Reflections on Soviet repressions in Central Europe
The Gulag and Soviet repressions are part of our common European history.
The victims of the Gulag, executions, and deportations included more than one million Germans, approximately 700,000 Poles, and more than 20,000 Czechs, Slovaks, and other Czechoslovak citizens.
The victims of the Soviet repressions were not just Russians and the members of the other Soviet nationalities – those that had traditionally lived in the territory controlled by the Russian Empire and, later on, the Soviet Union. From the 19th century onwards, thousands of settlers from other nations would come to Russia: Germans, Czechs, and many others, and they became Russian and Soviet citizens, respectively. The next wave of arrivals was spurred by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, luring tens of thousands of communist enthusiasts from all over Europe and other countries across the globe including the United States. The people who were coming to Soviet Russia could also be described as economic migrants in the current terms – they had lost their jobs during the great depression of the 1930s and sought work in the Soviet Union. Many of them were miners and other blue-collar professionals from European countries including Czechoslovakia.
Many of those fell victim to indiscriminate Soviet persecution at a later stage, primarily during the late 1930s. They were accused of high treason, espionage, and other political ‘crimes’ in fabricated trials. In the 1940s, additional hundreds of thousands of former European nationals were deported to forced labour camps and inhospitable regions of the USSR.
The Soviet Union persecuted tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Poles, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, and other European nationals. To this day, the individual nations have not fully reflected on this chapter in history. The numbers of victims are only being determined and the perception of Soviet repressions as our shared history is only coming into existence. The following article summarises these figures. A related text, Reflections on Soviet Repressions in Central Europe illustrates how the topic is reflected in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Germany.
A brief overview of Soviet repressions and number of victims
The Soviet Union and its ruling communist regime constantly persecuted both its actual and notional opponents and subjected them to various types of repressions throughout its existence between 1917 and 1991, except for a few brief periods. Those affected included the victims of the Red Terror during the initial years of the Bolshevik rule and its power struggle, dekulakized peasants and farmers, and victims of intentional famine and executions primarily during the Great Terror period of 1937–1938. People were persecuted on the basis of their ethnic origins, entire nations were deported, and millions of innocent people ended up in the Gulag camps.
Memorial, the Russian association that has been mapping the Soviet repressions since the late 1980s (and facing renewed persecution in Putin’s present-time Russia), estimates the total number of people persecuted in the Soviet Union on political grounds at 11–11.5 million1. Memorial representatives divide the victims of Soviet repressions into two principal groups:
The first are the people who were sentenced in ‘individual’ trials, where each individual was subjected to the administrative procedure from arrest to interrogation, accusation, sentence, and penal service. Up to one-quarter of those were people who actually committed an offence (such as Nazi collaborators), but the majority were completely innocent; the estimated number of those is 4.7–5 million people. Of those, 1–1.1 million were executed, and the great majority of the others were sent to the Gulag correctional labour camps. In effect, political prisoners accounted for approximately one-fifth of the total 20 million Gulag prisoners2, but, in a sense, the other prisoners sentenced for various administrative and criminal offences (such as petty theft during the times of famine) can also be seen as the victims of Soviet despotism, since brutally hard, slavish work in an unforgiving climate can hardly be regarded as serving one’s sentence in a civilised manner.
The ‘individual’ victims of political repressions include church representatives, people with dissenting worldviews, and those accused of high treason, espionage, and other political ‘crimes’ in fabricated trials. They also include the members of ethnic minorities whom the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, targeted with is special ethnic operations (Poles, Germans, Finns, Koreans, Greeks, Latvians, Estonians, and others), most notably during the Great Terror period of 1937–1938.
The second group of those persecuted are victims of ‘administrative’ (collective) trials. This means all those deported as part of various operations orchestrated by different Soviet executive authorities between 1920 and 1952. These deportations were directed primarily from the western and southern areas of the Soviet Union to the inhospitable regions in the Siberia, Far North, and Central Asia. The most massive deportations occurred when peasants were exiled during the ‘collectivisation’ of 1930–1933 (the process is also known as ‘dekulakization’). Furthermore, this included the deportations of ‘socially dangerous’ Poles, Polish citizens, and the citizens of the Baltic States following the forced annexation of eastern Poland, the Baltics and Bessarabia by the USSR (1940–1941), the deportations of Soviet Germans and Finns in 1941–1942, and of course also the deportations of entire nations from the Caucasus and the Crimea (the Karachay, Kalmyk, Chechen, and Ingush peoples, Crimean Tartars, and others). These operations also included forced deportations of persons from the occupied territories for forced labour in 1944–1947 (from Hungary, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia). Unlike with the ‘individual’ repressions, we can consider all the victims of such ‘collective’ repressions as political. According to Memorial’s estimations based on the study of multiple archive sources, this meant a total of 5,854,200 persons – almost six million people.3
Each of the aforementioned operations had a slightly different progress, background, and motivation.
Their common denominator, however, was cruel and reckless repression aimed against innocent individual people whose only ‘offence’ was being a member of a specific social stratum or ethnic group.
By definition, the overview of the number of victims does not include World War II prisoners who were often kept in labour camps under the same conditions; hundreds of thousands of them did not survive their stay in the USSR. They included at least 75,000 citizens of prewar Czechoslovakia (mostly ethnic Germans, but also thousands of ethnic Czechs and Slovaks), hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, and millions of Germans.
Soviet repressions of Poles and Polish citizens
Given the historical proximity and rivalry of the two nations, the Polish-Russian (or Polish-Soviet) relationships have always been highly dynamic and tense. A rather numerous Polish community always lived on the Russian (later Soviet) soil; after the new Polish-Soviet border was defined in 1921, there were about 1.5 million of them.4 Thus, it is not surprising that Poles (meaning both Polish and Soviet citizens) and Polish citizens of other ethnicities (primarily Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Jews) were one of the largest groups afflicted by Soviet repressions in multiple forms.
Two mass-scale repressive operations took place prior to 1939. In 1936, 36,000 Poles of Soviet citizenship were forcedly relocated from the border areas of the Ukrainian SSR to Kazakhstan. According to the basic definition of the repressions, this group fell victim to the administrative (collective) repression. The NKVD’s subsequent Polish Operation can be regarded as individual repression, with each case ‘assessed’ separately. This took place during the Great Terror of 1937–1938 and was one of the many ethnic operations focused expressly on specific ethnic groups that, in addition to Poles, included Germans, Finns, Belarusians, Iranians, Baltic States’ nationals, and others. Based on NKVD documents, 139,835 were arrested and sentenced as part of the Polish Operation; of them, 111,091 were executed, and the remaining ones were sent to the Gulag.5
We can only speculate as to the actual purpose and goals of the Great Terror, which encompassed the NKVD’s ethnic operations. Suggestions include the effort to douse any signs of disagreement with the central ruling power in the regions and complete the brutal process of deporting kulaks and ‘undesirable elements’ of the early 1930s, attempts at social engineering and total control over all the inhabitants of the giant and heterogenous empire, and preparations for war involving the necessity to eliminate any signs of the ‘fifth column’ and foreign elements.
New repressive operations ensued after the conclusion of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Soviet-German pact, Germany’s invasion of Poland, and the Soviet Union’s capture of prewar Poland’s eastern territories in September 1939. Although the USSR did not declare war on Poland, approximately 240,000 Polish military personnel were captured. Most of them were soon released or turned in to German authorities; however, some 39,000 of them were kept illegally in Soviet POW camps (with 5,000 additional Polish soldiers and police officers, interned in Lithuania and Latvia in 1939, joining them in the summer of 1940). Between April and May 1940, 15,000 Polish prisoners of war were shot without a trial in Katyn, Kharkiv, and Kalinin. At least 7,305 (though possibly as many as 11,000) more people who had been held in prisons in the west of the Ukrainian SSR and Belarusian SSR (on the former eastern Polish territories) were shot further to the same decision. These days, we refer to the above executions of Polish prisoners of war as the Katyn massacre, which has become a symbol of the Soviet rule’s cynicism and cruelty towards Poland and Poles.6
One more mass-scale operation focused against the Poles took place in 1939–1941: approximately 320,000 Poles and Polish citizen of other ethnicities (mostly Jews fleeing to the Soviet territory from the western parts of Poland held by the Nazis, including hundreds of Czechoslovak nationals) were arrested on the former Polish border, captured by the USSR following an arrangement with Germany. This time, those were civilians and they were subsequently deported primarily to the western and central Siberia in several waves. By 1945, yet several thousand more Poles were arrested as part of multiple smaller projects, but those operations were not as massive as those described above.
The above description shows that the repressions aimed against Poles and Polish citizens truly had a mass scale. Based on the information provided above, Memorial historians estimate the number of Polish victims to have been between 670,000 and 720,0007 (with certain Polish sources stating as many as 780,000 people8). Of them, approximately 140,000 persons were executed, at least 84,000 went through the Gulag camps9, and some half a million people were deported to inhospitable expanses of the Soviet Union.
Soviet repressions of Germans
Germans accounted for a large portion of the Soviet Union’s population ever since the beginning of the USSR’s existence. They were primarily the descendants of the German settlers who had come to the territory of the imperial Russia in the 19th century, and there were hundreds of thousands of them. Their highest concentration was in the Volga region, yet German communities were present virtually all over the Russian territory from the Caucasus to the Siberia. It is not surprising that Germans became one of the most severely persecuted ethnicities on the Soviet territory. The NKVD even launched a separate German Operation during the Great Terror period of 1937–1938. It is possible that the motivation for this operation included concerns about the potential war with Germany, but the operation ‘swallowed’ thousands of entirely innocent people whose only guilt was being a member of the German minority.10
Stalin commenced the German Operation with his instruction at a meeting of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR on 20 June 1937: “Arrest all Germans in our military, semi-military, and chemical plants, power stations, and construction sites in all regions.11”
Initially, some 750–820 German citizens working in the USSR were arrested during the course of 1937; 620 of them were deported back to Germany. After that, repressions against Germans with Soviet citizenship followed, targeting mostly the members of the traditional German diaspora residing in Russia since the imperial times.
During the German Operation, 55,005 people were arrested and 41,898 of them were executed. Some victims of the German Operation were of different ethnicity, and in turn, many Germans were sentenced as part of different repressions in the USSR. Overall, between 69,000 and 73,000 Germans were sentenced during the Great Terror period of 1937–1938. There were 18,572 Germans serving in the Gulag camps in early 1939, accounting for 1.4% of the total number of prisoners; at the time, Soviet Germans accounted for 0.7% of total USSR population12. In addition, huge numbers of Soviet Germans were deported after the outbreak of the war between Germany and the USSR in June 1941, most notably from the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (which was annulled in September 1941). In total, 799,459 Germans were deported, most of them to the western Siberia, as well as to the Central Asia and Far North. Entire families were forced to live in new, mostly inhospitable regions in appalling conditions, such as in hand-dug bunkers. At least 42,823 Germans had died in exile by 1953.13
In addition, at least 270,000 German civilians were deported to the USSR for forced labour from the territories of Germany, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. At least 66,000 of them died on deployment.14 Hundreds of Germans were also kidnapped and transported to the Gulag camps between 1945 and the early 1950s, following their arrests and investigation in the Soviet occupation zone in East Germany.
As a result, various forms of Soviet repressions affected an estimated 1.15 million Germans.
Soviet repressions of Czechs, Slovaks, and Czechoslovak citizens
Czechs, Slovaks, and Czechoslovak citizens of other ethnicities (Ruthenians, Jews, Poles, and Germans) also fell victims to Soviet repressions in the 20th century, though the scope of the repressions was never as massive as that of those targeting Poles and Germans. With that said, relatively fewer Czechs and Czechoslovak citizens ‘got a taste’ of all forms of Soviet repressions.
While not as numerous as the Polish or German communities, the Czech community also lived on the territory of the imperial Russia and, later on, the Soviet Union. It is estimated to have included tens of thousands of persons who lived in western Ukraine, southern Russia, and the Caucasus. In the early 1930s, dozens to perhaps hundreds of Czech families fell victims to the collectivisation and dekulakization. Memorial databases indicate15 that the ‘kulaks’ deported to the Siberia in 1933 included many Czechs from Ukraine and southern Russia. We do not know exactly how many of them there were because this happened as part of the ‘collective’ (administrative) trials where the authorities did not record the individual cases. Any individuals recorded in the databases are only those who were subsequently sentenced in individual trials, most of them during the Great Terror. The databases list dozens of such cases. We can safely estimate that the victims of the dekulakization included hundreds of ethnic Czechs.
There are hundreds to thousands of Czechs who were not dekulakized but were still sentenced at a later stage during the Great Terror. Professor Mečislav Borák estimated the number of Czechs executed in the Soviet Union to exceed 1,350, with more than one half of them having been executed on the territory of today’s Ukraine.16 They were the members of the Czech minority in Ukraine and/or Czech colonists in the former Tzar’s empire or their descendants, and often in multiple generations. They also included former legionnaires and prisoners of war from the lands of Bohemia who settled there following World War I, as well as Czech citizens who arrived there between the World Wars for economic, professional, political, or other reasons (émigrés or political exiles), even though many of them were forced to adopt Soviet citizenship. Approximately 80% of those executions took place during the Great Terror period, and the remaining occurred between 1919 and 1941.17 The most massive execution was the shooting of 80 Czechs in Zhytomyr on St Wenceslas Day, 28 September, in 1938. The number of Czechs who were arrested but not executed and were sent to the Gulag camps by the end of the 1930s ranges between multiple hundreds and thousands. By then, the Soviet repressions had affected some 4,000 ethnic Czechs (a rough estimate). At the time, there were dozens to hundreds of persecuted Slovaks.
Another major group of Czechoslovak citizens persecuted in the USSR were refugees fleeing the Nazism and the Hungarian regime at the beginning of World War II, in 1939–1941. As estimated by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, those included several hundred Czechs and Slovaks, though the most numerous groups were Ruthenians (some 6,000 people) dodging the duty of enlisting in the Hungarian army and some 2,000 Jews with Czechoslovak citizenship. Those refugees either fled to the USSR across the Carpathians, or found themselves on the Soviet territory following the annexation of the eastern territories of Poland. “They were arrested as early as upon crossing the border, or on the Soviet territory later on, during NKVD raids against ‘unreliable elements’ in the borderland between 1940 and 1941. The arrestees were commonly accused of illegal border crossing, illegal stay on the territory of the USSR, or espionage, and usually sentenced to three to five years (though 8- to 15-year sentences were not an exception) of forced labour by extrajudicial NKVD authorities. Some 15% of the Czechoslovaks sentenced did not survive the internment. Most of the others were released in 1942 as a result of an amnesty that applied to Czechoslovak citizens (and the recruitment for General Svoboda’s army corps).18“
Other prewar Czechoslovak citizens fell victims to the Soviet repressions as part of the infamous Katyn massacre. They were mostly Czechoslovak Poles from the Těšín area who served in the Polish military after 1938 and got into Soviet captivity. Some 350 persons with a relationship to the lands of Bohemia were executed during the Katyn massacre, including several ethnic Czechs.19
Following the war, about 300 Czechoslovak citizens, mostly of Russian and Ukrainian origins, were deported from the Czechoslovak territory to the Soviet camps on the grounds of their prewar anti-Soviet activities. Several thousand persons were also deported to the USSR from Slovakia. Those were Slovak Hungarians and Germans, as well as thousands of ethnic Slovaks. The NKVD routinely arrested completely innocent persons, often chosen randomly in the street.20 Slovak researcher and writer Peter Juščák estimates the number of people deported from today’s Slovakia after the end of the war to have been approximately 10,000.
Thus, different forms of Soviet repressions affected a total of 23,000 ethnic Czechs and Slovaks, in addition to Czechoslovak citizens of other ethnicities.
Author: Štěpán Černoušek, 10 October 2023
(1) Roginsky, Arseniy; Zhemkova, Elena: Mezhdu sochustviem i ravnodushiem – reabilitatsia zhertv sovetskih repressiy, Moscow: 2016, Memorial, p.10 (published in English on the website Gulag online under the title) The scale of Soviet political terror) ↩︎
(2) An estimate made by the State Gulag Museum in Moscow; refer to https://gmig.ru/museum/exhibitions/istoriya-gulaga-sistema-i-zhertvy/ ↩︎
(3) Zhemkova, Elena: Masshtaby sovetskogo politicheskogo terora, Moscow: Memorial, 2016, available at https://www.memo.ru/media/uploads/2017/08/22/masshtaby-sovetskogo-politicheskogo-terrora.pdf ↩︎
(4) Hańderek, Marek: Poláci a Gulag, www.gulag.online, accessible at http://www.gulag.online/articles/polaci-a-gulag?locale=cs↩︎
(5) Petrov, Nikita; Roginsky, Arseniy: “Polskaya operatsiya NKVD 1937–1938 gg”, in: Repressii protiv polyakov i polskih grazhdan, Moscow, Memorial, accessible at http://old.memo.ru/history/polacy/index.htm↩︎
(8) Collective: Represje sowiecke wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw: Ośrodek Karta, 2002, p. 33↩︎
(9) Hańderek, Marek: Poláci a Gulag, www.gulag.online, accessible at http://www.gulag.online/articles/polaci-a-gulag?locale=cs↩︎
(11) Ibid. ↩︎
(13) Bruhl, Viktor: Deportirovannye narody v Sibiri (1936–1965 gg.). Sravnitelnyj analyz, in Repressii protiv rossiyskich nemtsev, Moskva: Memorial, 1999, accessible at http://old.memo.ru/history/nem/ ↩︎
(15) Database. memo.ru, or the memsearch.org search engine↩︎
(16) Borák, Mečislav: Zatajené popravy, Opava: 2014, Silesian University in Opava, Faculty of Public Policies, 2014, page 256↩︎
(17) Ibid., str. 8↩︎
(18) Historie represí Čechů a Čechoslováků v SSSR, ÚSTR, accessible at https://cechoslovacivgulagu.cz/historie_represi_chronologie.html
(19) Borák, Mečislav: Zločin v Katyni a jeho české a slovenské souvislosti, in Evropa mezi Německem a Ruskem. Sborník prací k sedmdesátinám Jaroslava Valenty. Eds. M. Šesták a E. Voráček. Praha, HÚ AV ČR 2000, page 22↩︎
(20) Juščák, Peter: Naši odvlečení v Sovietskom zväze rýchlo pochopili, že sú zajatcami inej civilizácie, aktuality.sk, 28. 2. 2020, accessible online at https://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/763958/nasi-odvleceni-v-sovietskom-zvaze-rychlo-pochopili-ze-su-zajatcami-inej-civilizacie-rozhovor/ Peter Juščák has been focusing on the topic for a long time; see also his book Odvlečení: Osudy občanov Československa odvlečených do pracovných táborov GULAG v ZSSR, Kalligram, 2001↩︎
The Gulag and Soviet repressions are part of our common European history.
The long-standing discussion regarding the scale of terror often relies on intuitive ideas about political terror in the Soviet period rather than ...