“To Comrade Beria. Deport them with a bang. J. Stalin.”[i]

Stalin weighs some fresh human capital…


What follows is an overview of the use of exile by the Soviet Union in Poland during World War II. While researching my family history, I was often struck not just by the extent of suffering and death that resulted from exile, but by the political reasoning which reduced every question in Stalin and the Politbiuro’s collective mind to: Are you with us or against us? Stalin could have ordered execution (Katyń) over exile (for children, the sick, and the old, the two were often synonymous), but for the man who wrote Marxism and the National Question (1913), there was both an ideological and a strategic interest in gaining the most for the state (of which he was the personification) by the ‘correct’ disbursement of human capital.

Exile is perhaps the fundamental theme of City of Lions. Not only does exile alter the demographics of the points of origin and destination, but it alters the psychology of the deported and subverts tribal myths by placing them in an interzone in which life and cultural expression are partially suspended and forever altered. As an Irishman, and the son of a Polish exile, it seems fitting that I began to write City of Lions during a seven-year sojourn in former Soviet Central Asia, the place Stalin had once sent the exiles of his empire, from throughout the territory of the Soviet Union, from the Caucasus, the Crimea, the Far East, and Europe. It was there too that I met ethnic Poles whose parents and grandparents had been forcibly relocated during the Second World War. I remembered my father once telling me we had some cousins who were among them. The thought that one day, in the bazaar in Samarkand, or on the streets of Almaty, I might pass my own bloodline and never know about it eventually led me to begin my research into missing family members.



My father’s family members were deported from Lwów for different reasons.  My father’s Polish cousins, the Łazowskis (Zbyszek, his wife Wanda, his sister Kazia, and his mother Zuzanna), were deported by Stalin to Kazakhstan, in 1940, to work on a collective farm. My father would later call them the ‘honourably deported’ because Zbyszek had been an advocate of land reform (thus the Soviets considered him reformable even if he thought them deplorable). Later Zbyszek would fight in the Armia Ludowa, and at the end of the war his family were allowed return not to Lwów, but to within the newly-drawn borders of the Polish People’s Republic. My father’s Jewish cousins, Zosia and Joseph, lived in Lublin. They and their parents Ignacy and Nunia, who had escaped German-occupied Poland in 1939, were deported from Lwów to Uzbekistan, the following year. After Operation Barbarossa began, Stalin was persuaded to allow former Polish citizens (i.e. prisoners) to leave the Soviet Union. Zosia and her family would travel with a wretched caravan of survivors through Soviet Turkestan, Iran, and Iraq to Palestine. Escaped and released Poles agglomerated in high numbers in the Middle East in early 1942, many of them soldiers who were beefed up and re-trained by the Allies in Syria, Iran and Palestine before being shipped from Egypt back to Europe, to later fight in the Italian campaign. Zosia and her family would never return to Poland. My father Wojtek fought in the Home Army. By June 1945, he had already helped to liberate Lwów from the Germans, fought against the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army, and finally the Red Army. He and fellow soldiers of the 14th Regiment of Jazłowiecki Lancers left Poland willingly and surreptitiously in order to save themselves from the Gulag and worse. They believed they would be coming back, the spearhead of an American-British attack on the Soviet Union, which never came to pass. In 1947, my grandmother would be deported from Lwów, by then a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, to the Polish People’s Republic, in one of the many post-war forced resettlements. Exile and displacement would leave a clear imprint on my family. Later, in 1953, when my father’s uncle Marek (whose adventures I have covered here), freshly seconded against his will to Communist Poland’s United Nations delegation, decided he was going to defect, his thoughts chewed over the words of another exile, the Roman poet Ovid:

‘When I recall that night on which I left so many things dear to me, even now from my eyes the teardrops fall.’



There was a singular ruthlessness to Stalin’s policy of controlling the displacement of his subject peoples. After eastern Poland came under Soviet control in September 1939, my father’s cousins, along with hundreds of thousands of Poles, Jews, counter-revolutionaries, nationalists,  and anyone else who had managed to escape from the Nazi occupation, and were thus, in the eyes of the NKVD, politically ‘infected’ by their proximity to the Soviet Union’s ideological enemy (and martial ally), were to be packed onto the trains. They would be sent east to remote, scarcely known places, to live or to die, or, at least to wait, with as much patience as sorrow and hunger allowed, until Stalin had devised a better solution. Of course, just who was a ‘refugee’ and who was not was a matter for the NKVD to decide. NKVD Order 00485 listed anyone of Polish origin, allegiance, or temperament as ripe plunder for the vast machine of the Soviet secret police.  Poles were arrested for anything which deviated from strict Soviet requirements, for being a nationalist, a capitalist, or even a non-conformist Communist. The Soviets dermanded a politically-inert, commercially viable population for its Polish project. During 1939 -41, the NKVD deported over one million citizens of the Polish Second Republic, specifically from those territories which after the Soviet arrival in September 1939 and subsequent plebescites, now formed part of either the Ukrainian or Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republics.


“Our Army is the Liberation Army of the Working Class” J.Stalin
A simple peasant unable to contain his gratitude towards a Red Army soldier after his country’s ‘liberation’. An idealized Soviet view of the invasion of Eastern Poland.



The NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, was the latest version of the Soviet Secret Police. The original Bolshevik internal security service, the CheKa, was established by an ethnic Pole, Felix Dzerzhinsky. ‘Iron Felix’ was a committed Communist who, in creating the Bolshevik Secret Police, the CheKa, literally ‘Extraordinary Commission,’ (initially established to guard the Bolshevik seat of power in Petrograd, Dzerzhinsky soon convinced Lenin to expand its remit and its title to:  ‘The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage’) set the benchmark by which all future incarnations of Soviet State terror would be judged. Dzerzhinsky died of heart failure in 1926, which was fortuitous for his legacy. In the cutthroat world of Soviet terrocracy, natural deaths were by no means the norm and with the exception of Dzerzhinsky and his successor (and fellow Pole), Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, the post of secret police chief carried a fatal sentence until several years after Stalin’s death.[ii]

In subsequent years, the secret police functionaries outdid each other to fulfil and overfill the state quotas for executed and imprisoned ‘dissidents, spies, diversionists, and saboteurs.’ Just as its economic plans were drafted and implemented in an act of mind over matter, regardless of the resources available, Soviet purges of the late 1930’s saw ‘dissident quotas’ established. Whether these dissidents existed or not, local NKVD bosses had to make arrests based on Politburo-approved quotas. In Georgia, in 1937, for example, according to official records, they amounted to 2,000 ‘first category’ dissidents and 3,000 ‘second category’ dissidents. NKVD bosses thus could measure their careers in litres of blood.


Terrocracy: Secret Police Chiefs 1917-1953


Over-zealous liquidators of dissent inevitably ended up victims themselves. Genrikh Yagoda, a Russian Jew who waded his way through a river of blood to the helm of the NKVD, would ultimately be denounced and executed. His successor, Nikolai Yezhov, the ‘poison dwarf’, in two short years would bequeath his name to the Russian lexicon as a byword for social terror – ежовщина. He was executed in February 1940, allegedly vowing to die ‘with Stalin’s name upon his lips.’ After Yezhov came Lavrenty Beria, an Abkhazian Mingrelian, who was tried and shot after Stalin’s death, not because he tortured and abused his victims or because he delighted in overseeing the ritual bloodletting of society but because he had become a nuisance in the struggle for succession. And sometimes the spectacular fall from grace was counterbalanced by an equally spectacular rise from the depths. Naftaly Frenkel, a Jewish merchant from Haifa, managed to go from prisoner at the infamous far northern prison island of Solovetsky to camp commander within a few years (picking up three Orders of Lenin for his troubles). It is tempting to see a wicked delight in Stalin’s role as the director of an epic theatrical production, creating heroes and villains predicated on a cocktail of self-presevation, whim, and dialectical materialism. The first shall come last and the last shall come first, except for Stalin himself of course.

Polish refugees arriving in Persia: An Allied newsreel which reflects the reality of the Allied-Soviet anti-fascist pact forged following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941:

“From one little town in Poland, a thousand men women and children fled from the Nazis into Russia. When the Nazis followed they pushed on. Through mountain and desert, three thousand miles into Persia, to a haven in Iran on the Caspian Sea. Here they found a promised land, a refugee city of their fellow-countrymen deep in the foothills of the TransCaucasian Mountains.” In explaining the Soviet volte face, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the complicity of Stalin in the persecution of the refugees are omitted entirely.  An  enemy’s enemy is a friend, no matter that this friend may be a once and future enemy.


US poster presses the point that Stalin also loves freedom.


The Soviet State Security Police along with other organs associated with the Ministry of the Interior and Soviet military intelligence were and still are known by their acronyms. CheKa, NKVD, GPU, OGPU, NKGB, MGB, KI, MVD, KGB, GRU – these letters conjured fear among the masses. When they came on their rounds, you could forget any notion of civil rights. You were quite simply fodder for a vast network of paranoia which demanded ever more victims. A humorous explanation of the acronym NKVD from the time ran: Ne znaesh Kogda Vernyoshsa Domoi! You don’t know when you’ll be coming home! After Beria, the heads of the secret police tended to keep their heads. The future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was a KGB chief. Vladimir Putin once worked for their First Chief Directorate (foreign intelligence) in East Germany. Despite the revelations of the MVD’s and KGB’s role in the murder and persecution through execution, torture and forced labour of millions of Soviet citizens, they have to this day remained a powerful servant of government in Russia and other former Soviet states. It is deemed a necessary evil by some, who see a connection between any rise in Russia’s political and economic fortunes and the perceived need to control ‘dissent and disorder.’ Dzerzhinsky, the father of Soviet secrets, briefly lost his lustre in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. His statues were once torn down along with countless iron Lenins. While Lenin hasn’t returned, Dzerzhinsky has. In 2005, a new bust of Iron Felix was unveiled at the headquarters of Moscow’s Police.



In a climate of deep distrust between Stalin and Hitler, despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and against a background of great social experimentation and industrial revolution which, in the eyes of its exponents at least, excused the mass transportations of whole social and ethnic groups, Stalin had drawn up plans for how to deal with the ‘refugee problem.’ All refugees from the Nazi-occupied zone who managed to reach the Soviet zone were interviewed to see if there were any spies amongst them, and then, the spies having presumably been executed, the rest, just for good measure, were transported thousands of kilometres to the East: as Wojtek’s cousin Fredek would later describe their fate, ‘some to Siberia, some to Kazakhstan or some other hell on earth.’[iii] Stalin was no stranger to implementing ethnic ‘relocation’ policies, and he used the vast emptiness of the Far North, Siberia and the deserts of the southern Soviet states as the wasteland on which to dump his human cargo. Not only were Polish refugees to undergo this deracination, but also  ethnic groups within the Soviet Union whom Stalin felt suffered or might suffer from divided loyalties in a major war with Germany. These included the Volga Germans, the descendants of German pioneers, craftsmen and tradesmen, whom Catherine the Great had encouraged to settle in Russia and spread their skills in the eighteenth century. In fact, the tribes chosen for deportation represented much of the borderlands of the Soviet Union, places which caused Stalin, a Georgian, a great deal of worry. Ukraine, which translates literally as ‘On the Edge’ or ‘Borderland’, caused Stalin many sleepless nights because of its position at the gateway between Russia and the West, and was subjected to special treatment. In the 1930’s hundreds of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, and Poles were deported to the East in the struggle against the ‘kulaks’, successful private farmers, who were deemed a threat to the introduction of the collectivization programme, which itself is credited with the death through famine of between 2.5 and 7.5 million people.




The deportations continued far beyond Ukraine. The official reason for mass forced resettlements was invariably some form of treasonous anti-Soviet behaviour. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, whose recent independence was nullified by Soviet invasion at the start of the War, would disappear east in the 1940’s.  On February 23rd 1944, the entire population of the Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia were either exiled or killed, as punishment for the Chechen leader Khasan Israilov’s insurrection. The Crimean Tatars, in retaliation for 20,000 of their number fighting against what they saw as Bolshevik oppression, albeit in collusion with the German Wehrmacht, would also receive a collective punishment on May 18th 1944, when Stalin ordered the complete relocation of the population. In fact, the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called the Second World War, saw a virtual spring cleaning of much of the Caucasus and the Crimea. Not only Chechens, Ingush and Tatars, but Kalmyks, Balkars, Karachays, Kabardin, and Meskhetian Turks were visited by agents of the NKVD, and told to fill a suitcase with their personal effects and board a train bound for those seemingly endless corrals of dissenters and reprobates that lay to the north or to the east and south of the Urals. And the population transfers were by no means all in the same direction. Concerned that political events on Russia’s far eastern borders in the late 1930’s might spill over into the Soviet domain, saw Stalin order the transportation of 172,000 ethnic Koreans, as well as Chinese and ‘Harbin Russians’ (the fact that these ethnic Russians had worked on the Harbin railway in Manchuria made them ‘Japanese spies’), who would now join a growing cosmopolitan throng of human detritus in Kazakhstan. There followed Azerbajianis, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Moldovans, Laz, Ingrian Finns, Pontic Greeks, and Hamshenis. At times, they were transported to camps which, not having actually been built yet, they themselves had to construct.  There were other instances, as in Central Asia, of groups transported by train, being kicked out in the middle of the desert. There they were thrown among the local Central Asian populations, who had their own bitter experiences of compulsory resettlement, forced abandonment of traditional lifestyles, as well as of famine and starvation, caused directly by the wholesale implementation of centrally-managed and culturally, socially, agriculturally, and economically inappropriate collectivisation programmes. Soviet Central Asia, once a sort of enlarged buffer zone which in the 19thCentury provided Russia with a bulwark against the threat of invasion from British India to the south, became a dumping ground for distrusted ethnic minorities, thrown unceremoniously among Turkic and Tajik populations whose own centuries-old traditions were being forcibly ‘revolutionized’ for the economic and security interests of their big brother to the north. This was how that great big brother had long dealt with its problematic neighbours, whether in the sable-collared tunic of the Emperor, or the plain Marshall’s uniform of the cobbler’s son from Gori, Georgia –  Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, lately remoulded as Comrade Stalin.



[i] Stalin’s reply to the head of his secret police concerning the question of what to do with the one and a half million Volksdeutsche (Soviet citizens of German origin) following the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

[ii] Although Menzhinsky died most probably of natural causes, that did not prevent future chief Genrykh Yagoda confessing to having poisoned him at his own show trial in 1938.

[iii] Virski, Fred, My Life in the Red Army. Macmillan, New York. 1949. P.3



Posted June 28, 2012 by jkorowicz in Exile, History, NKVD, Poland, Second World War, Soviet Union, USSR

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