A. Historical Background. There
had been many Polish-Russian wars over the borderlands, that is Belarus (formerly Belorussia),
Ukraine, and the lands
that would later become Lithuania,
Latvia and Estonia.
At its greatest extent, in the early 1600s, Poland
had included most of these lands, but gradually retreated as Russia
expanded. Russia acquired some Belorussian and Ukrainian lands in the 17th
century, plus what is today Latvia and Estonia in the early 18th
century, while it acquired the rest of the borderlands as well as most of
ethnic Poland in the Partitions of 1772-95.
From that time on, Russian governments looked on the borderlands, and
especially Russian Poland
(which was ethnically Polish), as vital for Russian security. They pointed to
Napoleonís invasion of 1812 and to WWI, when the German and Austro-Hungarian
armies drove the Russians out of Poland by the fall of 1915.
General Brusilov's offensive pushed the Austrians out of East Galicia in
summer 1916, but the Russians were driven out of this region in summer 1917
and the Germans and Austrians occupied most of the borderlands until the end
of WW I.
Imperial Russian governments and
propaganda claimed the borderlands were ethnically Russian, because they
viewed the Belorussians and Ukrainians as "little brothers."
However, these peoples developed their own national identities in the course
of the 19th century. Furthermore, there were large Polish minorities in what
is today western Belorussia,
western Ukraine and
According to the Polish Census of 1931, Poles
made up 5,600,000 of the total population of eastern Poland which stood at
13,021,000.* In Lithuania, Poles had majorities in the Vilnius [P. Wilno,
Rus. Vilna] and Suwalki areas, as well as significant numbers in and around
*[Ukrainians numbered 4,303,000; Belorussians
1,693,000; Jews 1,079,100; Russians 125,800; Germans 86,200; Czechs 31,000,
see: Marek Tuszynski, "Soviet War Crimes Against Poland During the
Second World War and Its Aftermath. A Review of the Record and Outstanding
Questions," Polish Review, no.3, 1999. The Ukrainians and
Belorussians were undercounted in 1931. Tuszynski notes that by October 1939,
there were an additional 1,579,000 Polish citizens in these territories, not
counting 379,000 Polish refugees from the Warsaw district, see note 9 ibid].
(i) The Soviet advance westward. 1918-19.The
Soviet government claimed to support the "self-determination" of
all the non-Russian peoples of the former Russian Empire. However, they meant
self-determination by workers and peasants led by native communists sent in
The Soviet government could not help the communists in Finland, who were too weak to succeed by
themselves, and Moscow failed in a bid to take
over the Baltic States.
However, in 1918 the Soviets managed to take
over most of Ukraine,
driving out the Ukrainian government from Kiev,
and they also set up a "Lithuanian-Belorussian
Republic "(Litbel) in
early 1919, with its government in Vilnius
[Wilno]. It was run by native communists sent there by Moscow and supported by Red Army units.
This government made itself very unpopular due to confiscation of food and
goods for the army, as well as terror.
(ii) A Polish Communist Workersí Party
was established in Warsaw
in late December 1918. It was made up of the left wing of the Polish
Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom
of Poland and Lithuania. This new party called
for the overthrow of "bourgeois Poland," and was therefore
C. The Polish-Soviet War.
As German troops pulled out of Belorussia
in late 1918 and early 1919, Red Army troops began to seep in. Polish troops
advanced east and clashed with them at Bereza Kartuska in February 1919.
In April, the Polish army drove the Litbel government out of Wilno/Vilnius,
which then had a predominantly Polish and Jewish population (about 50-50),
some Belorussians and only about 2% Lithuanians.
The French and British governments, who
supported the Whites in the Russian Civil War, tried to persuade Pilsudski
to go on fighting the Red Army, but to keep recovered eastern territories
"In trust" for Russia. He refused and proposed that a plebiscite be
held in the borderlands under League of Nations
auspices, but the western powers ignored this offer. Therefore, Pilsudski
adopted a passive stance toward the Russian Civil War, not helping either the
Whites or Reds, but objectively helping the Reds because he did not attack
In December 1919, the Red Army was
clearly winning the Civil War and the Soviet government sent peace proposals
to the Polish government. Pilsudski rejected negotiations, suspecting
the Soviets only wanted a breather before attacking Poland. At this time, the French
and British were pulling their troops out of Russia and wanted to avert a
On 8 December 1919, the Allied
Supreme Council in Paris
proposed a demarcation line between the Polish and Russian
"administrations." This line, which was specifically stated not
to be the frontier, was roughly equivalent to ethnic Poland, but had two
possible variations in East Galicia: one which left Lwow [Ukr Líviv,
Rus. Lvov] then predominantly Polish, and the neighboring oil fields, on the Russian
side (Line A) while the other left them on the Polish side (line B).
Pilsudski ignored this proposal. His goal was a federation between Poland, Lithuania
and Belorussia, allied
with an independent Ukraine.
Leninís aim was to infiltrate the
borderlands, set up communist governments there as well as in Poland, and reach Germany where he expected a
socialist revolution to break out. He also expected revolutions elsewhere,
including Italy, but the
German revolution was most important to him for he believed that Soviet
Russia could not survive without the support of a socialist Germany and the help of its industrial
know-how to modernize Russia.
In March 1920, Pilsudski learned
from military intelligence that the Red Army was concentrating in Ukraine.
He suspected an attack on Poland
and, indeed, published Russian documents on the Civil War show that such an
attack was planned, though its first thrust was to be into Lithuania. However, inclement
weather postponed the Soviet offensive.
Pilsudski decided on a preventive attack
and concluded an alliance with the Ukrainian leader Semyon Petliura
(1879-1926). He had fought the Bolsheviks in defending Ukrainian
independence, was defeated and fled to Poland with his remaining troops.
The Polish-Ukrainian alliance treaty, signed April 22 1920, had the
goal of establishing an independent Ukraine
in alliance with Poland.
In return, Petliura gave up Ukrainian claims to East Galicia
(today western Ukraine),
and was denounced for this by the Ukrainian leaders there. The treaty
included guarantees for the rights of the Ukrainian minority in Poland and the Polish minority in Ukraine.
At the end of April, the Polish army and
Petliuraís Ukrainian divisions, marched east into Ukraine. They entered Kiev on May 7, and an independent
Ukrainian state was proclaimed there. However, the expected Ukrainian
uprising against the Russians did not take place. Ukraine was ravaged by war; also,
most of the people were illiterate and had not developed their own national
consciousness. Finally, they distrusted the Poles, who had formed a large
part of the landowning class in Ukraine up to 1918.
In June 1920, a Red Army offensive drove
out the Poles who retreated westward, and was approaching Warsaw in late June. On July 2, the Soviet
commander, Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky (1893-1937), issued an
"Order of the Day" to his troops calling them to press "onward
to Berlin over the corpse of Poland!"
A group of Polish communists headed by Felix Dzerzhynsky (P.
Feliks Dzierzynski), now head of the Cheka (Soviet Secret Police),
set up a Polish Revolutionary Committee in Bialystok, It was
clearly the embryo of a communist government for Poland.
In this situation, the Polish government sent a
delegation to Spa,
where the French and British prime ministers were meeting to discuss German
reparation - and ask them for help. British Prime Minister David
Lloyd George was furious with the Poles for marching into Ukraine because he was negotiating a trade
agreement with the Bolsheviks in London; also,
he feared a German revolution if the Red Army reached Germany. Therefore, the British
government proposed a demarcation line based on the Supreme Council Line of
December 8, 1919, but this was now called the "Curzon Line"
after British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon (who did not draw it up).
The Poles agreed to negotiate with the Soviets on the basis of this line -
which the British extended without telling them, into East
Galicia, leaving it on the Soviet side - but the Bolshevik
government. sure of victory, refused. Meanwhile, an Anglo-French
diplomatic mission and a military mission was sent to Poland as a sign of allied
support for her independence. The French General Maxime Weygand
(1867-1965) was to take over command of the Polish army. He arrived with some
French officers, including captain Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970,
leader of the Free French in World War II, head of governments 1945-46,
The Poles were in a very difficult position. Germany proclaimed neutrality and refused
passage to French arms and munitions for Poland. In Czechoslovakia, railway workers refused to let
trains with military supplies go through to Poland.
British dock workers sympathized with
theBolsheviks, so they threatened to strike if ordered to load ships for the
The only way French supplies could reach Poland was through Danzig.[P. Gdansk],
but Lloyd George, who was negotiating a trade treaty with Bolshevik
delegates in London, ordered the British League High Commissioner Sir Reginald Tower,
to refuse permission for unloading French ships, and the German Danzig
dockers threatened to strike if they were ordered to unload them.
At this time, the Poles unloaded some supplies in the fishing port of Gdynia,
about 20 miles west of Danzig in the "Polish
Corridor." (This experience led to the developmnt of Gdynia
into a Polish port city; work began there in 1924).
As it turned out, General Weygand was not
welcome to take over command of the Polish army. He then advised the
Poles to abandon Warsaw and set up a defense
line on part of the Vistula river.
Pilsudski refused. He and his chief of
staff, General Jordan T. Rozwadowski (1866-1928) drew up a daring plan
of attack. Some Polish troops were withdrawn from the Warsaw perimeter and concentrated in a
strike group south of the city.
On August 13, Pilsudski launched the
attack toward the north-north west. He drove between the Red Army groups
North and Center, and came up in the rear of Tukhachevskyís army group which
was outflanking Warsaw and had reached East Prussia.
The Red Army was defeated. This is known as
the "Battle of the Vistula," or "The
Battle of Warsaw." In the West, the victory
was attributed to General Weygand. He denied this, but got used to the idea
with time and came to see himself as the savior Poland. (Most textbooks on the
history of Modern Western Europe do not mention the Polish victory). In
September, Pilsudski defeated Tukhachevsky again at the Battle
of the Nemen river in Lithuania.
[fom Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star, London, 1972]
[Maps, pictures and captions,
Norman Davies, White Eagle Red Star,London, 1972]
We should note that the Polish army was made up
of both conscripts and volunteers. The peasants made up the infantry and the
rank-and-file of the cavalry. The Red Army also used infantry and cavalry,
notably the Budenny "Konarmia" or horse army commanded by
Semyon M. Budenny (1883-1973, pron. Boodyonny), to which Iosif [Joseph]
V. Stalin (1879-1953), the future Soviet dictator, was
attached as Commisar, or chief political officer.
The Polish army also used armored trains, which with their heavy guns were
like warships on land. They also transported heavy artillery, horses, and
There was a small Polish air force,and some of the pilots were American
volunteers from the Lafayette Squadron, France. They flew in the the Kosciuszko
Squadron in Poland.
The pilots found after a while that they could not shoot up Russian troops
with impunity because the Red Army had machine guns mounted on
"tachankas," that is, fast moving, small, two wheel horse carts.
The Poles also used them and each side claimed the invention.
But the war was mainly a fast moving cavalry
war on both sides. It helped the cavalry to survive in the interwar period as
an important part of both the Polish and the Red Army.
As mentioned earlier, in early July the Soviet
government refused the offer of the Curzon Line. In the official answer, given
by the Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Georgii V. Chicherin (1872-1936),
the Bolshevik government said it desired direct negotiations with the Poles
to whom it would offer far more territory than the Curzon Line. Encouraged by
the British, the Poles agreed to negotiate.
However, the Soviet demands put to the Polish delegation in August in Minsk were draconian.
They involved not only loss of territory (basically the Curzon Line
with East Galicia, thus leaving Lwow/Líviv and the oil fields to the Soviets,
though with modifications in Polandís favor in the Bialystok and Chelm
[Kholm] regions), but also disarmamen, the establishment of a
"workersí militia," and the Soviet right of free transit of
passengers and goods through Poland along the Volkovysk-Graievo railway,
which was to be in Soviet possession. The acceptance of these terms
would have made Poland
a Soviet satellite. The Poles refused, though Lloyd George
had urged them to accept. (The French did not).
After the defeat of the Red Army, Lenin gave
a confidential explanation of why his government had refused the Curzon Line
offer and continued the advance into Poland. It is worth citing because
of the insight it gives into Leninís thinking in July 1920 and of Polandís
key place in it. At a closed meeting of the 9th Conference of
the Russian Communist Party on September 22, 1920, Lenin said:
confronted the question: whether to accept [Curzonís] offer, which gave us
convenient borders, and by so doing, assume a position, generally speaking,
which was defensive, or to take advantage of the enthusiasm in our army and
the advantage which we enjoyed to sovietize Poland. ..
...we arrived at the
conviction that the Ententeís military attack against us was over, that the
defensive war against imperialism was over, we won it... The assessment went
thus: the defensive war was over (Please record less: this is not for
...We faced a new task...We
could and should take advantage of the military situation to begin an offensive
war...This we formulated not in the official resolution recorded in the
protocols of the Central Committee...but among ourselves we said that we
should poke about with bayonets to see whether the socialist revolution of
the proletariat had not ripened in Poland...
[We learned] that somewhere
near Warsaw lies not [only] the center of the Polish bourgeois government and
the republic of capital, but the center of the whole contemporary system of
international imperialism, and that circumstances enabled us to shake that
system, and to conduct politics not in Poland but in Germany and England. In
this manner, in Germany
we created a completely new zone of proletarian revolution against global
. ..By destroying the Polish
army we are destroying the Versailles Treaty on which nowadays the entire
system of international relations is based.....Had Poland become
Soviet....the Versailles Treaty ...and with it the whole international system
arising from the victories over Germany, would have been destroyed. *
*[English translation quoted
from Richard Pipes, RUSSIA UNDER THE BOLSHEVIK REGIME, New York, 1993,
pp.181-182, with some stylistic modification in par 3, line 3, by
A.M.Cienciala. This document was first published in a Russian historical
periodical, Istoricheskii Arkhiv, vol. I, no. 1., Moscow,1992].
After Tukhachevskyís second and final defeat on
the Nemen river in September 1920, the Soviet government decided it needed
peace to stay in power. An armistice with Poland
was signed in Riga, Latvia, on October 12, 1920 and
peace negotiations began in that city.
The negotiations for a peace treaty dragged on
for months due to Soviet reluctance to sign. However, in Feb. 23- March
171921, the Soviet govt. faced a sailorsí revolt in Kronstadt which
was brutally crushed by troops led by Tukhachevsky. But peasants
were also rising up against Soviet authorities, who were confiscating all
their food to feed the Red Army and the workers in the cities. In view of
this situation, Lenin ordered the Soviet plenipotentiaries to secure a peace
treaty. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Riga on March 18, 1921. It established
the Polish-Soviet frontier until the Soviet attack on Poland in mid-September 1939. It
was a compromise peace for both sides, because Pilsudski gave up his
plans for a federation with Lithuania and Belorussia and alliance with an
independent Ukraine, while Lenin gave up his plans for exporting the
revolution West, at least for the time being The Soviet government never
accepted the new frontier and was determined to change it in its own favor as
soon as opportunity arose. * The Ukrainians blamed the Poles for giving up
the fight and thus the chance of Ukrainian statehood, but the Polish people
were exhausted and public opinion opposed the prolongation of the war.
Pilsudski apologized to the Ukrainian officers who had helped the Poles fight
the Red Army, but now lost their struggle for an independent Ukraine.
[For thePolish-Ukrainian war over East Galicia,
see B below].
[Brief Bibliography on the Polish-Soviet War
*[For the military side of the Polish-Soviet
War, see Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star. The Polish-Soviet War,
1919-1920, London, New York, 1972 and reprints. For the
accounts of the two commanders-in-chief, see Jozef Pilsudski, [THE] YEAR 1920
AND ITS CLIMAX, BATTLE OF WARSAW, London,
1972. It includes Tukhachevskyís account to which Pilsudski was replying. For
the diplomatic side, see Piotr S.Wandycz, Soviet-Polish Relations,
Mass., 1969. For these and
other sources see John A. Drobnicki, "The Russo-Polish War, 1919-1920: A
Bibliography of Works in English," The Polish Review, vol. XLII
, no. 1, New York,
1997, pp. 95-104.
For a western view sympathetic to Soviet
Russia, see Louis Fisher, THE SOVIETS IN WORLD AFFAIRS. A History of the
Relations between the Soviet Union and the Rest of the World, 1917-1929,
2d Printing, Princeton N.J.,
1951 vol. I., ch. VI. White Poland vs. Red Russia. The work first appeared in
1930. In the Introduction to the 2nd printing, Fisher thanked
Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Chicherin, for helping him with
the research, for reading the whole work and giving Fisher his comments.
Fisher also thanked Chicherinís assistant, then successor, Maxim M.
Litvinov (1876-1951) and other Soviet dignitaries. Therefore, Fisherís
work can be seen as reflecting the views of Soviet policy makers in the late
Significance of the Polish victory.
(i) It saved not only Poland but also the Baltic States and perhaps
the rest of Central Europe as well from
Soviet conquest, thus allowing the development of independent states in this
(ii) It forced the Soviet government to focus
on rebuilding the Russian economy, by introducing the "New Economic
Policy" (NEP), a mixture of socialism and capitalism (1921-28).
However, neither the factors leading to the
Polish-Soviet war, nor the significance of its outcome were understood by
most observers in the West. On the contrary, many people accused Poland
of having started an "imperialist war" against Soviet Russia and of
annexing "Russian" lands, though these were inhabited by
Belorussians and Ukrainians. At the time,these peoples were not strong enough
to become independent and as it turned out, they were to suffer much less
under Polish rule than their brothers in the USSR who came under the iron fist
of Joseph V. Stalin.
††††††††††† Originally published at http://raven.cc.ku.edu/~eceurope/hist557/lect11.htm
Anna M. Cienciala
Emerita / The University of Kansas
B.A. Liverpool, 1952, M.A. McGill, 1955;
Ph.D. Indiana, 1962
20th century Polish, European, Soviet,
and American diplomacy 1919-1945.
Born in the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk, in Poland after WWII); she attended middle
and high school in England; university studies in England, Canada, and U.S.
(B.A. Liverpool, 1952, M.A. McGill, 1955; Ph.D. Indiana, 1962). She taught
at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto before coming to
the University of Kansas in 1965. More info