Poles and Polish citizens in the Gulag

Period 1937-1938

First part of Polish Gulag’s prisoners was recruited from those, who were the citizens of the Soviet Union. The establishing of the border between Poland and Russia in March 1921 resulted in about 1,5 million Polish people living in Russia/Soviet Union, large majority of whom were the descendants of the citizens of the Polish state before its partitions started in 1772. This is due to the fact that the borders of the pre-partition Poland were extended further into the East than the borders of Poland reborn after the World War I.

Many Poles who were citizens of the Soviet Union were imprisoned in forced labor camps. On the largest scale, this action took place in the years 1937-1938 when the Polish operation of the NKVD was carried out. It was the first and the largest of this kind in the Soviet Union. The operation was a part of the campaign of political repression named “The Great Purge”. In the years 1937-38 about 29 thousand Poles were imprisoned in the Gulag forced labor camps.

Period 1939-1944

In the period between 1939-1944 Poles and Polish citizens with different nationalities were still being imprisoned in forced labor camps. It was the result of the Soviet invasion on Poland which started on September 17th 1939. Imprisonments regarded people arrested in Eastern Poland, a part of the state which was occupied by the Soviets till the outbreak of the German-Soviet war on July 22nd 1941. After the Polish state had collapsed there remained about 150 thousand people arrested and remaining in the Soviet captivity. The arrests started immediately after the NKVD entered Polish territory. Its aim was to catch people who could be assigned into several groups. First of all - the group of people who played a role in the pre-war Poland as politicians, local authorities and economic leaders. Secondly NKVD arrested army and police officers, who hadn’t yet been taken into captivity. Arrests included also the members of resistance movement; well known and respected people able to influence their communities; the collaborators of Polish intelligence service and police; people who were known of their negative attitude towards Soviet Union and those who were suspected of this kind of attitude. About 40 thousand of them were first convicted and then imprisoned in forced labor camps. This proves that imprisonments in Gulag camps can be qualified as a kind of repression rather than an administrative penalty as it was for example in the context of deportation.

Most Polish citizens during this period were imprisoned in camps such as Workutstroj, Pieczorłag and Uchtiżemłag located in Komi Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Additionally, several thousand Polish citizens were imprisoned in the camps of Kolyma and several hundred in camps located in other parts of the Soviet Union. A few thousands among the imprisoned Polish citizens died in the camps between 1939 and 1944.

The outbreak of the German-Soviet war brought the Polish and Soviet governments to resume diplomatic relations between them on July 30th, 1941. In consequence on August 12th, 1941 the Soviets announced amnesty. It gave Polish citizens the opportunity to leave the labor camps. About 30 thousand people regained freedom. In 1942 those people left the Soviet Union with Polish Army organized by general Władysław Anders. However, not all of the prisoners regained freedom - about 10 thousand Polish citizens remained in the camps even after the amnesty had been announced.

Period 1944-1947

The third period during which the Poles and Polish citizens were imprisoned in the Soviet forced labor camps started in 1944, when the Red Army entered the territory of the pre-war Poland once again. To clarify the complexity of the Polish-Soviet relations during this period it is important to emphasize, that in April 1943 Soviets broke off their diplomatic relations with Polish government. When the German troops discovered mass graves of Polish officers in Katyń, the Polish government requested International Red Cross to examine them and to evaluate who had murdered the Polish officers. Stalin declared that this step is a proof for the Polish-German cooperation and he used it as a pretext to break off the diplomatic relations with the Polish government.

Despite this fact, Polish government in exile and the leaders of the underground state assumed that cooperation with Red Army entering Polish territory since January 1944 was possible. The truth was they had been wrong and it instantly turned out that the Soviets treat the Polish underground state and its armed forces as an enemy. Following this idea, a new period of repressions against Poles started in 1944. The imprisonments in forced labor camps were a part of the plan to conquer Poland. In the following few years about 15 thousand Poles were imprisoned in those camps.

People who were being arrested since 1944 were mainly members of underground armed and political organizations like Home Army, National Armed Forces and later Freedom and Sovereignity. People arrested during this period were imprisoned in NKVD prisoner-of-war camps and in NKVD filtering camps. The living conditions of these were almost the same as in the Gulag camps. The only difference was the fact that in camps subordinated to NKVD there were no criminals. The time of the imprisonment of the Polish citizens in the NKVD camps could vary from few months up to even few years. Most of them didn’t have court judgments because the truth was it was impossible to find an appropriate paragraph to sentence them. Most of Polish citizens in this period were imprisoned in camps Borowicze (6000 Poles) and Stalinogorsk (about 6.3 thousand).
 To sum up, during number of years at least 84 thousand Poles and Polish citizens were imprisoned in the Soviet forced labor camps. They were innocent victims of the Soviet repressions and the Soviet imperialism. Many of them died there. However, it is impossible to identify and count them precisely due to the lack of access to all the Soviet documents concerning this case.

Marek Hańderek, Instytut Pamieci Narodowej (IPN)

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