“Captured Polish asked to tighten their security so that the local population didn't reach them”

A series of interviews by the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Part 11: the accession of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus to the USSR

“Captured Polish asked to tighten their security so that the local population didn't reach them” Photo: itogi.ru

Realnoe Vremya continues a series of interviews with Russian scientists dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The next topic is the Polish campaign of the Red Army, during which the Soviet Union annexed Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. Mikhail Meltyukhov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, the author of works on the Soviet-Polish conflicts of 1919-1939, tells about why the USSR entered these territories without meeting resistance, whether Hitler was going to occupy them and for what reason nobody is interested in the truth about Katyn.

“Throughout the second half of the ‘30s, the USSR was offering Poland cooperation on an anti-German basis”

Doctor Meltyukhov, how should the actions of the USSR against Poland be interpreted 80 years later? What was it — the entry of the USSR into World War II, concern for the security of its borders or something else?

You see, the problem with this issue is that historical science and legal assessment of some actions of countries in the international arena are slightly different things. If we talk about how far we can judge these events in legal terms today, it should be said that the Soviet Union acted within the framework of the norms of international law that existed at that time.

The thing is that in the then world law, there was the concept “self-help”, that is, roughly speaking, the state which felt the threat of actions or inaction from the neighbouring states had the right to take various actions, including of military character, to eliminate this threat. After the Second World War, this rule of international law was gradually eliminated and formally now it does not exist. It is wrong to apply our current view of the discussed problems to the actions of the USSR in September 1939.

On the other hand, if we are talking about the entry or non-entry of the USSR into the Second World War, then here, again, we need to determine what exactly we call the Second World War. If we are talking about the war between two opposing coalitions — Germany on the one hand and England, France and Poland — on the other, then in this war the USSR, of course, did not enter. Our country declared to all states with which the USSR was in diplomatic relations that it continued to maintain diplomatic neutrality in relation to military operations on the territory of Poland.

Polish infantry. 1939. Photo: wikipedia.org

But if we consider the Second World War as the process of changing the system of international relations, which, of course, are accompanied by wars among states, then in such a broad sense we can say that the USSR became a participant in the processes that we call the Second World War. But there is no definite answer to this question, no matter how much we want to get it. Well, it does not turn out to be unambiguous and easy to answer it, because in our country, there are different levels of different knowledge about this period and therefore there will be different answers to your question.

In the works of historians and in many recent materials on the topic of World War II, there is an opinion that the purpose of the Soviet Union's entry into Poland was to shift the border for greater security due to the increased conflicts in Europe. Is it possible to add to this point some other goals of the Soviet leadership, some long-standing aspirations of Stalin to return the former Russian lands?

As far as I understand, absolutely all states are guided by the goals of ensuring their security, this is the basic point at any time and in any place. But the other question is that it can be done in different ways.

We well remember that throughout the second half of the ‘30s and directly in 1939, the USSR repeatedly offered Poland cooperation on an anti-German basis, and then there were Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations, and these issues concerned assistance to Poland in case of aggravation of German-Polish relations. As we know, the negotiations did not work out, and our Western partners were not ready for equal cooperation. And, of course, the USSR became interested — what in these conditions the Germans could offer, who were also very interested in Moscow not to interfere in the German-Polish showdown. As we remember, Germany offered the USSR quite interesting conditions, and the non-aggression treaty was concluded between the countries on the night of August 24. Thus, Poland had a great opportunity to negotiate with Moscow, but there were their own interests, and the leadership of Poland was not ready to allow Soviet troops on its territory.

Hitler observes the entry of German soldiers into Poland in September 1939.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / wikipedia.org

On the other hand, Moscow, hoping to ensure its security in this way, already in September 1939 understands perfectly well that the Polish front collapsed — Germany had occupied the western and central regions of Poland by September 17 and the Polish army was actually defeated. In these circumstances, the use of the Red Army to ensure the security of our western borders and its occupation of the territory of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus is a completely logical action. And how else to provide it?

You see, international politics is quite pragmatic. In it, you either can do something and do, or you cannot and keep mum. So, there was what is known as “two in one” — on the one hand, it was security of the Soviet Union, on the other — of course, it is the resolution to the problem of territorial issues related to the division of Belarus and Ukraine, which was a legacy of the Soviet-Polish war of 1920. This factor in 1939, I think, was also taken into account, but whether it was the main one — I am not ready to say definitely.

So, there is little documentary evidence of the territorial plans of Stalin?

Of course, there is a statement by Stalin at a meeting with Secretary of the Comintern Georgy Dimitrov that by expanding our territories, we are expanding the socialist system, and of course, this is positive, but it is a purely ideological view. In addition, there was also another important meaning: it was necessary to orient on the support of the Communist Party the European Communist parties.

But we can not get into the heads of the leaders of the time — and who knows what was Stalin really thinking about there? Rather, everything was taken together. We know that Poland did not like us, and Moscow did not like Poland, but in the situation by September 17, there had already been no Poland as such, by and large. It was preserved as a state and part of the international community, but, I'm sorry, Poland simply could not perform its functions as a state.

The Red Army enters Vilna on September 19, 1939. Photo: wikipedia.org

Did Poland consider the possibility of the entrance of Soviet troops after the German invasion? And why their commander-in-chief Edward Rydz-Smigly ordered not to resist the USSR?

The Polish intelligence received information about the military preparations of the Red Army, but the military and political leadership did not believe that the USSR would do anything. They just didn't believe it. You see, Poland was used to Moscow and Berlin being in constant confrontation, and Rydz-Smigly had this phrase before the war: “If we are very bad, the Russians, of course, will act, but we have cool allies and they will show everyone.” Poland was really thinking they would get the support of the allies. But the reality was different, the train had already departed.

Besides, on the territory of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, there were 340,000 Polish militaries, but they, to put it mildly, were very poorly armed and scattered over a fairly large area. Most of the Polish units were on the territory of Western Ukraine, but in the rest of the territory — there were small units that just tried to run away when the Soviet troops were entering. But someone from the Polish military quickly established contacts with the Red commanders and surrendered — there were no questions here.

So, Rydz-Smigly acted realistically. He realized that he would not create a real front in the east of the country. If the Polish had almost been defeated by the Germans, then it became clear that it was just impossible to fight against two opponents. Moreover, by mid-September, the Polish leadership was already on the Polish-Romanian border and intended to leave for France. And it ordered the troops to go to neutral countries — this was also a realistic decision.

September 1939, the end of the Polish campaign. German and Soviet officers shake hands. Photo: wikipedia.org

“Having learned that the Soviet troops would enter Poland, the Germans stopped the advance to Western Belarus”

We all know about Hitler's adventurism. Did he want to take entire Poland, despite the secret protocols to the non-aggression pact?

No, Hitler had no aim to occupy the whole territory. The original plan against Poland included a strike from the north and south-west in order to encircle the troops in the western parts of the country. Then the Germans deepened their operation to Bug and San, and only on 15 September we see Hitler's orders to advance to the regions of Western Belarus. But as soon as the Germans learned that the Red Army would enter the Polish territory, they cancelled the offensive and their troops did not go further. In Brest, they were standing until the Soviet troops came there.

Wasn’t Hitler annoyed that many of the Polish military went to other countries?

What could he do? These units anyway had to be interned in Hungary, according to then and today's international law. Somewhere they were interned, and somewhere they were not, but neutral countries tried to get rid of these Polish. Although originally gathered them in camps, but did everything to keep them out of the foreign country. The Germans could solve these problems diplomatically as well — the Polish through Latvia reached Sweden, and the Germans represented it as if the Swedes were slowing down this.

After the fall of Poland, were there any disputes between the USSR and Germany at the conclusion of the Treaty of boundary and friendship?

No. Instead of the former territory of Central Poland, which was the sphere of interests of the USSR, the Soviet Union received the territory of Lithuania. This was a very important point because it was necessary to ensure the security of the Baltic states, and the division of Poland by ethnicity was beneficial to the USSR in the sense that the bulk of the Polish population was not divided: let the Germans themselves to deal with the Polish. Apart from that, there were no claims or changes concerning the territorial issues. The Germans, in general, were pleased that the Polish were removed and could now do in the West all that they wanted.

Soviet heavy artillery in Western Ukraine. Photo: wikipedia.org

“The richer was the representative of the local population, the less he was happy about the coming of the Red Army”

What was the reaction of the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus to the accession to the USSR?

Objectively speaking, the bulk of the population welcomed the Red Army gladly. Yes, one could already see an interesting pattern — the richer was the representative of the local population, the less he was happy about the coming of the Red Army, but since the bulk of those living in the new territories was a poor population, they, of course, advocated the accession to the USSR. Then in Western Ukraine and Belarus the agrarian reform began, and the people who received the land under this reform, of course, could be only “in favour”. And we can see even by the small Polish population that the rule of their social status also works, although to a lesser extent than that of Belarusians, Ukrainians and Jews. And this was noted even by the underground Polish organisations that were created there, not by Soviet propaganda.

As for Belarusians and Ukrainians, their territories had always been an internal colony for Poland, and the attitude of the Polish to the local population was, to put it mildly, inhumane. It is clear that this found a way out in the support of the USSR. You will laugh, but the captured Polish officers asked the Soviet command to enhance their security so that the local population did not get to them. This also, by the way, speaks volumes within the then Polish state.

Speaking of Polish officers. Do you have an explanation why they were shot in Katyn? Stalin was afraid of some kind of uprising?

Here it would be good to understand what happened in Katyn. You see, there are still two versions of what happened: the Polish officers were killed either by Germans or ours. To date, we do not see evidence of Soviet guilt.

But after all, there is the decision of the Soviet leaders concerning these Polish.

What decision? That a certain threesome of the NKVD will do something there? Wonderful! But where is the decision of this threesome? You will agree that if we are dealing with state repression, these things are recorded in a number of documents at different levels, but we do not have more “grassroots” documents! Here, for example, if someone is sentenced to death, then there should be a sentence, the procedure for carrying out the sentence is described. That is, everything is documented here, and there is no mess in any country when the state shoots someone and it is unclear why.

But we are told that there are no such documents. But if there’s no such then who shot them and what does the USSR have to do with it? If the USSR is to blame, then it turns out that we have these documents hidden, and this is another situation. So it would be a good idea to start researching all these problems. Not to play political games with blaming each other, but to start this research.

Polish prisoners captured by the Red Army. Photo: wikipedia.org

What's preventing from doing research?

You are asking the wrong person — call the Kremlin.

It turns out that it is early to draw the line.

I will give an example of why it is early. Recently, Polish exhumers in modern-day Western Ukraine have found the dog tags of two Polish officers who were allegedly shot by Soviets. But they were alive and well and died in the summer of 1941 from the Germans and were buried together with the inhabitants of a Soviet village. And it's not we who have found, but the Polish! And then there’s a bad question arises — why are we doing here?

Therefore, I cannot speak definitely on this issue. I want to understand what was happening in this very Katyn. But the study of the topic is not interesting to anyone, which means that we will not know the truth about this case soon.

Many media and even scientists (although there are few of them) for some reason are ready to see only negative in the Polish campaign of the Red Army. How to correctly assess the significance of these actions of the Soviet Union, not in the media style, but in a scientific way?

It is trendy now to be anti-Soviet among some of your colleagues, so any negative assessments will always be in demand (laughs). But on the other hand, we should understand that the Polish campaign of 1939 was a continuation of the national-territorial division of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. And this is a reaction to the Riga Treaty of 1921, which divided Belarus and Ukraine between Poland and the Soviet republics.

The 1939 campaign restored the territorial unity of the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples (no matter how we feel about it now), and, by and large, the modern Polish-Belarusian and Polish-Ukrainian borders are the results of the Polish campaign. And if we want to review these events negatively, then this is a different situation, and it turns out that our neighbours should give up these lands in favour of Poland. Are Belarus and Ukraine ready to do this?

So, from the point of view of the USSR, it was certainly a success of the Soviet policy in the conditions of the Second World War: the territory expanded to the West, and the new border (with Germany) became much shorter than the former Soviet-Polish border, which from a military point of view was, of course, a win. And taking into account the events that happened in the future, that is, in 1941, these pushed back borders also played a role. Maybe small, but still did.

By Sergey Kochnev