Published: March 11, 2015
Sometimes I have the feeling that the Russians are already carrying out World War III. We should treat this question seriously, because, of course, none of us wants to bear witness to the self-destruction of humanity—says Professor Ivanov in an interview with Wirtualna Polska. Prof. Ivanov is an esteemed historian himself carrying a Russian passport, an authority on the fate of Polish minorities in the Soviet Union, and the author of the book Forgotten Genocide (Zapomniane Ludobójstwo). Prof. Ivanov was the first scholar to seriously examine the events of the “Operation Polska” [eng. “Operation Poland”], as a result of which the Soviet Union murdered about 200,000 Poles in 1937-1938.
Ewa Koszowska, Wirtualna Polska (WP): Your newest book is dedicated to one of the most horrific massacres carried out by the Soviet Union against the Polish nation. You have called these massacres a “forgotten genocide.” Who is it that wants to forget about these events, and why?
Prof. Nikolai Ivanov: I first came to Poland 40 year ago. One of the historians present at a meeting asked me what the fate of Poles living in the Soviet Union was. Everyone knew about the Jewish minority, and the German minority, about which books were written, but next to nothing was known about the fate of Soviet Poles. For the Polish People’s Republic these people quite simply did not exist: they were a little ashamed as a result of this. When I returned to the USSR I found myself in a library and experienced a revelation. Dozens of books, piles of documents, all of them rotting, decaying. It was then that I understood that over a million Poles lived in this country; they had their faith, Catholicism, their literature, their schools, their cultural life, and through these things they cared for their tradition. What’s more, there were very few communists among them. Out of all the nations of the Soviet Union this was most likely the most anti-Soviet national group of all, despite the fact that Poles—with [Felix] Dzerzhinsky at their head—played a significant role in the communist party. When I began to investigate more deeply, I found that this nation was punished during the Stalinist era more so than any other nation. I titled my first book published more than 20 years ago The First Punished Nation. If, out of 1.2 million people, almost 200,000 individuals died, then that means that almost every other working-age man found himself at the executioner’s block. There is no other word for this besides genocide.
A few years ago, in the senate of the Republic of Poland, there was a conference on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the deportation of Poles from Ukraine. The senators experienced something of a revelation at hearing the truth about this genocide. “This is a scandal!” they cried, “Everyone must find out about this. We need to include this tragic history in every schoolbook.” It has been over 20 years since the appearance of my first book, and now I’m publishing another book that deals with this forgotten genocide. Will I live to see a time when there will be books that simply talk about the genocide, without the “forgotten” qualifier? When will this crucial part of Polish history take its rightful place in the collective memory of Poles? My life as a historian dealing with this topic would be fulfilled, if this genocide were to be acknowledged and recognized as such. If there would be a memorial for all the murdered persons on one of the squares in Warsaw, or if the Institute for National Remembrance would get around to gathering the names of everyone murdered by Stalin, or if this genocide would be talked about in school curricula, then my work would truly reach fruition. The younger generation would be aware of what had happened to their countrymen in the so-called “Outer Kresy”.
WP: Your book opens with a very striking comparison, that being a Pole in the Soviet Union in 1938 was akin to being a Jew in the Third Reich.
Prof. Ivanov: Quite often I encounter an opinion in Poland that goes something like this: Maybe this Russian is exaggerating a little, and why is he trying to worsen Polish-Russian relations, which are already quite bad?” But I don’t think that we can’t build mutually beneficial international relations on a foundation of lies—we can’t build an atmosphere of mutual respect without acknowledging this tragedy. It’s also a matter of remembering and honoring those who survived. When I go to Dołbysz—the Polish Soviet capital (Ukrainian: Dovbysh, formerly Marchlewsk—the capital of the Polish Autonomous Raion—editor’s note) and I meet with these people, the survivors, my heart simply cries. They ask, “When will Poland finally recognize what happened to us? When will we see a memorial in Warsaw?” The only memorial currently dedicated to these victims is a birch cross with the following inscription: “To all the Poles, who never had a place for their own grave in the enormous Soviet Union.” These are their fathers, their grandfathers, mothers, brothers. Let’s remember that within the borders of this recently collapsed state there are still over a million of your countrymen.
WP: Does everyone agree with your view, that this was a genocide?
Prof. Ivanov: No, especially past the Bug River, where people often say, “What’s 200 thousand? During the Stalinist Purges over a million citizens of other countries perished, and our share is just a drop in the bucket. It’s not even worth paying attention to. And what’s more, Poles don’t have the privilege to say that repression against Poles were any more harsh than repression against other national groups. Germans were also persecuted in Russa. The historical truth, however, is that at the time when Anna German’s father was executed, Poles were persecuted ten times more harshly than German’s were. Let us remember that, among Poles, every other working age man died. Surviving the purges was almost impossible. I saw some Poles who did make it through, but they were all persons occupying high governmental positions in Moscow. For instance Andrey Vyshinsky, the prosecutor general of the Soviet Union survived, but then again he also appeared as the accuser at the trials of other victims. He only survived because he was already a fallen man. To fall lower than he did would be simply impossible.
Felix Dzerzhinsky’s widow, Zofia Dzershinska, also survived. She was perhaps the only one writing to Stalin that the Polish nation simply isn’t suited for communism…and that the only way to communize Poland would be to turn it into the seventeenth republic of the USSR.
WP: How did you come to concern yourself with the dark underbelly of Russia? You are, after all, of Russian heritage.
Prof. Ivanov: At the start of my career I didn’t have any such intentions. I wanted to write the history of Poles in the USSR. When I began my research I found many positive attributes: Polish culture, education, etc. I nevertheless began to wonder what had happened to all these people. The truth I discovered was shocking, and deeply upsetting.
WP: When and where were Poles murdered?
Prof. Ivanov: Throughout the entire Soviet Union, from Brest to Vladivostok, is one gigantic Polish cemetery. It’s very likely that there isn’t a single town where you wouldn’t find Polish bones. In Stalin’s country every Pole was suspected of espionage.
WP: Stalin hated Poles?
Prof. Ivanov: I’m asked this question very often. Everyone expects that I’ll say yes, Stalin had a phobia, and he hated Poles. Such people are always disappointed. In the Soviet Union there was a book about the fact that Stalin was the illegitimate son of the Polish general Nikolay Przhevalsky. One day, a colleague even brought me a portrait of Przhvalsky and asked me, “look at this, who is this?” “Stalin,” I replied. My colleague turned the portrait over, and there I saw Przhevalsky’s signature. They indeed looked very similar. But this is only an urban legend; there is no proof.
According to me, Stalin persecuted and destroyed Poles exclusively due to substantive reasons, because he saw this as necessary according to the prevailing Bolshevik ideology. Purging the Soviet Union of Poles was a means of preparing the country for the Second World War, which would necessarily be a violent encounter with the capitalist world. Stalin consciously sowed hate against Poles, but this hate had existed even during the times of the Russian Empire. He needed a bugbear with which to blackmail the entirety of Soviet society. He needed an interior enemy, and Poles happened to fit into this role perfectly.
WP: What was the scale of his crimes?
Prof. Ivanov: In 2009, the Institute for National Remembrance calculated the number of Polish casualties during the Second World War. They included the victims of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Starobielsk, deportations to Siberia, forced displacements, the casualties in Anders’ Army, the war against the Polish Home Army, and the executions of supporters of the Second Polish Republic in the Outer Kresy, among others. All of these losses oscillate around the number 70,000. In the years 1937 and 1938, as a result of the so-called Operation Poland, the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) murdered around 200,000 Poles—citizens of the Soviet Union—as a result of orders given by the People’s Commissioner of Internal Affairs Nikolai Yezhov. I 1937-1938 ten times more Poles perished than those murdered in the Katyń Forest. Almost every child in Poland knows about Katyń, but about the crimes of the Stalinist Purges, nearly nobody.
WP: Why, then, is it that we talk about Katyń, but not about the “Great Terror?”
Prof. Ivanov: First of all, and most importantly of all, the people who died in Katyń were the intellectual elite, officers, and generals. We then experienced a period of mass emigration, and the diaspora community, in turn, put up memorials to these victims. The United Nations and the United States of America spoke openly about this crime, and the entire world recognized it as having happened. But who was to remind the world about all those who died in 1939? In the Polish People’s Republic discussing this was a taboo. It was only after the fall of communism that we began to speak openly about this. Even today, it’s very difficult to draw people’s attention to it.
The blood of a Polish peasant from Żytomierz, shot as a Polish spy in 1939, has the same value as the blood of a Polish general executed in 1940. People in Poland should understand this. It’s a scandal that the statistics of the victims of Stalin’s purges are not being compiled by the Institute for National Remembrance, but by the Russian collective Memorial, in the Polish commission of which, if I’m not mistaken, there are only seven persons. These people, true crusaders about the question of remembering the victims of Stalinism—some of Polish heritage, others not— have already compiled 20,000 names of the victims of Stalinism. We (meaning, “We, Poles,” —Editor’s Note) lack both the financial means and the ardent desire to contribute.
WP: Who were these victims?
Prof. Ivanov: Sometimes entire families were executed by firing squad. Children were sent to camps or to orphanages, and there they were brought up according to communist ideology in order to become servants of the Soviet Union.
WP: What is the Polish government doing in order to bring the details of these crimes to light?
Prof. Ivanov: Nothing. It would be enough to earmark some funds for people, who could work to document these atrocious events and to write books about them. Or to give funding to some organization, which would put up memorials. The Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom should put up crosses in cemeteries. Poles who lost family members ought to have a simplified process of acquiring the Pole’s Card (the first step towards repatriation, —Translator’s Note). What’s most important is that every young Pole studying in school should know that the crimes committed against the Polish nation include the Warsaw Uprising, Katyń, Starobielsk, as well as the Stalinist Purges. In the Great Terror as many Poles died as during the Warsaw Uprising. The two are nearly identical crimes in terms of scale.
WP: What else could be hidden in Russian archives?
Prof. Ivanov: Apparently, many documents have already been removed. We have a general picture of the genocide, but we lack specific details.
WP: What is the opinion of Poles among today’s Russians?
Prof. Ivanov: In Russia Poles are historically disliked in a manner similar to the way in which Jews are historically disliked in Poland. But if a Jew lives on the same street as a Pole, then they are already friends. In Russia there exists a similar phenomenon: there are “our Poles” and “your Poles.” Currently, Poles are not really liked there because Poland is supporting Ukraine. This inclination towards dislike has grown significantly in recent times. The line between “ours” and “yours” has already been drawn a long time ago. Then again, what’s there to hide? Portraits of Felix Dzerzhinsky can be found on the walls of many KGB officers. He is, moreover, seen as the “father” of this system. Many Poles in Russia occupy high positions in government. One man who is a firebrand of anti-Ukrainian Propaganda, a specialist of West-bashing and Poland -bashing, is himself a Pole. His name is Franciszek Klincewicz, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and current head of an organization for veterans of this war. In the Russian State Duma he is the vice-commissioner of the commission for matters of defense. He plays an exceptionally active role in the current propaganda war Russia is engaged in with the West. He appears in Russian television almost daily. Putin’s right hand man in terms of propaganda also has Polish roots; his name is Sergey Yastrzhembsky. Russians even struggle to pronounce his last name.
WP: What do Russian’s think about today’s conflict?
Prof. Ivanov: A few days ago I spoke with some close friends, 70 year old Russians, quite wealthy, who live in Moscow. One of them began to complain about Putin. Another friend exclaimed, “Putin is doing well. Finally we’ve gotten off of our knees.” Putin is a criminal—responds the third gentleman. Unfortunately, this is how the intellectual elite think. It’s sharply divided. The people, on the other hand, for the most part support Putin’s politics. The economic sanctions of the European Union against Russia have led not to the isolation of Putin in Russian society, but to the integration of Russian society. For the most part, Russians have for the most part unified under Putin’s banner. But these are no longer communist times, and as a result there is no lack of critics of the Kremlin’s policies.
WP: From whence such support? Is the propaganda working?
Prof. Ivanov: This is something of a Russian tradition. Russians remember the times of the Soviet Union and, for many of them, a period in history when their country seemed to rule the world was the best that they had. They remember how they rode into Czechoslovakia in tanks, over Poland, over Germany…this was their youth. And now in order to go to Germany they need to wait in line at the German Embassy to get a visa. The same goes for Poland. It’s difficult for them to stomach the fact that today they need to speak as equals to people and nations that were once their subjects.
WP: For now Putin seems to be succeeding at keeping his countrymen in check.
Prof. Ivanov: Putin, instead of explaining to his countrymen what is the stake in the conflict, has lowered the price of vodka. In Russia half of the population watches television after two strong drinks. Vodka, for the Russian Tsars, was a means of ruling. During the Second World War no Russian soldier went into battle without having drunk at least 200 grams of vodka. This is a drinking country, and a state from which one has to expect anything. Especially given the fact that they had never lived very well. Only for the past couple of years has the living situation been looking up.
WP: How then to act with regards to Putin?
Prof. Ivanov: Dialogue, dialogue, and more dialogue. I am absolutely convinced that Putin is now in a trap and that he has no idea how to get out of it. He simply lacks the resources to carry out this war on a wide scale, and he lacks the financial means to restore Donbas. He is feverishly looking for a way out of this blind alley. This could very well be the final nail in the coffin for the Russian economy.
Putin ended the war in Chechnya in an unbelievable way. Making use of the high price of oil at the time, he simply purchased Chechnya. Putin diverted an incredible amount of money to Grozny and, according to experts, every Chechen received between 20,000 and 30,000 US dollars in order to continue being a part of the Russian Federation. A peace deal was reached, and that’s how he ended the war. Chechnya now looks like a golden cage, one giant park. They even named the main street after Putin. Something like this simply isn’t possible in the case of Ukraine. It’s too big, too poor, and oil is too cheap now.
WP: Should Ukraine give Donbas to Putin?
Prof. Ivanov: Donbas isn’t Ukraine; it’s a region with a completely different mentality. It has always been pro-Russian. It’s impossible to create the same sort of Ukraine there that has been created in Kiev, and even more so in Lvov. A compromise must be reached. They need to receive some degree of autonomy, but should nevertheless remain a part of Ukraine. According to me, that would be the best solution.
WP: Only that for Kiev, this simply isn’t acceptable
Prof. Ivanov: Kiev may not agree with this, but we—the West—are in a position where we can force the arm of the Ukrainian nationalists and reach some sort of consensus about this question. There is no other option. We can’t allow for this to escalate into a Third World War. In Kiev there are also reasonable people, but they can’t be allowed to become handmaidens of the nationalists.
WP: Is a Third World War really possible?
Prof. Ivanov: Of course it’s possible. Putin has a lot less to lose than the West does. Sometimes I have the feeling that the Russians are already carrying out the Third World War. I turn on a Russian television channel and I see Franciszek Klincewicz, who’s saying that “a single submarine would be enough to turn the U.S. into a nuclear desert, and in the case of an attack on Russia we’ll simply detonate our entire nuclear arsenal, and this will be not only suicide for Russia, but suicide for the entire earth,” for all of human civilization. This isn’t something you normally say. For such people, Russia can’t lose this war; it needs to come out of it without losing face. This is why we need to approach these questions seriously, because none of us wants to bring about the self-destruction of the human race.
WP: There are still sanctions. Is it possible to calm down Putin’s regime with them?
Prof. Ivanov: The sanctions are absolutely ineffective. The black list of Russians who we have barred from entering the EU or the US keeps growing, and so what? Does Aleksandr Zakharchenko (the leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic) have a bank account in the EU? Does he even have any desire to travel to the West? He mocks the Western sanctions. On the other hand economic sanctions could bring about the ruin of the Russian economy. If similar sanctions ruin Russia, then a desperate nation will want to get rid of their president. Then Putin will have no other option and could declare war. A nuclear war is an unspeakably terrible thing. Is NATO prepared to take on such a responsibility?
Interviewed by Ewa Koszowska, Wirtualna Polska
Translated by Laszlo Hoffman
Prof. Nikolai Ivanov is a Russian, esteemed historian, expert on the history of the Polish minority in the Soviet Union. He took part in a group of young Russian socialists, who, on his initiative, took part in the first Solidarność Convention in 1980. He was interrogated multiple times for his activities in this group. He worked with Solidarność Struggling Against Kornel Morawiecki. He was the editor of the Lower-Silesian Bulletin. In 1989 he began working with Radio Free Europe—for fifteen years he worked in their Byelorussian and Caucasian sectors.
His newest book, The Forgotten Genocide [Zapomniane Ludobójstwo], describes Operation Poland, in which ten times as many people perished as did in the Katyń Forest Massacre. His book was published by Znak Horyzont. It has yet to be translated into English.