History’s Obscure Pages: The Plight of Russian Soldiers in Polish Captivity (I)
Last spring, the European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision that Russia was not guilty of the massacre of Polish soldiers and officers in Katyn. Apart from relatively minor aspects, Warsaw lost the case which was central to its historical agenda, but, unfairly, the Court’s ruling went practically unreported in the media. It would be a huge mistake to let the informational vacuum persist, with allegations and political bias dominating the Polish-Russian discourse. Complete truth must be revealed, and not only about the deaths of thousands of Poles in Katyn, but also about the plight of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who were held in Polish captivity in the wake of the 1919-1921 conflict. The present paper was written as an attempt to shed light on the tragic and least-known pages of the history of the Polish-Soviet relations.
* * *
Over 150,000 Red Army servicemen ended up in Polish captivity as a result of the war unleashed by Warsaw against the Soviet Russia in 1919. Moreover, counting political convicts, civilians, soldiers and officers of the Russian anticommunist White Army, plus members of Ukrainian and Belorussian nationalist groups, the number of inmates in Polish concentration camps topped 200,000. At that time, Poland ran a giant Gulag comprising dozens of concentration camps, train stations for shifting prisoners, jails, and detention facilities as in Modlin and Brest fortresses, the latter serving as a site for four prison camps. The network stretched across Poland and parts of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania, with its concentration camps, most of which – Strzałkowo, Szczypiorno, Łańcut, Tuchola – had originally been built by Germany and Austria, unequivocally described as death camps in European newspapers.
The prison system was scattered over Pikulice, Korosten, Zhytomyr, Alexandrov, Lukow, Ostrow of Lomza, Rembertów, Zduńska-Wola, Toruń, Dorohusk, Płock, Radom, Przemysł, Lviv, Friedrichovka, Zvyahel’, Dąbie, Dęblin, Piotrków,Wadowice, Białystok, Baranovichi, Maladzyechna, Vilnius, Pinsk, Ruzhany, Babruysk, Grodno, Luninets, Vawkavysk, Mensk, Puławy, Powązki, Rivne, Stryi, Kovel, etc. It also included forced labor teams which worked for local municipalities and estate owners, with the survival rate among the exploited prisoners sinking to 25% at the worst time. The camps sited in Poland – Strzałkowo and Tuchola – were notorious for the highest lethality among inmates.
The conditions confronting prisoners in the Polish camps were so appalling that in September, 1919 the Polish parliament set up a commission to probe into what was happening. The commission was disbanded in 1920, on the eve of the Polish offensive against Kyiv, after releasing a report which stated that the sanitary situation in the facilities was intolerable, the inmates starved, and the military administration was responsible for extraordinarily lethality due to typhoid.
Even though, in the light of known facts, it is impossible to deny that the treatment of captive Red Army soldiers in Poland in 1919-1922 was inhumane, Warsaw denies being responsible for the resulting deaths and generally rejects the related charges. Comparisons between Polish and Nazi concentration camps cause a nervous reaction in Poland, but the parallels are inescapable. Russian researchers stress that camp administrations easily ignored proper formal instructions if those existed and acted in accord with spoken orders from top Polish officials. V. Shved, for example, explains in this connection that J. Piłsudski, Poland’s leader at the time, was a successful paramilitary group leader in the days of the Russian Empire and as such demonstrated a remarkable ability to keep his plans and intentions secret. Later on, in 1926, Piłsudski’s coup was completely unexpected in Poland. No doubt, keeping the actual intentions under wraps was the key element of his approach when Poland de facto exterminated Russian prisoners in its camps. It must be further noted that the inhumane treatment of Russians also stemmed from the generally anti-Russian atmosphere in the Polish society where too many people, including the country leaders, felt that the more Russians would die the better.
Polish deputy foreign minister J. Beck expressed the attitude with utmost clarity when he said he didn’t know enough words to tell how the Poles hated Russia. Quotations from Piłsudski are equally illustrative of the sentiment – at one point, he pledged that he would someday seize Moscow and order to inscribe “Speaking Russian is prohibited!” on the Kremlin wall.
Deputy general commissar of the civilian administration of the eastern territories M. Kossakowski admitted that nobody in Poland found anything wrong about killing or torturing “the Bolsheviks”, and it should be taken into account that all Soviet citizens were automatically bracketed within the category. N.A. Valden (Podolski), a Red Army officer responsible for cultural activities who survived Polish captivity told that when he was on the train in which Russian prisoners of war were carried for seven or eight days without being given any food, the Poles often showed up to hurt the people or fired on them just to test their firearms, and many of the Russians were killed en route.
The joint Polish-Russian commission, representatives of the Russian and Polish Branches of the Red Cross, officers of the French military mission in Poland, the Russian émigré press in Europe (B. Savinkov’s Svoboda, the Paris-based Obshchee Delo, and Rul’ which was published in Berlin), and envoys from international organizations (including YMCA and the American Relief Administration) all subscribed to the view that the situation in Polish camps was nightmarish. It was fair to say that the treatment of Russian inmates was not subject to any regulation as Piłsudski’s government refused to sign agreements on the subject offered by the Red Cross early in 1920. To make things worse, the attitudes widespread in Poland were not conductive to the observance of commonly adopted humanitarian norms. The latter fact was mentioned in the document released by the joint Russian-Ukrainian-Polish commission for the repatriation of prisoners of war. A protocol of its 11th meeting, which took place on July 28, 1921 reflected the actual position adopted by the Polish administration. It stated that the Polish central authority imposed bans on any of the attempts made by camp administrations to create more humane conditions for inmates. The same protocol detailed the situation which captive Red Army servicemen faced in Polish camps, with the Polish side having to admit that the description was adequate. According to the document, during the first months in captivity inmates in the camps had practically no clothes – in many cases even no underwear – on, and all of them, especially communists, endured permanent beatings, physical abuse, and extermination.
The February, 1923 report by the E. Aboltin who chaired the Soviet-Polish commission on prisoners of war, refugees, and hostages showed that nothing changed later on. It said: “Due to the Poles’ historically rooted hostility towards Russians or to other economic and political reasons, Russian captives in Poland were regarded as slaves with no rights rather than as prisoners of war. The quality of food supplied to them was abhorrent and the amounts – clearly below subsistence level. All still usable clothes were confiscated immediately upon camp entry, and the inmates stayed behind barbed wire in nothing but underwear. The Poles treated Russians not as humans but as slaves. Beating prisoners of war was a permanent practice”. It was also mentioned in the report that much of the forced labor in the camps was of deliberately humiliating character, for example, that inmates were ordered to pull carts or plows instead of horses.
A message sent by A.A. Ioffe to chief of Soviet diplomacy G.V. Chicherin and the Evacuation agency read: “The conditions for the prisoners of war are particularly hard in the Strzałkowo camp where the mortality is so high that unless things change there would be no survivors within six months. Inmates of Jewish nationality are held in separate barracks under the same regime as communists and, moreover, the regime is getting worse due to antisemitism which is being cultivated in Poland”.
A report by the Russian-Ukrainian delegation said the mortality rate under the appalling conditions was extraordinary and the death toll was impossible to assess considering that the Polish administration kept no records of deaths in 1920 when the number peaked.
The 1920 Polish approach to counting the prisoners of war was to include not only those who had been taken to camps, but also those who had been shot on site or left without medical assistance on the battlefields. In practice, the above meant that many of the Red Army servicemen who perished in Poland were killed immediately rather than detained. On the whole, the two main causes of deaths were (1) executions and mass murder and (2) the deliberately created conditions which were impossible to survive.
Executions and Mass Murder
Polish researchers offer unrealistically low estimates of the numbers of Russian prisoners of war and typically deny that many of the people were killed immediately rather than delivered to camps. In fact, documentary evidence can be found in Poland which shows that this was the case. For example, a wireless sent by the Polish command on December 3, 1919 said: “According to the available data, the order of registering prisoners of war and transiting them to camps is being violated at the front lines. In many cases, captives are not sent to collection centers but used to perform works on site, which makes their number impossible to assess. Epidemics spread among them at threatening rates due to malnutrition and lack of clothing, causing extreme lethality”.
Present-day Polish researchers tend to explain away the shocking death rates in the camps with a reference to Poland’s economic hardships, the point being that the country which only recently gained independence was unable to fare properly even for its own soldiers. In any case, what the argument completely ignores is the fact that the mistreatment of prisoners of war began the moment they became captives, which has nothing to do with the economic problems of Poland. Russian historians contend that around 40% of the Red Army servicemen who perished in Poland were either killed immediately upon being taken captive or died in the process of being transported to camps. The October 12, 1920 report by the commander of Poland’s 14th infantry division of the 4th army said that a total of 5,000 captives had been taken during the fighting in the area from Brest-Litovsk to Baranovichi and around 40% of them left wounded or dead on the battlefields.
An officer from the Volyn administrative unit responsible for the transit of prisoners told at the Polish army command meeting on December 20, 1919 that the prisoners of war brought by trains from the Galicean front looked exhausted, malnutritioned, and sick and that only 400 of the 700 people in one of the trains remained alive, meaning that the mortality rate reached 43%.
A Polish Red Cross activist stressed that the recently delivered prisoners suffered most as many of them were brought in rail cars without heating, had no reasonable clothing, starved, and had first symptoms of various deceases. Many of them had to be placed in hospitals, and the weaker – died shortly. The prisoner mortality rate at train stations and in the process of transit was extraordinary. For example, 933 prisoners of war died in Babruysk in December 1919 – January, 1920, 75 – in Brest-Litovsk on November 18 – 28, 1920, and 247 – in Puławy over a period of time shorter than one month, in November 10 – December 2, 1920.
On December 8, 1920, Polish interior minister had to open an inquiry into the transfers of starving or sick prisoners of war. The investigation was prompted by the information that 200 inmates were shifted from Kovel to an intermediate filtration and concentration camp in Puławy and that 37 people died, plus 137 – fell ill in the process. Reportedly, they stayed on train for 5 days without food and ate a horse corpse after getting off in Puławy. Gen. Hadleŭski stated in a letter to the minister, that he knew of 700 people being on the train, of whom 473 died on the way. The survived had suffered from starvation so heavily that they were unable to climb out of the cars on their own, and 15 of them died on the first day in Puławy.
Red Army serviceman M. Ilyichev who had been taken captive in Belarus and was detained in Strzałkowo wrote: „In the fall of 1920, we were carried in rail cars half-filled with coal. It was like hell, and I saw six people die. Upon arrival, they left us in the middle of a swamp, evidently to make sure that we could not lie down and get some sleep. Then a convoy herded us to the destination. One of us was wounded and had difficulty keeping pace, so the guards beat him to death with riffle butts. We felt that we would not last long, and when we saw the half-ruined barracks, and our brethren, with virtually no clothes on, behind the barbed wire, the reality of the coming death became obvious”.
To be continued