Deporting Russia’s Past: The Anti-Polish Operation of the NKVD

Under a pretext of destroying a non-existent Polish spy organization, the “nationalities” extermination action of the NKVD, which took place USSR-wide and not just in selected localities, was launched by Stalin and his henchmen as part of the Great Terror and was proportionally the greatest peace time genocide of an ethnic minority in the Soviet Union in the interwar period. Vladimir Putin and his goons can try to bury the truth, but the truth will always come out, even if it gets deported from Russia.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l December 5, 2017

On Friday, November 24, 2017, KGB successor, the FSB, snatched and deported Polish historian Henryk Głębocki (pronounced Glembotski). Retroactively, Moscow has claimed that this was allegedly a tit-for-tat operation: a retaliation for Warsaw’s expulsion of a Russian scholar. In fact, this was a proactive, and not a reactive, blow to keep Russia’s past buried. The operation itself had tell-tell marks of active measures (aktivnye meropriatya), post-Soviet secret police monkey business short of violence, a provocation (provokatsya).

A Jagiellonian University at Cracow scholar, Professor Głębocki devoted 23 years to research continuously in the Russian archives. His special field of interest is the 19th century, but he also is an expert on the Communist secret police. This year alone he traveled three times to the Russian Federation, and not only to large cities but also the countryside, including Siberia. We should know. We have been working on projects in the post-Soviet zone, including Russia, since 1991. Głębocki has been a long-time friend (we both were involved with the anti-Communist underground Independent Students Union (NZS) during martial law in Poland in the 1980s) and a co-operator of the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies and the Center for Intermarium Studies at the Institute of World Politics (IWP): A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington. We hosted him in the U.S., and he reciprocated in Poland.

“Shoot the Poles!”

In particular, Professor Głębocki has worked closely with us on the history of the Anti-Polish Operation of the NKVD (1937-1938). This bloody undertaking resulted in about 200,000 people killed (out of approximately one million persons of Polish origin in the USSR) under a pretext of destroying a non-existent Polish spy organization. Launched by Stalin and his henchmen as a part of the Great Terror, this was proportionally the greatest peace time genocide of an ethnic minority in the Soviet Union in the interwar period. It was also the only so-called “nationalities” extermination action of the NKVD which took place USSR-wide and not just in selected localities.

In other words, the Poles were hunted down from Kyiv to Vladivostok.

The victims were explicitly identified as Polish, but anyone connected to anything Polish was targeted as well, for example, a number of Jews. Those shot on the spot were overwhelmingly male between 16 and 65. Women were usually deported to the Gulag; children were put in orphanages. Death rates among them were substantial. All property of the victims was confiscated. When the NKVD (Peoples’ Commissariat for Internal Affairs, consisting of Secret Service, police, law enforcement, and judiciary) failed to meet the execution quota, it turned to scanning phone books for Polish sounding names, for instance in Moscow.

For years the truth of the Anti-Polish Operation was buried in the inaccessible Soviet archives. A few details trickled out in 1956, but they were limited to the slaughter of Poland’s Communists by Stalin. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Then, in 1992 a formidable Russian scholar and human rights activist, Nikita Petrov of the Moscow Memorial, brought a few documents of the mass murder to Warsaw. They largely failed to elicit interest among the post-Communist professoriate, but a former Communist-turned-dissident scholar did include a rather perfunctory mention of the massacre of Soviet Poles in The Black Book of Communism.

Afterwards, virtual silence descended again on the issue, except for a few scattered efforts to commemorate the victims, including our own. Systematic research commenced only in the 21st century, when the Institute of World Politics picked it up. In fact, our professors, most notably the late great Herbert Romerstein, had penetrated the post-Soviet archives already in the 1990s, including during trips to Moscow. Now, we have focused, to a large extent, on the Anti-Polish Operation.

IWP non-resident Research Fellow, Dr. Tomasz Sommer, spearheads the research project. We have reconnected with Nikita Petrov and found similar friends all over the post-Soviet zone, including in Ukraine and Georgia, to help us with our research. So far, our effort has resulted in a monograph, two documentary collections, and a documentary film on the Anti-Polish Operation of the NKVD, starring, inter alia, Henryk Głębocki. He also facilitated the cooperation of IWP with Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Scholarly conferences, publications, and other activities ensued, in particular after Dr. Sommer generously shared his documentary treasures with the IPN. The history of this particular mass murder was not a secret anymore. It became widely disseminated among the public at large. Finally, the Polish Parliament voted officially to commemorate the massacre as genocide. Moscow was livid.

Operation “Głębocki”

In November, Professor Głębocki went to Russia, yet, again.

Aside from researching in the Russian capital, he was invited to give a talk on the Anti-Polish Operation for Memorial and the Polish Institute in Saint Petersburg. On Friday, November 24, he returned to Moscow by train, arriving shortly before midnight. On the train station platform, Głębocki was stopped by two uniformed railway policemen. They asked him to come with them, so they could confirm his identity.

After a short walk, the uniformed cops ushered the historian into a secret room with black walls and full of black clad men in sweat suits and balaclavas. Their two leaders revealed their faces and identified themselves as the FSB. However, they refused to show any badges or IDs. Instead, they served the Polish scholar a deportation order dated November 21. And they told him to sign it.

Henryk Głębocki refused to sign. He told his captors that when he had been arrested by the Polish Communist secret police, the rule was never to sign anything. Also, he refused to answer any questions and demanded that a Polish consular officer be present. The men in black sneered. Henryk failed to budge. After a bone chilling staring contest, the two FSB supervisors signed the order themselves, then, bizarrely, they tore off the portion with their signatures, and handed the rest of the document to their captive. It bore the official printed crest of the FSB but not the official stamps. In other words, it was a bogus, torn document. Except it was not. The secret policemen told the scholar that if he did not leave Russia in 24 hours he would be arrested, processed, and deported. He was then released.

Active Measures

There were several levels of insidiousness to Głębocki’s predicament.

Most significantly, Henryk had really no proof, except for a torn document, that he had been snatched and ordered to leave Russia. There were no signatures, no names, no badge numbers, and no witnesses. The FSB seal on the document was generic; anyone could have lifted one off the internet, including himself. The scholar suspected that the Russian secret police were going to deny that anything had transpired. He would be accused of a “symptomless paranoia,” that ubiquitous pseudo-affliction impacting anyone who challenges the Kremlin. Initially, he could not believe he was being deported. He suspected the FSB simply wanted to compromise him and to use his case in an active measures operation against Poland.

It seemed that the secret policemen were setting up a narrative of a crazy anti-Communist and “Russophobic” Polish scholar who wanted to create a diplomatic ruckus by leveling false allegations against the security apparatus of Russia. Who knows? Given his past record and present affiliation, perhaps Professor Głębocki was employed by the CIA. All this was a giant anti-Russian plot then.

This scenario was quite feasible and, immediately after his release, the historian pondered his options. Ultimately, however, he realized that this was more about him than Poland. The FSB wanted to teach him a lesson.

– First, the order to deport him was backdated to Tuesday, November 21, before his lecture trip to Saint Petersburg. That was a clear sign of displeasure at the topic of the Cracow professor’s talk.
– Second, had he been served the order on the day of its issue, the scholar could have still gone to Saint Petersburg, as by law one is allowed 5 days for self-deportation. Afterwards, one is arrested, imprisoned, processed by a magistrate, and only then deported. The ordeal can last as long as it pleases the FSB: swift, protracted, or anything in between. Russian jails are no fun: violence, rape, and disease are commonplace. It seems that the Russian secret police would not have minded such an outcome.
– Third, backdating the order and serving it on Friday night meant that the victim had only 24 hours to leave Russia.
– Fourth, the Polish historian was seized shortly before midnight on Friday night. This ensured that he would not be able to contact anyone. The Polish Embassy was closed for the weekend. There was no consular help available.
– Fifth, a Friday night surprise in Moscow also meant that the historian was far away from Russia’s borders. It would have been fairly easy to leave Russia from Saint Petersburg: either on a train or ferry to Finland or Sweden.
– Sixth, snatching Professor Głębocki in Moscow meant that his travel options were mostly limited to air. Trying to rebook the plane tickets (reserved for December 10th departure) on a weekend in Moscow proved extremely challenging, to say the least. It appeared like he was stuck in the Russian capital and his arrest was imminent. Then there came a break. Fortunately, Henryk was able to contact his wife Irena, who pulled a miracle of miracles finding him a flight back to Poland on a Saturday.

Now, Henryk is barred from Russia for life.

However, he is ready to return anytime he is permitted to. “Tell America that what happened to me is not a big deal. The real heroes are the anonymous Russians and others who have been helping us in the countryside. It is the local amateur historians who have revealed the most of Communist crimes, including on the Internet. And they suffer the most for it at the hands of Putin’s secret police. The Memorial folks in Moscow are relatively safe. Provincial activists and researchers face threats, intimidation, law suits, jail, torture, and even death. The local FSB officers in the countryside are positively ruthless. Western media should start covering such cases. What you know about the suppression of freedom and violence against the critics of the Kremlin at the central level is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Vladimir Putin and his goons can try to bury the truth, but the truth will always come out, even if it gets deported from Russia.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies and directs the Center for Intermarium Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.