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Myths and truth

17 November, 00:00

Continued from previous issue


The Polish government in London insisted on the revival of the second Rzeczpospolita and thus adopted an uncompromising stand with regard to the eastern border. Great Britain and the United States maintained a flexible political approach. Sir Winston Churchill explained his attitude to the territorial issues years later, saying it had to be regulated so as not to damage the unity of the British-Russian alliance.

F.D. Roosevelt took a no less clear-cut stand. Seriously concerned about the fact that the signing of the Russian-Polish agreement on the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations kept being put off, he warned Great Britain against assuming any commitments in terms of any national frontiers before the start of a peace conference.

One ought to pay close attention to the stand taken by the UK and US political leaders from the standpoint of the Atlantic Charter. The Poles wholeheartedly greeted this instrument, which underpinned the postwar world order, especially after it was recognized by the Soviet Union. The Atlantic Charter proclaimed the principle of territorial integrity. The Second World War began by destroying the Polish state, so now the Poles hoped that the WWII victory would revive their Fatherland with its original frontiers.

Churchill and Roosevelt, however, were prepared to consider the territorial claims of the third member of the Anti-Hitler Coalition, although they kept putting them off until after the end of the war. Theirs was a pragmatic approach to the issue. Churchill wrote in his memoirs later that the British government was obliged to uphold the interests of Britain’s old (Polish) ally; therefore, it should not have put up with Soviet Russia’s occupation of a part of Polish territory in 1939. As it happened, once Russia had sided with Great Britain against Nazi Germany, Churchill went on to say in his memoirs, there was nothing they could do to force the new ally, now very much in danger, to waive any borderland rights, even if on paper only, because this ally had viewed these territories as vitally important for its security for a number of generations.

Once again the territorial issue eme­rged spontaneously during the Rus­sian-Soviet talks in Moscow (December 1941). The Polish side broached the subject of residents of Wes­tern Ukraine, among them Ukrai­nia­ns and Jews, being kept in Soviet pri­son camps, so these people could be drafted into the Polish army, which was then being formed in the USSR. The Soviet side recognized as Polish citizens only ethnic Poles, while regarding the residents of Eastern Polish voivodeships as Soviet citizens. After being released from prison camps, they were supposed to be drafted into the Red Army. During a Kremlin reception in honor of Wladyslaw Sikorski, General Wladyslaw Anders spoke with Joseph Stalin and once again broached the subject of recognizing Ukrainians and Jews from Western Ukraine as Polish subjects. Stalin didn’t want to aggravate the situation and suggested that the interested parties deal with the frontier issue prior to the peace conference, as soon as the Polish army takes the field. He finally stressed that the Soviet Union was not going to upset the Polish side by playing dirty games.

It is anyone’s guess what Stalin had in mind when he promised not to upset the Polish side. Considering that the parties to the Anti-Hitler Coalition were all set to protect the national interests of Poland — a country being reborn — and that Stalin would never act contrary to his own interests, the defeated Germans were supposed to grant the Polish demands, but then it was too early to think about a victory over the Third Reich.

Anthony Eden visited Moscow in December 1941 to sign a treaty on cooperation against Nazi Germany and postwar world political organization. The text of the treaty had been drafted by the British and Soviet foreign ministries. Stalin wanted Eden to recognize the USSR’s western frontiers as per 1941. Specifically, the Soviet-Polish border was to be based on the Curzon Line. Eden refused and the treaty was not signed. It was signed in late May 1942 in London, and the text no longer contained the territorial clauses. Meanwhile, the relations between the Soviet and the Polish emigre governments went from bad to worse, especially after Anders’ army was withdrawn from the USSR. The sole reason was the unsolved territorial issue. On Feb 19, 1943, the newspaper Radianska Ukraina (Soviet Ukraine) carried Oleksandr Korniichuk’s article “Reunion of the Ukrainian People in Its Own State.” The next day it made Pravda’s front page. The Ukrainian author made a sharp-worded statement accusing the Polish government in London of trying to tear the western regions of Ukraine away from the Soviet Union.

General Sikorski, like Jozef Pilsudski, did not rely on Western democracies to help solve the territorial problem. He wanted underground military units deployed in Vilnius and Lviv, whose men would break surface “once the situation on the Easternfront doubtlessly changes, so these men can disarm the Germans, take over control over the security service in these regions, and provide for the functioning of administrative institutions as determined by a representative of the government.”

In April 1943, the Katyn massacre made headlines across the world, severing diplomatic relations between the Soviet and Polish governments. In July 1943, Sikorski died, and Stanislaw Mikolajczyk took over as head of government. His stand on the territorial matter was no different from that of Sikorski.

The unsettled matter of the Soviet-Polish border had a tangible effect on the political situation in Western Ukraine, then under Nazi occupation. Here the Ukrainian and Polish nationalists were at each other’s throats. This struggle at times turned into hair-raising ethnic cleansings (the biggest one was the Volhynian tragedy).


The Red Army’s fiascoes in the initial phase of the Second World War are to be explained not only by the mistakes made by the military-political and army command, but also by the low morale of the troops. Contrary to the expectations of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the Soviet Union sustained the first onslaught, even if at the expense of huge manpower losses (5.7 million Soviet POWs throughout WW II, including 3.3 million captured in 1941). Nazi troops met with strong resistance on the northern and central fronts, but on the southern front the Wehrmacht was invariably successful. Here most Red Army officers and men found themselves surrounded and had to surrender. Often they offered no armed resistance. A total of 665,000 were surrendered at Kyiv; up to 100,000 at Uman; ditto at Melitopol and Kerch. Men drafted into the Red Army were unwilling to fight for a political system that had caused them so much harm.

In 1942, the attitudes of the Red Army men and civilian population in Ukraine began to change radically. Unlike the first German occupation of 1918, when Ukraine was allowed to have a state, albeit a puppet state, the Nazis set about systematically destroying the populace to prepare the Lebensraum for the settlers from the Third Reich. When Ukrainians realized that their life as a people was at stake, they started joining the Soviet army and partisan units in earnest.

The Kremlin’s ethnic policy also changed in the course of WWII. On Dec. 25, 1942, Moscow solemnly marked the 25th anniversary of Soviet rule in Ukraine. The long-forgotten scenario of Soviet national statehood started being played out on a full scale basis. The Battle of Stalingrad that ended in early 1943 indicated a crucial turning point in WWII. After two years of hostilities, the Soviet Union had achieved a strategic advantage over Nazi Germany and its satellites on the Eastern Front. The Battle of Kursk in July 1943 and its direct result — the liberation of Left-Bank Ukraine — drastically changed the alignment of WWII forces. Now it was necessary to coordinate the Soviet, US and British strategic efforts, on the head-of-state level. Hence the Tehran Conference between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill that lasted from Nov. 28 until Dec. 1, 1943, with joint actions aimed at destroying the enemy and solving problems of postwar world order and international security on the agenda.

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