The "Polish Operation" of the NKVD


The “Polish Operation” – questions and answers

• What was the “Polish Operation” of the NKVD?

It was one of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the USSR) operations with regards to nations carried out in 1937-1938, during the Great Terror, which consisted of the mass repression against Poles in the Soviet Union. The “Polish Operation” was carried out on the basis of Order No. 00485 of 11 August 1937 issued by the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the USSR Nikolai Yezhov.


• How many people were killed during the “Polish Operation” of the NKVD?

We do not know the definitive number of people repressed under the “Polish Operation”. According to the Memorial society, repression affected at least 139,835 people, with no less than 111,091 murdered with a shot to the back of the head, and 28,744 sentenced to labour camps.


• Were only Poles repressed under the “Polish Operation”?

Poles living in the USSR were the majority of those repressed under the “Polish Operation”. Apart from Poles, people repressed e.g. on charge of spying for the Second Polish Republic included Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Jews and members of other nations and ethnic groups living in the USSR.


How long was the “Polish Operation”?

The operation was initially intended to last 3 months, but it finally lasted 14 months – from August 1937 to November 1938, though in certain republics and oblasts of the USSR mass repression against “Polish spies” lasted until the end of 1938.


• Who was to be arrested under the “Polish Operation”?

According to Order No. 00485 of 11 August 1937, the following groups were to be arrested:

– Polish Military Organisation activists discovered during the investigation who have not been found so far, according to the enclosed list;
– all prisoners of war from the Polish Army remaining in the USSR;
– refugees from Poland regardless of the time of their arrival in the USSR;
– political emigrants from Poland and persons exchanged under the exchange of political [prisoners];
– former members of the Polish Socialist Party and other anti-Soviet Polish political parties;
– the most active part of the local anti-Soviet nationalist element from the Polish [national] districts 

What was the difference between the “Polish Operation” and other operations with regards to nations?

Compared to other operations with regards to nations, the “Polish Operation” stood out in terms of the exceptional scale of repression and its brutality and severity. The number of executed Poles constituted 44.9% of victims of all operations concerning nations.


Did Poles fall victim only to the “Polish Operation” during the Great Terror?

Apart from the so-called operations with regards to nations, Poles were also victims of operations against, e.g., Kulaks, the Catholic Church and Stalinist purges in the party, the military, and the security apparatus. It is estimated that at least 200,000 Poles were persecuted in the USSR in 1937-1938.


Why were Poles repressed in the USSR?

The Soviet system of power was based on the intimidation of its own citizens and forcing them into subjugation. An experiment consisting in establishing Polish autonomous districts in the Soviet Ukraine and Belarus between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s ended in disaster, and the Poles resisted collectivisation and atheisation the most. What is more, Poles were regarded as an “uncertain element” – the potential “fifth column” before the expected war between the USSR and the Second Polish Republic and the Western countries.


• Where were victims of the “Polish Operation” of the NKVD murdered and buried?

The decisions regarding the executions were issued under an extrajudicial procedure in 78 capitals of districts, krais and Soviet republics. The victims were usually shot in the basements of NKVD prisons or forests just outside cities. The bodies were thrown into pits that had been dug earlier. The information was kept secret. So far, about 100 burial sites of victims have been found, and historians claim that this is only about a third of all such places.