Polish Operation of the NKVD

The Polish Operation of the NKVD (Soviet security service) in 1937–1938 was a mass operation of the NKVD carried out in the Soviet Union against Poles (labeled by the Soviets as "agents") during the period of the Great Purge. It was ordered by the Politburo of the Communist Party against the so-called "Polish spies" and customarily interpreted by the NKVD officials as relating to 'absolutely all Poles'. It resulted in the sentencing of 139,835 people, and summary executions of 111,091 Poles.[4][5] The operation was implemented according to NKVD Order No. 00485 signed by Nikolai Yezhov.[6] The majority of the shooting victims were ethnically Polish,[1] but not all (with several others belonging to various minority groups from the Kresy macro-region, ex. Ruthenians).[7] The remainder were 'suspected' of being Polish, without further inquiry,[6] or classed as possibly having pro-Polish sympathies.[8] In order to speed up the process, the NKVD personnel reviewed local telephone books and arrested persons with Polish-sounding names.[9]

Polish Operation of the NKVD
Part of the Great Purge[1][2]
Nikolai Yezhov and Stalin, USSR, 1937
Location Soviet Union, modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others
Attack type
Ethnic cleansing
Prison shootings
Deaths+ / - 111,091
22% of the Polish population of the USSR was "sentenced" by the operation (140,000 people)[3]
PerpetratorsSoviet Union (NKVD)

The Polish Operation was the largest ethnic shooting and deportation action during the Great Purge campaign of political murders in the Soviet Union, orchestrated by Nikolai Yezhov.[10][11] It is also the largest killing of Poles in history outside any armed conflict.[1]

NKVD Order № 00485

The top secret NKVD Order No. 00485, titled "On the liquidation of the Polish diversionist and espionage groups and POW units," was approved on August 9, 1937 by the Party's Central Committee Politburo, and was signed by Nikolai Yezhov on August 11, 1937.[6] It was distributed to the local subdivisions of the NKVD simultaneously with Yezhov's thirty-page "secret letter," explaining what the "Polish operation" was all about. The letter from Yezhov was titled, "On fascist-resurrectionist, spying, diversional, defeationist, and terrorist activity of Polish intelligence in the USSR".[12] Stalin demanded the NKVD to "keep on digging out and cleaning out this Polish filth."[2]

The "Order" adopted the simplified so-called "album procedure" (as it was called in NKVD circles). The long lists of Poles condemned by a lower NKVD organ (so-called dvoika, a two-man team) during early meetings,[13] were then collected into "albums" and sent to the midrange NKVD offices for a stamp of approval by a troika (a three-man team; a communist official, NKVD leader, and party procurator). Poles were the first ever major Soviet population group to be sentenced in this manner.[13] After the approval of the entire "album", the executions were carried out immediately. This procedure was also used later on in other mass operations of the NKVD.[14]

The "Polish Operation" was a second in a series of national operations of the NKVD, carried out by the Soviet Union against ethnic groups including Latvian, Finnish, German and Romanian, based on a theory about an internal enemy (i.e. the fifth column) labelled as the "hostile capitalist surrounding" residing along its western borders.[2] In opinion of historian Timothy Snyder, this fabricated justification was intended only to cover-up the state-sanctioned campaign of mass-murder aiming to eradicate Poles as a national (and linguistic) minority group.[2] Another possible cause, according to Snyder, might have sprung from the necessity to explain the Holodomor, the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine, which required a political scapegoat. A top Soviet official Vsevolod Balitsky chose the Polish Military Organization which was disbanded in 1921. The NKVD declared that it continued to exist. Some Soviet Poles were tortured in order to confess to its existence, and denounce other individuals as spies. Meanwhile, the Communist International helped by revisiting its files in search of Polish members, producing another bountiful source of made-up evidence.[15]

Targets of the operation

The operation took place approximately from August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938.[16] The largest group of people with Polish background, around 40 percent of all victims, came from the Soviet Ukraine, especially from the districts near the border with Poland. Among them were tens of thousands of peasants, railway workers, industrial labourers, engineers and others. An additional 17 percent of victims came from the Soviet Byelorussia. The rest came from around Western Siberia and Kazakhstan, where exiled Poles had lived since the Partitions of Poland, as well as from the southern Urals, northern Caucasus and the rest of Siberia, including the Far East.[4]

The following categories of people were arrested by the NKVD during its Polish Operation, as described in Soviet documents:

  1. "Active" members of the Polish minority in Soviet Union (practically all Poles).[4][5]
  2. All immigrants from the Second Polish Republic.
  3. Political refugees from Poland (mostly members of the Communist Party of Poland).
  4. Former and present members of the Polish Socialist Party and other non-communist Polish political parties.
  5. All prisoners of war from the Polish-Soviet war remaining in the Soviet Union.
  6. Members of the Polish Military Organisation listed in the special list (most of them were not members of that organisation).

Killing process and death toll

According to archives of the NKVD, 111,091 Poles and people accused of ties with Poland, were sentenced to death, and 28,744 were sentenced to labor camps; 139,835 victims in total.[17] This number constitutes 10% of the total number of people officially convicted during the Yezhovshchina period, based on confirming NKVD documents.[18]

The Operation was only a peak in the persecution of the Poles, which spanned more than a decade. As the Soviet statistics indicate, the number of ethnic Poles in the USSR dropped by 165,000 in that period. "It is estimated that Polish losses in the Ukrainian SSR were about 30%, while in the Belorussian SSR... the Polish minority was almost completely annihilated."[16] Timothy Snyder gives a conservative estimate of 85,000 confirmed Poles executed simultaneously across the country.[7]

Almost all victims of the NKVD shootings were men, wrote Michał Jasiński, most with families. Their wives and children were dealt with by the NKVD Order № 00486. The women were generally sentenced to deportation to Kazakhstan for an average of 5 to 10 years. Orphaned children without relatives willing to take them were put in orphanages to be brought up as Soviet, with no knowledge of their origins. All possessions of the accused were confiscated. The parents of the executed men – as well as their in-laws – were left with nothing to live on, which usually sealed their fate as well. Statistical extrapolation, wrote Jasiński, increases the number of Polish victims in 1937–1938 to around 200–250,000 depending on size of their families.[19]

In Leningrad, the NKVD reviewed local telephone books and arrested almost 7,000 citizens with Polish-sounding name with the vast majority of such nominal "suspects" were executed within 10 days of arrest.[20]


According to historian Michael Ellman, "The ‘national operations’ of 1937–38, notably the ‘Polish operation’, may qualify as genocide as defined by the UN Convention, although there is as yet no legal ruling on the matter".[21] Some others do consider it genocide according to the International Law.[22] Historian Terry Martin, refers to the "national operations", including the "Polish Operation", as ethnic cleansing and "ethnic terror". According to Martin, the singling out of diaspora nationalities for arrest and mass execution "verged on the genocidal".[23] Historian Timothy Snyder called the Polish Operation genocidal: "It is hard not to see the Soviet "Polish Operation" of 1937-38 as genocidal: Polish fathers were shot, Polish mothers sent to Kazakhstan, and Polish children left in orphanages where they would lose their Polish identity. As more than 100,000 innocent people were killed on the spurious grounds that theirs was a disloyal ethnicity, Stalin spoke of "Polish filth"."[24] Norman Naimark called Stalin's policy towards Poles in the 1930s "genocidal;"[25] however he doesn't consider the Great Purge genocidal because it targeted political opponents and not ethnic groups as such.[25]

See also


  1. Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz (2011-01-15). "Genocide Not Mourned" [Nieopłakane ludobójstwo]. Rzeczpospolita. Presspublica. Archived from the original on 2012-10-04 via Internet Archive.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  2. Matthew Kaminski (October 18, 2010). "Savagery in the East". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  3. Michael Ellman, Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited PDF file page 686
  4. Robert Gellately, Ben Kiernan (2003). The specter of genocide: mass murder in historical perspective. Cambridge University Press. p. 396. ISBN 0521527503. Polish operation (page 233 –)
  5. Wendy Z. Goldman (2011). Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin's Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-521-19196-8.
  6. Н.В.Петров, А.Б.Рогинский. ""Polish Operation" of the NKVD, 1937-1938" "Польская операция" НКВД 1937–1938 гг. (in Russian). НИПЦ «Мемориал». Retrieved May 27, 2012. Original title: О фашистско-повстанческой, шпионской, диверсионной, пораженческой и террористической деятельности польской разведки в СССР
  7. Timothy Snyder (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York: Basic Books. pp. 103–104. ISBN 978-0-465-00239-9.
  8. Timothy Snyder (January 27, 2011). "Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse?". The New York Review of Books. p. 1, paragraph #7. Retrieved June 12, 2012.
  9. Joshua Rubenstein (November 26, 2010). "Bloodlands - Europe Between Hitler and Stalin - By Timothy Snyder". The New York Times Book Review. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. "A letter from Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands: Two genocidaires, taking turns in Poland". The Book Haven. Stanford University. December 15, 2010. Retrieved April 25, 2011.
  11. Uilleam Blacker; Alexander Etkind; Julie Fedor (2013). Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe. Introduction. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 21. ISBN 1137322063. Retrieved 18 February 2015.
  12. Original document. Full text of the Order in the Russian language. "О фашистско-повстанческой, шпионской, диверсионной, пораженческой и террористической деятельности польской разведки в СССР." Хлевнюк О. В. Политбюро: Механизмы политической власти в 1930-е гг. М., 1996.
  13. George Sanford (2007). Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory. Routledge. p. 33. ISBN 1134302991.
  14. Nicolas Werth (20 May 2010). "The NKVD Mass Secret National Operations (August 1937 - November 1938)" (PDF). Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence. MassViolence.org. pp. 4 of 10. ISSN 1961-9898. Archived from the original on 20 February 2018 via Internet Archive.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  15. Timothy Snyder (2005), Sketches from a Secret War Yale University Press, p. 129. ISBN 030010670X
  16. Prof. Bogdan Musial et al. (January 25–26, 2011). "The 'Polish operation' of the NKVD" (PDF). The Baltic and Arctic Areas under Stalin. Ethnic Minorities in the Great Soviet Terror of 1937-38. University of Stefan Wyszyński in Warsaw. pp. 17–. UMEA International Research Group. Abstracts of Presentations. Archived from the original on 2012-03-23 via Internet Archive. Official documents of the State Security Administration show that 'ethnicity alone was sufficient grounds for arrest.' – Dr. Iryna Ramanava, National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  17. O.A. Gorlanov. "A breakdown of the chronology and the punishment, NKVD Order № 00485 (Polish operation) in Google translate". Retrieved April 26, 2011.
  18. McLoughlin, References, p. 164.
  19. Michał Jasiński (2010-10-27). "Zapomniane ludobójstwo stalinowskie (The forgotten Stalinist genocide)". Gliwicki klub Fondy. Czytelnia. Archived from the original on March 23, 2012. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  20. Joshua Rubenstein. "The Devils' Playground". The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2011. Rubenstein is the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and a co-editor of The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories.
  21. Michael Ellman, Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited PDF file
  22. The Crime of Genocide Committed against the Poles by the USSR before and during World War II:An International Legal Study by Karol Karski, Cas eWestern Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 45, 2013
  23. Martin, Terry. "The origins of Soviet ethnic cleansing." The Journal of Modern History 70.4 (1998): 813-861.
  24. Snyder, Timothy (2010-10-05). "The fatal fact of the Nazi-Soviet pact". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-08-06.
  25. Genocide: A World History, Norman M. Naimark

Further reading

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