Polish Operation of the NKVD

Polish Operation of the NKVD
Part of the Great Purge[1][2]
Nikolai Yezhov conferring with Stalin.jpg
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 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) these groups in the Russian and Soviet worldview had some element of Polish culture or heritage, and were therefore also "Polish".[7] The remainder were 'suspected' of being Polish, without further inquiry,[6] or classed as possibly having pro-Polish sympathies.[8] The NKWD's anti-Polish zeal reached such heights that NKVD personnel reviewed local telephone books and arrested persons with Polish-sounding names in a frenzied attempt to not let any Pole escape.[9]

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]

First page of one of the copies of the Order No. 00485, archived by the Kharkov branch of the NKVD.

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]