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

The fourth mass deportation into the Soviet hinterland

Michał Bronowicki


The Soviets carried out the unification of Polish Eastern Borderlands with the rest of the USSR in a planned and systematic manner. The inhabitants of these regions experienced colossal change in almost every aspect of their lives. Education and law, economy and culture – and even customs – underwent a shocking transformation in accordance with guidelines elaborated at the Kremlin. Ubiquitous propaganda and indoctrination, accompanied by waves of repression – of which the fourth deportation to Siberia was the final element – completed the grim picture of the Soviet occupation in the years 1939–1941.


Condemned for “counter-revolutionary activities”

Although for a number of months it appeared that deportations had been abandoned, the security apparatus of the Soviet Union was yet again employed to “cleanse” the incorporated territories of so-called “suspect elements”. On the basis of decisions of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union, which led to the adoption of the pertinent resolution on 14 May 1941, Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the NKVD, in the following week issued a decree on the forced removal of people constituting a threat to communist rule. In Moscow’s understanding, this time these were “members of counter-revolutionary organizations” from Moldavia, “Western Ukraine”, “Western Byelorussia”, and the Baltic republics. Transportations were carried out in the same order – first in the south, and then in the north. The NKVD and the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security) were put in sole charge of the campaign, and members of these bodies were tasked with drafting proscription lists with the names of people intended for deportation. In line with existing practice, the rule of collective responsibility was observed, in consequence of which whole families were selected for removal. This applied first and foremost to the families of railwaymen, people condemned to death, conspirators, people arrested in the second year of the occupation, former gendarmes and policemen, civil servants who had already experienced persecution, officers of the Polish Army, merchants, industrialists and landowners. Groups that had previously been selected for deportation, but for various reasons escaped the authorities’ clutches, were successfully removed this time, for instance some refugees who had fled from lands annexed by the Third Reich. Yet again, the intelligentsia – excellently aware of the realities of the Soviet system, its objectives and the methods used to achieve the total subjection of populations in territories incorporated into the Soviet Union – was to make up the bulk of deportees.

Just as in the earlier campaigns, the Soviets set about their work in accordance with a prepared schedule. On 22 May they began deporting people from Moldavia and Ukrainian Borderlands, on 14 June – from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and on 19 June – from Belarus. It is important to note that the deportations were not subjected to any criteria of nationality, but rather based on a strict and “egalitarian” policy aimed against all the inhabitants of regions incorporated by Stalin into his steadily expanding empire. It came as somewhat of a surprise for the Ukrainians and Belarusians, who naively believed in the slogans of “liberation from oppression by Polish lords and capitalists”, which were part and parcel of the rhetoric accompanying the Red Army’s invasion of the Polish Eastern Borderlands. Poles, however, were not surprised, for they had considered the eventuality of forced removal. As a result, the nocturnal raids of NKVD functionaries, accompanied by armed escorts and representatives of local authorities, were frequently met with an anticipation of sorts. People would take previously prepared packages with food for the journey, and such personal items as were most precious under the circumstances – not valuables, but for example tools indispensable for work in Siberia, books from the canon of Polish literature, helpful in upholding tradition and preserving the language while in exile, and objects of religious worship, important not only as regards faith, but also as symbols of national identity. The expulsion from households was invariably accompanied by brutal treatment, searches, and hurrying; the tragedy of the deportees was complete. In addition – and despite peoples’ preparedness – it nearly always came as a great shock[1]. In May–June 1941, the fact that some men were separated from their families heaped even more misery on the hapless civilians. Whenever it was suspected that a man might have engaged in “hostile activities” against the order introduced by Stalin’s regime, he would be separated from his loved ones just before they were due to be loaded onto a wagon, and deported separately to some remote gulag; this had not been the practice during previous deportation campaigns. Obviously, it was meant by the Soviets as an additional blow for their victims[2].


Deportations after the outbreak of the German-Soviet War

Loading the deportees into wagons – furnished only with pallets and buckets for drawing water at stations, and with toilet holes cut roughly in the floors – was a matter of a few moments. During this deportation, the transports guarded by the NKVD’s Convoy Troops did not spend several dozen hours at the stations awaiting departure, though they never left immediately. And it wasn’t the sweltering summer heat, acutely felt in the closed and stuffy cars, that was to become the worst torment of the deportees[3] – an utter surprise was the German assault on the Soviet Union, which resulted in the trains being bombed by the Luftwaffe. On 22 June, the Axis powers attacked the USSR and some transports heading for the east came under fire, thus adding a new element to the deportees’ suffering – the horror of sudden death. All in all, Soviet reports estimated that some 10–13 percent of deportees were killed, and 12–15 percent wounded.

The situation brought about by the German invasion had numerous and far-reaching consequences, the deaths of some of the deportees being just one of them. Of far greater risk was the enhanced possibility of escape. In the general chaos caused by the air raids, and since the transports of deportees were kept for many days at railway sidings because Soviet troops had to be immediately relocated to the war zone, a chance for salvation appeared – of escape from the transport. However, with the war raging over their heads, the deportees were more often faced with a more mundane problem – that of securing regular deliveries of food and drinking water to the wagons. This, in turn, had a detrimental effect on maintaining even the most basic hygiene. The weakest, especially children and the elderly, died in the extreme conditions, aggravated by military action; however, no reliable numerical data is available.

The mortality rate was the highest in the first group of deportees – those from February 1940. But although it never again reached this level during subsequent eviction campaigns, the accounts of people who survived deportation to Siberia abound with descriptions of deaths occurring in the course of transport. Quite naturally, this stemmed to a large extent from the fact that people in general tend to remember the most traumatic events, however it does not always correspond to reality. The NKVD Convoy Troops were obliged to record all deaths that occurred during the transport – they answered for the number of deportees arriving at the place of destination, so as to exclude the eventuality of escape. The escort was not allowed to collect the bodies at stops along the journey and place them, for example, in a separate wagon – there was no such practice. In all probability, the corpses were removed at successive stations and either hastily buried or left on the ground. The issue of using deportees as unpaid labor – and this practice was to reap dividends for the Soviet Union – was also addressed in a most specific manner. Generally, none of the deportees were considered unworthy for utilisation in this capacity, including children, who – even if born in exile – inherited the status of deportees from their parents and at least in theory would later be subjected to the obligation to provide work.


Far away in Siberia

Persons deported in May–June 1941 were categorized as ssylnoposelentsy (exile settlers), ssylno-pereselentsy (settlers sentenced to permanent exile), or administrativno-ssylny (administrative deportees). The period of exile was also precisely defined – 20 years. After a journey, usually lasting several weeks, the deportees were unloaded in their destination oblasts:Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, and South Kazakhstan, and in the Krasnoyarsk Krai and Altai Krai[4]. It was then that the Soviet administration realized that people who were not entered in the records of the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies of the NKVD of the USSR, that is GULAG – like those deported in 1941 – should be more carefully registered. With this in mind, the Soviets planned to create comprehensive lists that would be kept by a special unit of the NKVD’s Department for Special Resettlement, tasked with dealing with these groups (including the deportees from April 1940, who were generally assigned to a similar category).

Those deported on the eve of the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, having been unloaded from their transports, were placed in various kolkhozes and sovkhozes in Siberia. They were then left to their fate, which was to be shaped mainly by the Soviet employees of individual farmsteads, who chose deportees who were most valuable – that is best suited for hard labor. As if at a slave market, the weakest women, children and people generally unfit for physical toil were discarded. This course of action was in a way analogous to that taken against the deportees from April 1940. Another similarity lay in the theoretical right to choose either a state-owned or a cooperative enterprise as a place where forced labor was to be performed.

The fundamental difference between those deported in the spring of 1940 and in May–June 1941 was that the latter were strictly obliged to report to NKVD posts. At least once every two weeks, these deportees had to sign lists confirming their stay in specific kolkhozes and sovkhozes. Insubordination was punishable by a hefty fine or even arrest. In a sense, however, those swept up by the last wave of mass deportations were extremely lucky, as their stay in the “inhuman land” was on the whole rather short. Not even two months after the May–June 1941 campaign had drawn to a close, an “amnesty” was announced for Polish citizens exiled in the Soviet Union.



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

Gurianow Aleksandr, Massztaby dieportacyi nasielenija w głub SSSR w maje–ijunie 1941 g.,in: Riepriessii protiw polakow i polskich grażdan. Istoriczeskije sborniki „Miemoriała”, Moscow 1997.

Lebiediewa Natalia S., Rozstrzeliwania i deportacje ludności polskiej w ZSRR w latach 1939–1941, „Niepodległość i Pamięć” 1998, issue 2, pp. 179-193.

Żaroń Piotr, Deportacje na Kresach 1939 –1941, Warsaw 1990.


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 accounts of Zofia ChwiałkowskaZofia Dziedziejew, and Maria Gołąb.

[2] Cf. the account of Stanisław Szuttenbach.

[3] Cf. the accounts of Zofia Dziedziejew, Lucjan Dzienisiewicz, and Romuald Hryniewicz.

[4] Cf. the accounts of Władysław Cudziło and Genowefa Galantowicz.