History’s Obscure Pages: The Plight of Russian Soldiers in Polish Captivity (II)

By IndepthAfrica
In Europe
Jun 13th, 2012


Part I

Contrary to the claims circulating in the Polish media, mass executions of Russian prisoners of war in Poland in 1919-1920 are not a propaganda myth. One of the earlies accounts of the massacres can be found in “Jak to było w armii austriackiej (How it was in the Austrian Army)” by Tadeusz Kossak who served in the Polish Corps which Austria created in 1914. The book describes the execution of 18 Red Army soldiers in Volynia by the uhlans from the Legion’s 1st regiment. Polish researcher A. Weleweisky wrote in a paper featured on February 23, 1994 by Gazeta Wyborcza that Gen. W. Sikorski, subsequently Poland’s premier, ordered to mow down 230 Russian captives by machine gun fire and Gen. Piasecki – to kill Russian soldiers upon surrender. Information about similar cases can be found elsewhere – for example, K. Switalski, an associate of J. Piłsudski, admitted that the Polish forces routinely butchered captives in the battle zones. Polish historian M. Handelsman, a volunteer in 1920, also mentioned that the Red Army commissars were always murdered instead of being taken captive. S. Kawchak who fought in the battle of Warsaw wrote in his “Eternal Echo. Reminiscences of the 1914-1920 War” that the chief of the Polish 18th regiment ordered to hang all captive Red Army commissars. Red Army soldier A. Chestnov, taken captive by the Polish forces in May, 1920, testified that all communists from their group of prisoners – a total of 33 people – were separated from others and immediately shot dead in Siedlce. Another Red Army serviceman, V.V. Valuev, captured on August 18 near Nowominsk, managed to escape and later told interrogators in Kowno (Kaunas) that communists, commissars, and Jews had been picked from the ranks of Soviet captives and one of them – a commissar of Jewish nationality – beaten and shot dead right away. Valuev added that cloths were taken from all of the captives and that whoever disobeyed the Polish legionnaires on any occasion was beaten to death. In Valuev’s account, the captives were sent to the Tuchola concentration camp. Many of the people held there had wounds, with the bondages not changed for weeks, so that parasites bred in the wounds. Many of the wounded – 30-35 prisoners daily – died in the camp.

At least two official accounts of the executions of captive Red Army servicemen are available. The fist one is found in the March 5, 1919 report compiled by the operative department (Department III) of the Polish army’s supreme command, the second – in the report by the command of the Polish 5th army which said that around 400 Soviet Cossacks from the 3rd cavalry corps had been taken captive west of the Działdowo-Mława-Ciechanów line on August 24, 1920. According to the document, soldiers from the 49th infantry regiment of the Polish 5th army killed 200 of them by machine gun fire as a revenge for the deaths of 92 Polish soldiers and 7 officers. The reports by the Department II of the Polish supreme command did not reflect the fact.

Survivors of Polish captivity V.A. Bakmanov and P.T. Karamnokov said a Polish officer decided which of the captives were to be executed based on his personal impressions, picking certain facial types and those who were better dressed or looked like they might be cavalry officers. In Bakmanov’s and Karamnokov’s words, a French officer who was with the Poles at the time set the execution quota, saying that “200 would be enough”.

Polish army reports contain direct or implicit acknowledgements of the killings of Red Army soldiers upon surrender. For example, one case is found in the June 22, 1920 report, another – in the March 5, 1919 report saying that 25 Red Army servicemen, including several ethnic Poles, had been taken captive when the Polish forces seized Brodnica, and that an unspecified number of them were immediately shot. According to the August 7, 1920 report from the Polessky group of the Polish north-eastern front, parts of the Soviet 8th and 17th infantry divisions crossed to the Polish side at night time, citing as the reasons behind the surrender the extreme fatigue, lack of food supplies, and the belief that the 32nd regiment never executed captives. Researcher G. Matveev stresses in this connection that the executions of captives had to be routine practice meeting with no objections from the Polish command, considering that references to them cold be placed lightheartedly in official reports. Polish documents also carry information about raids against insurgents in Volynia and Belarus during which locals were executed and homes or whole villages – torched.

It should be also stated that many of the captives were killed in Poland at the final phase of the war as a way of “avoiding the hassle”. Accounts of the executions are fairly scarce, but the available ones speak for themselves. Polish leader and, automatically, top military commander J. Piłsudski sent out an eloquent address to the nation on August 24 , 1920, when the Red Army was rolling back east – the text never became a part of his official legacy, but was cited in a paper by a Roman Catholic priest: “The routed and isolated Bolshevist gangs continue to roam through forestlands, robbing citizens and looting their property. The Polish nation! Rise as one to fight the fleeing enemy and make sure that none of the aggressors escapes. Let the might of your punishing hands, armed with pitchforks and chains, fall on the Bolshevik’s shoulders. Pass those whom you seize alive to the nearest military or civilian administrations. Let the retreating enemies see no minute of rest, let death or captivity await them everywhere. The Polish nation, take up arms!”. The address could easily be interpreted as a call for killing the Red Army servicemen who were stuck behind the front lines, and, no doubt, the consequences for the wounded who were found on the battlefields were severe. A paper published by a Polish journal immediately after the Battle of Warsaw estimated the Red Army’s losses at 75,000 people left in captivity and the numbers of those killed on the battlefields or by peasants – as extreme. Chief of the Russian defense ministry’s department responsible for the commemoration of killed servicemen A. Kirillin maintains that around 216,000 were taken captive and slightly over 160,000 of the number ended up in camps, which gives an idea of how many Russians were slain on the way.

Ilya Tumarkin, a survivor of the Polish captivity, told on May 21, 1921 that Jews used were massacred without delay in Polish captivity, and marveled how he managed to stay alive. He also recounted his group of captives being herded to Lublin, a march which was completely hellish as the local peasants were ferocious and aggressive, and even children hurled stones at the captives. Jewish and Chinese Red Army servicemen were openly subject to extermination upon arrival to Lublin.

Poland’s deputy general commissar for the civilian administration of eastern territories M. Kossakowski admitted that killing or hurting captives was not regarded as mischief at the time. He recalled that a boy was shot dead in the presence of the general who commanded the Polessky group of Polish forces for an allegedly grim facial expression. Inmates in Polish camps could be shot for just about anything: soldier M. Sherstnev was killed in the Białystok camp on September 12, 1920 for raising an objection while talking to the wife of a Polish lieutenant who then ordered the execution.

Accounts are also available that captives were used for target practice. Russia’s Gen. V. Filatov, chief of the Military-Historical Journal in the early 1990ies and a pioneer of the research into the plight of Red Army servicemen in Polish captivity, wrote that the Polish cavalry practiced using sabers on Russian captives. The goal of a typical exercise was that a Polish horseman had to cut a man apiece by a single strike, and the training used to be at full swing in many locations where death camps existed – in Puławy, Dąbie, Strzałkowo, Tuchola, and Baranovichi. The Polish cavalry was stationed in most places across the country and everywhere the forces had prisoners of war at their disposal. For example, a Polish army division held 1,153 captives in Babruysk.

According to I. Mukhtina, the very fact that the number of victims of mistreatment of war prisoners in Poland is impossible to assess attests to the proportions of the tragedy. Occasionally, allegations can be encountered in the Polish and even the Russian media that the Polish atrocities during the 1919-1920 war were prompted by those committed by the Red Army. Typically, scenes of violence against the Poles borrowed from I. Babel’s diaries – the episodes which later surfaced in his novel Red Cavalry which portrays Poland as a target of the Bolshevist aggression – are cited to reinforce the view. Indeed, Poland could be seen by many of the Bolshevics as a country important to the intermediate phase of the wider strategy of exporting revolution to Europe. It is also true, however, that in the epoch the Polish leadership dreamed of restoring Poland in the 1772 borders, which implied charting the country’s frontier east of Smolensk, deep in Russia. In 1919-1920, it was Poland who launched an aggression by unprovokedly sending its troops east upon gaining independence. To counter the perception that the Red Army committed abuses on the occupied territories, G. Matveev invokes the materials of the 6th group of the 2nd department of the Warsaw military district headquarters – the Polish military intelligence and counter-espionage agency – as of September 19, 1920. Its report described the Red Army’s conduct as spotless, stated that it carefully prevented violence and robberies, and stressed that compensations, albeit in depreciated currency, were paid whenever the Red Army confiscated supplies from the population. Moreover, the point made in the document was that the contrast between the Red Army’s decency and the violence and looting perpetrated by the retreating Polish forces caused the level of trust in Poland’s administration to plummet.

Deliberately Created Conditions Which Were Impossible to Survive

Polish authors tend to deny or to avoid mentioning the exceptional mortality rate among Russian prisoners of war due to the conditions in which it became impossible to survive. However, the reality was mirrored not only by survivors’ recollections but also by protests voiced by the Soviet diplomacy against the inhuman treatment of Russian inmates in Poland, with appealing facts listed in the corresponding documents.

Humiliating treatment and beatings. Beatings, humiliating treatment, and inhumane punishments of inmates were endemic in Polish camps. The conditions led to horrific consequences and clearly resulted in multiple deaths. Beatings of prisoners by Polish officers were reported in the Dąbie camp. Commissar of the 12th regiment of the Red Army Kuzmin was severely beaten in the Tuchola camp. An inmate’s hands were broken in the Babruysk jail for refusing to remove excrements with hands. Instructor Myshkina, taken captive near Warsaw, was raped by two Polish officers and thrown in a Warsaw jail naked. Red Army field theater actress Topolnitskaya, who was also taken captive near Warsaw, was beaten with a rubber club during interrogations, hanged to the ceiling by her legs, then sent off to the Dąbie camp. The above and other similar cases were covered by Polish media, drew some protests in Poland, and even triggered parliamentary inquiries in the country.

Article 20 of a guidance issued by the Polish ministry of interior on June 21, 1920 forbade lashing inmates, but, as abundant documentary evidence suggests, the type of punishment remained common practice in Polish camps throughout the period of their existence. According to N. Rayski, captives were lashed to death with barbed wire. The facts also came up in the Polish media.

To be continued

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