Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

The third mass deportation into the Soviet interior

Michał Bronowicki


Of all the types of repression to which the Soviet authorities subjected the inhabitants of the annexed eastern voivodeships of the Second Polish Republic, none was implemented on such a massive scale as the deportations. Only in 1940, a total of approx. 280,000 people faced forced displacement, and approx. 80,000 of them were transported in the campaign commenced on 29 June.


Troublesome refugees

Decisions on launching each of the deportation campaigns were taken in Moscow by top-ranking state officials – the members of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union, chaired by Joseph Stalin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov. The operation as a whole was coordinated by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, and his deputy, Vsevolod Merkulov, in cooperation with Bogdan Kobulov, who headed the NKVD’s Chief Directorate of Economics. In individual republics, the campaigns were managed by local NKVD chiefs, that is by Ivan Serov in the Ukrainian SSR and by Lavrentiy Tsanava (Dzhandzhava) in the Byelorussian SSR. All arrangements concerning the schedule of deportations were planned well in advance, and it was no different in the case of the last deportation in 1940, which targeted mainly refugees who had come to the Soviet-occupied territories following the outbreak of war in September 1939 and later wanted to return to the Polish lands annexed by the Germans, but were not admitted by them. Having agreed in principle that the deportation campaign would be implemented, the Soviet authorities earmarked thousands of people – the so-called bezhensty (refugees) – for displacement. And, as with the two preceding drives, the preparations were shrouded in deep secrecy, with all pertinent decisions being taken by senior officials. Lists of people who were to be deported were first compiled in Minsk and Kiev – the capital cities of the two republics – and then submitted for verification in districts of so-called “Western Byelorussia” and “Western Ukraine” as the occupied territories were then known. Full lists allowed for determining the total number of deportees in a given transport. Although these were perforce estimates, they were nevertheless quite reliable, and facilitated the coordination of the displacement campaign both in the district headquarters and in Moscow. Importantly, it was possible to identify the required number of train cars and Convoy Troops from the NKVD’s Chief Directorate of Railways, which were tasked with escorting the deportees, as well as the compulsory financial collateral, which covered, among others, remuneration for the Soviet participants in the action and the cost of food for the deportees, obviously indispensable during their deportation to Siberia.

As early as in November 1939, the case of the refugees from the central and western parts of Poland came under discussion at the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), and at the meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union. The resolutions that were then adopted provided for the appointment of a special commission which was to address all the problems related to the presence of the bezhensty in the Soviet-governed territories. Meanwhile, in December of the same year, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich concluded an agreement on the mutual exchange of persons of German and Ukrainian and Belarusian ethnicity, thus bringing about the temporary suspension of all anti-refugee activities in the USSR. Furthermore, the plan to deport these people in the early spring of 1940 fell through due to the slow functioning of the Soviet-German joint committee and the unclear status of these persons – at the beginning of April, just before the second deportation commenced, it was decided in Moscow that the bezhensty must be exempted. They were to be deported only after the completion of the population exchange between the two occupying powers – an operation that had only begun and was already beset with problems, chief among them being the fact that twice as many people as the Germans had initially estimated applied for transferral to the Nazi occupation zone[1]. Eventually, out of over 164,000 hopeful returnees, no more than 66,000 crossed the border legally. Interestingly, the vast majority of rejected applications were formal requests filed by people of Jewish descent, perforce unaware of the horrors that the Third Reich was planning for them.

In principle, the deportation of 29 June 1940 did not differ from the previous ones. Again, the action was carried out under the cover of night or in the small hours, while the NKVD functionaries[2], who usually arrived at households accompanied by representatives of local authorities and soldiers, followed the deportation instructions closely and mercilessly. When the search for weapons and so-called counter-revolutionary materials was finished, they read out the deportation order and instructed the people to immediately pack their belongings[3]. A dozen or several dozen minutes later, the stupefied families were directed to assembly points, and next to train stations, where the goods wagons were already waiting: each had a latrine hole, a small barred window, pallets, and buckets for drawing water[4]. Water, however, was at a premium. The deportees, bunched several dozen people to a car, suffered from thirst, aggravated by the sultry weather. They were also plagued by various sicknesses, which soon appeared due to the inability to maintain proper hygiene, which was in turn caused by the appalling conditions of transport. Just as in the case of previous groups of deportees, their misery was compounded by the brutal treatment they received from the NKVD Convoy Troops and the fact that the actual conditions of deportation – food provisioning first and foremost among them – were far removed from what was specified in the instructions. Despite the experience gained by the Soviets during the deportations carried out in February and April 1940, the campaign implemented in June and July was only slightly better organized. As before, all the guidelines remained on paper, and were followed only in theory. For instance, nobody stopped to consider how the food rations were to be delivered to railway stations at particular stages[5], where the transports had stopovers. None of the decision-makers bothered themselves with the practical aspects of ensuring medical care for the deportees, although it was provided for in the official regulations.


The fate of the bezhensty

The majority of the people displaced by the third mass deportation to Siberia were Jews – they constituted over 80 percent, while Poles accounted for over 10 percent; the remainder were of Ukrainian, Belarusian, and German origin. In all, according to Soviet data, almost 23,000 people were deported from “Western Byelorussia”, and almost 57,000 from “Western Ukraine”. The deportees were removed in 57 trains, and assigned the category of spetspereselentsy-bezhentsy [special displaced persons-refugees] in NKVD terminology. Their legal status wasn’t much different from that of the so-called kulaks, whom the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs called trudposelentsy and who had been deported to Siberia from various parts of the USSR already in the 1930s, or of the settlers and foresters who had been deported in the winter of 1940 and were also defined as special displaced persons. A considerable number of the deportees were single people. Generally, adults vastly outnumbered children (over 70 percent as opposed to less than 30 percent), and in this respect the deportation carried out in June–July 1940 was totally dissimilar from that conducted in April. After reaching their target railway stations, the deportees were distributed in accordance with agreements made between individual central offices – just as the February deportees, who were also categorized as spetspereselentsy[6]. A large group was assigned to the People’s Commissariat of the Timber Industry, another to the People’s Commissariat of Communications and the All-Russian Union of the Timber Industry and Railway Woodworking Plants, and the last one to the People’s Commissariat for the Metallurgical Engineering of Non-Ferrous Metals.

Just like the people who had been deported in February, the bezhensty were handed over to secluded labor settlements[7] of a special kind – under the absolute power of local NKVD commandants[8]. In the spetsposelki, deportees were subjected to a stringent discipline of labor, evidenced in the work quotas that each person had to meet[9]. This severity also applied to their living quarters – the deportees were usually housed in makeshift barracks, which they were forbidden to change – and the general conditions of life in exile, including the total prohibition of leaving assigned settlements without permission. Finally, those deported in the summer of 1940 were also officially deprived of nearly all the civil rights enjoyed by holders of Soviet passports.

The June deportees were distributed among 251 special settlements situated in autonomous Soviet republics – Mari ASSR, Yakut ASSR, and Komi ASSR, in the Altai Krai and Krasnoyarsk Krai, and also in the oblasts of Arkhangelsk, Chelyabinsk, Gorky, Irkutsk, Molotov, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, and Vologda. Each and every day of their stay in exile was a horrendous struggle for survival.



Ciesielski Stanisław, Materski Wojciech, Paczkowski Andrzej, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw 2002.

Gurianow Aleksandr, Cztery deportacje, „Karta” 1994, issue 12, pp. 114–136.

Jasiewicz Krzysztof, Strzembosz Tomasz, Wierzbicki Marek, Ogólna charakterystyka okupacji sowieckiej na ziemiach północno-wschodnich II Rzeczypospolitej w latach 1939–1941, in: Okupacja sowiecka (1939–1941) w świetle tajnych dokumentów. Obywatele polscy na kresach północno-wschodnich II Rzeczypospolite pod okupacją sowiecką w latach 1939–1941, ed. Tomasz Strzembosz, Warsaw 1996.

Okupacja sowiecka ziem polskich 1939–1941, ed. Piotr Chmielowiec, Rzeszów–Warsaw 2005.


Michał Bronowicki – a graduate of the Faculty of Historical and Social Sciences of the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University. An archivist, Sovietologist, long-standing employee of the East Archive of the KARTA Center and the History Meeting House, and the managing editor of a series of academic albums about the Second World War for the general public, published by the company “New Media Concept”, he is also the author of a few dozen articles printed among others in “Karta”, “Zesłaniec”, “Kresowe Stanice”, and on the website of the Kresy-Syberia Virtual Museum, concerning mainly the history of the Eastern Borderlands of the Republic of Poland and the repressive measures applied by the Soviets against residents of the region. He is currently the coordinator of the “Spoken History Archive” program and the curator of the permanent exhibition at the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek.


[1] Cf. the account of Bolesław Augustyn.

[2] Cf. the account of Ferdynand Biel.

[3] Cf. the account of Elżbieta Hafftke.

[4] Cf. the account of Michał Gurdak.

[5] Cf. the account of Alfons Awdziej.

[6] Cf. the account of Irena Feldman.

[7] Cf. the account of Helena Antoniewicz.

[8] Cf. the account of Adam Cybański.

[9] Cf. the account of Bolesław Fenc.