a considerable proportion of estates were not distributed to the peasants, but maintained as large enterprises, working under Soviet control instead of being managed by their owners.