Mass deportations from the West of Ukraine in 1939-1940

For Europe, 1939 was the beginning of one of the most dramatic pages of the XX century —World War II. It was the time when old geopolitical problems, such as the results of the World War I, were approached with the «Revanchism» policy. It was also the culmination of the clash between totalitarian regimes that tried to conquer the world with their dominant ideologies — communism and nazism. 

At that time, on the eve of World War II the lands of modern day Ukraine remained divided between 4 states — the USSR, Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Each of them had a different sociopolitical system and models of domination in the territories under their control. These states sought to retain Ukrainian lands and annex as many new ones as possible. Back then, the West of Ukraine was a zone of dynamic change between those states and their influence. This led to numerous human casualties, mass arrests and deportations.

The population of the West of Ukraine suffered significant losses already during the German-Polish war, which began on September 1, 1939. Taking advantage of its military superiority, the German army quickly advanced through Poland and entered the West of Ukraine in the middle of September. According to different sources, there were about 120 thousand Ukrainians in the Polish army in that period. Most of them faithfully fulfilled their military duty and fought together with the Poles against the Nazis. As a result, 6,000 of Ukrainians were killed in the action. On September 17, 1939, the Red Army crossed the then-Soviet-Polish border and began to advance westward. Already in the first days of the operation, Soviet troops captured the cities of Rivne, Ternopil, Chortkiv, Lutsk, Stanislav, and Halych, and on September 19, they reached the outskirts of Lviv. During this war campaign, 3,500 soldiers were killed on the Polish side, and about 20,000 were wounded or went missing [1,17].

The population of the Western Ukraine ambiguously met the establishment of Soviet government. The opinions ranged from complete rejection to moderate support. Some high-ranking officials, senior officers, and political parties immigrated to Romania and Hungary as a manifestation of disapproval of the communist regime. The bulk of the local population adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Some leaders of legal political parties nevertheless tried to find a dialog with the newly established Soviet government. For example, on September 24, 1939, a delegation headed by 80-year-old Kost Levytsky, an elder of Ukrainian politicians in Galicia, assured Soviet troops and high-ranking officials of the readiness to cooperate. The delegation requested instead to let them continue the activities of Ukrainian economic, cultural, and educational organizations. In order to prove their loyalty to the Soviet regime, the leadership of the Ukrainian National Democratic Union (UNDO), the largest Ukrainian political party in the Republic of Poland, decided to cease its activities on September 21. A few days later, political leaders of other legal Ukrainian parties made the same decision. However, this did not save them from Stalinist repression, which desired the immediate and complete neutralization of all current and potential political opponents as one of its priorities. In a few weeks in 1939, the leaders of the largest legal Ukrainian parties and organizations were arrested and deported to the far east of the USSR. Even the members of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine soon got disappointed with the new government. They, alongside with other non-party communists, were targets for mass arrests on suspicion of Trotskyism and other «counterrevolutionary activities» [1,17].


(Kost Levytskyi. Source: https://ridna.ua/2020/11/18-161/)

(Kost Levytskyi. Source: https://ridna.ua/2020/11/18-161/)



The arrival of Soviet powers in the West of Ukraine was marked from the beginning with mass deportations. First, they affected the leadership of the largest Ukrainian political parties, as well as county and village activists. The NKVD arrested, deported to Siberia, or killed more than 250 people in the late September – early October 1939. Leading figures of Polish and Jewish parties were detained without charges as well. The entire staff of the Lviv City Council was arrested and accused of «anti-Soviet nationalist activities». Many Polish civil society activists were sent to the camps for captured officers in Kozel, Ostashkiv, and Starobilsk. 15 thousand people in the camps were shot in April – May 1940 [2].


(The family of Polish besiegers Grzegorski from the village of Krykhivtsi, in today's Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1931: Source: https://audiovis.nac.gov.pl/obraz/253760/ [4])

(The family of Polish besiegers Grzegorski from the village of Krykhivtsi, in today’s Ivano-Frankivsk region, 1931: Source: https://audiovis.nac.gov.pl/obraz/253760/ [4])


One of the largest groups of people forcibly deported by the Soviet authorities in the first wave were ethnic Poles. This was especially true of the  «osadniks» — former soldiers who participated in the war against the Bolsheviks in 1920. On December 17, 1920, the Polish Sejm passed the law «On the Granting of Land to Soldiers of the Polish Army». Soldiers who had distinguished themselves in battle and volunteers who had taken part in hostilities were entitled to receive land free of charge. Other former soldiers received land in installments and had to pay for it within 30 years [3]. Those who decided to stay away from farming became policemen, postal or railroad workers, or low-level officials. In total, as of 1938, almost 300 thousand such Poles lived in Eastern Galicia and Volhynia.


(Act of ownership of the land of a Polish Osadnik, 1922. Source: https://zn.ua/ukr/HISTORY/operaciya-kolonizaciya-polske-osadnictvo-na-zahidnoukrayinskih-zemlyah-_.html.[3])

(Act of ownership of the land of a Polish Osadnik, 1922. Source: https://zn.ua/ukr/HISTORY/operaciya-kolonizaciya-polske-osadnictvo-na-zahidnoukrayinskih-zemlyah-_.html.[3])


Preparations for the process of forcible eviction of the besiegers were confirmed by Lavrenty Beryia’s letter to Stalin dated December 2, 1939, number 5332 under fingerboard «top secret». Beryia proposed to arrest the besiegers, who lived in the occupied territories of the West of Ukraine and Belarus. They were viewed a threat to the Soviet government, as they had received land and material incentives under the Polish government, and therefore could provoke anti-Soviet activities [5]. The letter had instructions for the NKVD to completely evict the inhabitants of Osadnyk from their places of residence and transfer them to the Soviet commissariat for timber harvesting to engage them in forced labor. Beryia also instructed to develop and submit for approval to the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR a plan for the forced resettlement of the siege, which would include a list of property that they could take with them; the organization of special settlements where they would be sent; and the organization of commandant’s offices at the special settlements. Livestock belonging to the forcibly evicted persons, as well as agricultural implements, were seized and transferred to the local authorities [5].


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    In 1940, 17,807 families, or 95,193 people, living in 2,054 settlements in the western regions of Ukraine were subject to deportation, according to the archives of the Main Information Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. The first stage of deportation was conducted from February 10 to 13, 1940 and covered not only the people of the siege, but also other segments of the population. In total, as of February 13, 1940, 17,206 families, or 8,9062 people, were deported from the western regions of Ukraine; 1457 people were left temporarily due to illnesses; 2152 people were absent at the time of the operation; 34 people moved to other areas before the operation began [7]. Since not all citizens who were subject to deportation under the Soviet plan were evicted, this led to subsequent waves of deportation.

    The testimonies of ethnic Poles who were victims of the deportation demonstrate the sequence of the event. Here is how Mrs. Maria Tarnawska recalls these episodes: «It was 10.02.1940. My mother was baking bread, and at dawn, two pairs of sledges with drivers arrived: two Ukrainians and two NKVEDists. At first, they announced us a sentence (translated into Ukrainian) that we were some kind of enemies and gave us two hours to get ready. But it was winter, we had nothing to wear, and my younger brothers and sisters didn’t even have shoes, and they took what we had and put it in feathers and pillows… We were taken to Trembovlia (Ternopil region), loaded into freight cars with bunks, one family on each bunk. There was a hole in the floor that served as a toilet. There were also two iron stoves, and at the stations we were given coal and firewood, water and food, even bread.» [8]. Paragraph 5e of the Directive of March 7, 1940, stated that families were allowed to take luggage weighing no more than 100 kg per family member. However, most often 100 kg of luggage was intended for the whole family, not for one person [9].

    The second wave of deportations took place in April – May 1940. According to the decision of the Central Committee of the CP(B)U of March 24, 1940, land ownership rates per family were established for newly occupied Volyn’, Drohobych, Lviv, Rivne, and Ternopil regions: 5 hectares in the suburban area, 7 hectares in villages, and 10–15 hectares in mountainous and marshy areas. Since almost a third of the population of local peasants had more than the normal amount of land, they were subject to «dekulakyzation» or eviction. Thus, in April and May, more than 30 thousand people were deported to Kazakhstan. At the same time, residents of the Soviet-German borderland, the so-called 800-meter border strip, and those who lived around the massive construction of military facilities fell under the category of deportees [2].

    The third wave of deportations, which began in the summer of 1940, targeted relatives of earlier repressed people. It was then that Merkulov’s directive No. 142 of June 4 was sent to all NKVD bodies, stating: «Families of the repressed in prisoner-of-war camps, former officers, police gendarmes, former landowners and factory workers are to be evicted from the western regions of Ukraine and Belarus to the Kustanay and Semipalatinsk regions of the Kazakh SSR for ten years» [7]. The forcible eviction began on June 29, 1940. Thus, according to the summary data of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR of July 2, 1940, 37,532 families, or 83,207 people, including 19,476 unmarried people, were deported from six western regions of Ukraine[12, p. 252].

    The last, fourth wave of deportations began on the eve of the German-Soviet war, in May 1941. On May 16, 1941, the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR adopted a resolution «On the deportation of the enemy element from the Baltic republics, Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, and Moldavia» according to which the fourth deportation of the population was carried out in June 1941. By June 22, the NKVD had deported 85716 people, including 12371 from the western regions of Ukraine. Thus, from the fall of 1939 to June 1941, the Soviet authorities occupying the territories of the West of Ukraine repressed and deported 1,173,000 people [1,20].

    The criminal forced repressive measures of the Soviet regime against the western Ukrainian population, the scale of the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of deportees who were expelled from their lands without trial, mainly on political and ethnic grounds, demonstrates the basic way of state governance in the USSR. Even in the newly occupied territories, such as the West of Ukraine, the indigenous population was exterminated or deported because they proved inconvenient to the communist regime. Soviet deportations have always been extrajudicial in nature [10, p. 432], implemented by imposing collective guilt, against entire families, and partly against nations, religious communities, and social classes. It was this scale of deportations that led to the violent modification of the ethnic and sociopolitical composition of the population of the western Ukrainian lands.




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