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Myths and the truth

When did Western Ukraine reunite with the Ukrainian SSR?
27 October, 00:00

Continued from issue nr. 28

This editorial used data provided borrowed from NKVD memorandums. Among other things it was stated that Poles constituted only 60 percent of the population, with the remaining 40 percent being made up of ethnic minorities. This data was the result of painstaking work done by Soviet experts. The 1931 census registered 69 percent Poles, but it was doubtlessly pressured, so that many people representing ethnic minorities had themselves registered as Poles. The editorial went on to say that up to eight million ethnic Ukrainians and three million Belarusians resided in Poland in 1938, and that the Polish ruling circles had made “every effort to turn Western Ukraine and Western Belarus into a colony deprived of all legal rights, left there to be robbed by Polish landlords.”

It is true that the populace in the eastern regions of Poland found itself in a difficult situation between the wars. Poles constituted the minority but remained the privileged titular nation. The ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians were oppressed on a social, national, and religious basis (although the life of most local Poles was no easier). The situation noticeably worsened when a clique of army generals came to power after the death of Jozef Pilsudski. The Kremlin, however, did not respond to what was happening in a neighboring country.

Late on September 15, Ribbentrop notified Molotov that Warsaw would be seized by the Wehrmacht within the next couple of days, and that Berlin was expecting the start of Soviet military operations. He added that presenting Germany as the guilty party that caused Soviet invasion of Poland would run counter to the bilateral accords made in Moscow in that this would place the two countries as enemies on the international arena.

The next day Molotov met with Schulenburg. Ribbentrop’s message (obviously Hitler had once again avoided any involvement) had produced no effect. The German ambassador was told that the political rationale would be as follows: the Soviet government would consider it to be its duty to step in, protect the Ukrainian and Belarusian brothers, and let these downtrodden people live in peace. Schulenburg protested and then Molotov explained the reasons behind this approach quite frankly. Schulenburg later reported that Molotov agreed that the motive proposed by the Soviet government contained certain provisos that affected German sensitivity, but that he asked the German side not to attach too much importance to this motive, considering the Soviet government’s difficult position. Unfortunately, the Soviet government could not offer any other motives, considering that the Soviet Union had never before cared about the status of ethnic minorities in Poland and was now forced to somehow justify its military presence there before the international community.

The above facts about the activities of the CC VKP(b) Politburo and the Executive Committee of the Comintern come from Natalia Lebedeva’s book Vtoraia voina. 1939—1945 (The Second War. 1939—45, Moscow, 1996), while facts about the way the extremely unappetizing “liberation mission” concept was made known to the German side have been taken from William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959). Both authors record events chronologically, without even considering why and when the “liberation mission” concept emerged. This makes their unbiased testimony all the more valuable.

The very logic of that “liberation mission” demanded a reunion of the Western Ukrainian and Western Belarusian territories with the Ukrainian SSR and the Byelorussian SSR. In other words, it required liquidation of the Polish state. In fact, Stalin arrived at the same conclusion when talking to Dimitrov on September 7, as mentioned above. On September 19, Molotov hinted to Schulenburg that the Soviet government was inclined to have Poland liquidated as a state and have the Polish territories divided between Germany and the USSR “by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San,” as previously agreed. Official Berlin had no objections, but then it was necessary to make a treaty on the German-Soviet border.

Stalin joined the talks on September 25. He met with the German ambassador and stunned him with a new proposal. Schulenburg reported to Berlin that Stalin was proposing to add to the German sector the entire Warsaw province east of the demarcation line, reaching as far as the Buh River. In return, Germany was to drop its claims to Lithuania. The “liberation mission” logic had to do with discarding the annexation of ethnic Polish lands, but Stalin demanded compensations. Hitler had to agree.

This castling in the territorial game between Hitler and Stalin is proof that the latter was planning several moves ahead. Hitler would sooner or later lose his war against the countries of the West. The Soviet secretary general did not doubt this for a moment, and he was sure he would step in at the right moment, with both warring sides sufficiently weakened, and send forth his giant army. Afterward, during the talks on the postwar alignment of forces in the world, the Soviet Union would have to deal with the countries of the West. After all, they had started the war being unprepared to defend Poland against the aggressor, so they would be concerned about the future of the Polish people far more than about Lithuania.

Getting back to the situation that developed in the fall of 1939, Stalin had first to demonstrate that he was solely concerned about the ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians in Poland, now engulfed in the flames of war. He had succeeded in swallowing up one half of Poland while maintaining his outwardly neutral stand. Now he could afford to show a friendly attitude to one of the warring sides — something Hitler had been insisting upon. A new pact made in Moscow on September 28 was entitled “German-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty, 28 September, 1939.” Under this treaty Germany came in possession of Polish territories totaling 188,000 square kilometers, with the population of 23 million. The Soviet Union received a territory of some 200,000 square kilometers and the population of 12 million.

The final chord of the malicious concerto played by the two dictators was Molotov’s report “On the Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union”, delivered at the Fifth Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on Oct. 31, 1939. The Soviet prime minister lashed out at Britain and France: “The ruling circles of Great Britain and France have of late been attempting to depict themselves as champions of the democratic rights of nations against Hitlerism.” And further on: “It is, therefore, not only senseless but criminal to wage such a war as a war for the ‘destruction of Hitlerism,’ camouflaged as a fight for ‘democracy.’”


Did people in the Ukrainian SSR buy the liberation mission story? In the spring of 2009, a collection of SBU archival documents was published, entitled Radianski orhany derzhavnoi bezpeky u 1939-mu—chervni 1941 roku (Soviet Secret Police in 1939 until June 1941). It includes 18 reports on the population’s response to the news of Red Army units having crossed the Soviet-Polish border. These reports contain priceless information, including some 300 quotes supplied by NKVD informers, recorded on Sept. 17—28, 1939. Remarkably, even those who knew they were being under close NKVD surveillance voiced their views on the matter. The reason they did so is simple: they spoke to NKVD stoolies whom they sincerely believed to be their trustful friends.

So how did Soviet citizens respond to the euphoria that had enveloped the populace of Western Ukraine? Kozii, a worker at Poltava’s brickyard, had this to say: “They welcome them with flowers and hurl stones at them as they leave.” Baas, a teacher with the Vukoopspilka (All-Ukrainian Association of Co-op Consumer Societies), said: “People over there are under a delusion; they have no idea about all those ‘benefits’ we’ve had to suffer over the past 20 years here.”

There were several quotes relating to the “reunion” theme. Kyiv’s artist by the name of Sereda was on NKVD record and the file read, “Ukrainian nationalist, kept under surveillance.” He must have known as much, so he warned his friend, who was a stoolie, “I now have the honor of illustrating a book that will be presented to Comrade Stalin on behalf of the Ukrainian people during the festivities commemorating his 60th anniversary.” Sereda rather cautiously commented on the political consequences of the “liberation mission”: “The best men have struggled for the unity of the Ukrainian people for many centuries, so much blood has been shed for this cause, and now we have this unity, won so unexpectedly, so painlessly.”

Maksym Rylsky, of all people, should have felt happy to learn that the unity of the Ukrainian lands, lost in 1919, was now being implemented. Yet he told a “trustful friend”: “I still can’t see any valid reasons behind our attack on Poland. This runs counter to all that humaneness and justice we have been shouting about for so long. Here I am writing poems every day that sing glory to the valor of the Soviet army and wisdom of our policy, yet deep inside there is no enthusiasm whatsoever.”

Arkadii Liubchenko, a writer tagged by the NKVD as a “former active Petlurite,” did not associate the “liberation mission” with the unity of Ukraine: “We had the impudence to devour a defenseless country.”

Academician Mikhail Rotmistrov of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, viewed the USSR’s invasion of Poland as the “putting together of Russian lands… Our lawfully Russian territories in Galicia [Halychyna] and Belarus will become part of the USSR. This will be Russia regaining its western territories.”

Those of the intelligentsia who knew the way the Rzeczpospolita had been absorbed by the neighboring countries in three phases, back in the 18th century, agreed, unbeknownst to each other, that this was the fourth partition of Poland. Prazdnikov, a chief engineer with the Lenin Works in Dnipropetrovsk, said: “We’re now witness to the fourth partition of Poland.” Mykhailo Drahomanov’s son, who worked as a translator for the Mystetsvo Publishing House, said: “In fact, this is the fourth partition of Poland, carried out as agreed between Stalin and Hitler.”

Other people also assumed there was a secret agreement. A student at the Industrial Institute of Kyiv, by the name of Bisk, said: “The Red Army entered Western Ukraine and Belarus not because it was asked to do so by the downtrodden populace, but because there was a plan made in advance by the Soviet Union and Germany.”

Those versed in the international situation immediately saw the horizons being opened up for Moscow after it reached an understanding with Berlin. Stepniak, a proofreader with the Radianska Ukraina Publishing House, said: “Red imperialism is there and it is making itself manifest. If so, I am for seizing Bukovyna and Bessarabia. Now is the best time to do just that.”

Academician Nikolai Krylov of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR pondered the stand taken by Great Britain and France with regard to the Soviet Union’s act of aggression, predicting that these countries would be content to forward notes of protest while knowing better than to take active steps against the USSR. Porfirii Bilyk, a research fellow with the Academy’s Institute of Ukrainian History, assumed the Western countries would stop warring Germany once they discovered the Soviet Union was on its side.

Quite a few citizens of the Ukrainian SSR turned out to be thoroughly brainwashed, thoughtlessly repeating Soviet propaganda slogans. However, the many archival documents that contain varying opinions on the subject of Soviet invasion of Poland make it possible to arrive at two conclusions:

(a) The generation that had survived the Leninist-Stalinist “revolution from upstairs” adopted a manifestly critical stand on the Soviet political system;

(b) The “reunion” of the Western Ukrainian territories with the USSR was regarded as the fourth partition of Poland, rather than an effort to achieve a unity of all Ukrainian lands.

After the 1932–33 Holodomor and the Great Terror (1937—38), Ukraine had no hallmarks of statehood left, so the notion of unity made no sense.


Hitler was scared stiff of fighting on two fronts, but after the Wehrmaht proved its worth in 1940 and the Red Army appeared to have performed inadequately during the Winter War, he became convinced he could do away with the Soviet Union in a matter of months. It was thus the Third Reich and its satellites found themselves at war with Great Britain and the USSR.

To be continued

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