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Russian POWs.

Some POWs.

Internment camp Tuchola.

Camps for Russian prisoners and internees in Poland that existed during 1919-1924 housed two main categories of detainees:

  • personnel of the Imperial Russian Army, and Russian civilians, captured by Germany during World War I and left on Polish territory after the end of the war; and
  • Soviet military personnel captured during the Polish-Soviet War, the vast majority of them captured as a result of the battles of 1920.

Due to epidemics raging at the time, made worse by the very bad sanitary conditions in which the prisoners were held, largely due to overcrowding, between 16,000 to 20,000 Soviet soldiers held in the Polish POW camps died, out of the total of 80,000 to 85,000 prisoners.[1]


During the Polish-Soviet War, between 80,000-85,000[2] Soviet soldiers became prisoners of war, and were held in Polish POW camps. The conditions in these camps were bad. Thus, the existing camps, many of which were adapted from World War I German and Russian facilities or constructed by the prisoners themselves, were not adequate for holding the large number of prisoners, who suffered from hunger, bad sanitation and inadequate hygiene. Between 16,000-17,000 (Polish figures)[2] and 18,000-20,000 (Russian figures)[2] died, mostly as a result of catastrophic conditions and epidemics which raged in the camps. Before publications of new findings in Russia in 2004, some Russian sources were known to give a much inflated numbers for prisoners and the death toll (up to 165,000 and 70,000), respectively. This matter caused much controversy between Poland and Russia.[1]

The camps

During a war between two countries experiencing great socioeconomic difficulties,[3] and often unable to provide adequately for their own populations, the treatment of prisoners of war was far from adequate.

The bad conditions in these camps were known to public opinion in Poland at the time, as a number of Polish newspapers openly wrote about them, criticizing the government for not correcting the situation.[2] In modern times the issue has been addressed in a number of scholarly publications.[4]

The controversy

Until the source documents were published in Moscow in 2004,[2] some Russian historians had estimated the number of prisoners and the death toll to be much higher, estimating that the death toll was between 40,000 to over 100,000.[1] For example, Irina Mikhutina in her 1995 publications estimated the number of prisoners to be 165,000 and the death toll to be 70,000.[5] In 1998 Russian popular press reported that Polish internment camp in Tuchola was particularly notorious for the large number of Soviet POW's deaths and was dubbed a "death camp" by the Russian Emigrant press from within Poland.[6] There have also been accusations from the Russian side that the death toll was influenced by the indifference of the camp authorities. F.e. «From the moment of opening an infirmary in February, 1921 till May 11, 1921 there was registered epidemic diseases 6491, not epidemic 12294, 2561 deaths.»[2] Western sources also claim that Russian historians used those numbers to justify the Katyn massacre.[1][7] Such usage is called Anti-Katyn in Poland.

The Russian historians arrived at this number by first estimating the number of POWs, then subtracting the number that has been repatriated to the Soviet Union after the hostilities ended, and then assuming that most of the remainder died in POW camps.[2] Polish historians always countered this by arguing that: (a) the number of POWs was very difficult to estimate accurately, due to the chaotic situation prevailing for most of the war, and (b) many Soviet POWs lost that status after they switched sides and entered units fighting alongside Polish forces against the Red Army, or were transferred to the Whites rather than the Bolsheviks.[2] There was also the problem that significant number of Russian POWs were left in the territory of Poland since World War I (about 3.9 million soldiers of the Russian Empire were taken captive by the Central Powers) and obviously when the Polish-Soviet conflict deteriorated, these POWs were not released to Russia.[2][4] The issue was finally settled in 2004, where a joint team of Polish and Russian historians (prof. Waldemar Rezmer and prof. Zbigniew Karpus from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and prof. Gennady Matveyev from Moscow State University), after reexamining documents from Polish and Russian archives published their results (printed in Russia by Federal Agency for Russian Archives). Their findings show that the number of Russian POWs can be estimated at between 80,000 and 85,000, and that the number of deaths in the camps can be estimated from 16,000 (Karpus, Rezmer) to 20,000 (Matveyev). Existing documents and proofs does not also confirm thesis made by many Russian historians that Russian POWs were specially exterminated in Polish camps because of their nationality, religion or other issues.[1][8] They also show that the main cause of death were various illnesses and epidemics (influenza, typhus, cholera and dysentery), noting that these diseases also took a heavy toll among fighting soldiers and the civilian population.[1] According to Polish historians Karpus and Alexandrowicz, similar number of Polish POWs - about 20,000 out of about 51,000 - died in Soviet and Lithuanian camps.[9]

After 1922 the Polish and Russian prisoners were also exchanged among two sides. Ekaterina Peshkova the chairwoman of organization Assistance to Political Prisoners (Pompolit, Помощь политическим заключенным, Помполит).[10] was awarded by an order of Polish Red Cross for her participation in the exchange of POWs after the Polish-Soviet War.[11][12]

During the memorial ceremony for the victims of the Katyn massacre on April 7, 2010, attended by the Russian and Polish Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk, Putin said that, in his private opinion, Stalin (whose refusal to obey orders from Kremlin resulted in the Russian defeat against Poland in 1920) felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions of Polish officers in Katyn in 1940 out of a sense of revenge" [13][14]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 POLISH-RUSSIAN FINDINGS ON THE SITUATION OF RED ARMY SOLDIERS IN POLISH CAPTIVITY (1919–1922). Official Polish government note about 2004 Rezmar, Karpus and Matvejev book. Last accessed on 26 May 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Waldemar Rezmer, Zbigniew Karpus, Gennadij Matvejev, "Krasnoarmieitsy v polskom plenu v 1919–1922 g. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov", Federal Agency for Russian Archives, Moscow 2004 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Moscow2004" defined multiple times with different content
  3. The conditions of life in Poland in the early post-World War I period, as described by the British Director of Relief: The country...had undergone four or five occupations by different armies, each of which had combed the land for supplies. Most of the villages had been burnt down by the Russians and their retreut (of 1915); land had been uncultivated for four years and had been cleared of cattle, grain, horses and agricultural machinery by both Germans and Bolsheviks. The population here was living upon roots, grass, acorns and heather. The only bread obtainable was composed of those ingredients, with perhaps about 5 per cent of rye flour. In: Derek Howard Aldcroft. Studies in the interwar European economy. Ashgate. 1997. p. 14.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Karpus, Zbigniew, Jeńcy i internowani rosyjscy i ukraińscy na terenie Polski w latach 1918-1924, Toruń 1997, ISBN 83-7174-020-4. Polish table of contents online. English translation: Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war and internees kept in Poland in 1918-1924, Wydawn. Adam Marszałek, 2001, ISBN 83-7174-956-2.
  5. Irina Mikhutina, How many Red Army soldiers died in Poland between 1919 and 1921?, New and Newest History. 1995; Nr. 3; S. 64-69. (Так сколько же военопленных погибло в польском плену, Новая и новейшая история), Так была ли ошибка, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 13.01.2001 [1]
  6. (Russian)Nezavisimaya Gazeta, "The tragedy of Polish captivity", July 16, 1998.
  7. George Sanford, Katyn And The Soviet Massacre Of 1940: Truth, Justice And Memory, Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0-415-33873-5, Google Print, p.8
  9. Karpus, Zbigniew, Alexandrowicz Stanisław, Zwycięzcy za drutami. Jeńcy polscy w niewoli (1919-1922). Dokumenty i materiały (Victors behind the fences. Polish POWs (1919-1922). Documents and materials). Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika w Toruniu, Toruń, 1995, ISBN 83-231-0627-4
  11. (Russian) Yaroslav Leontiev Dear Ekaterina Pavlovna, Russian Germany, N24 -2005
  12. (Russian) Fighters for the Human Rights, Novaya Gazeta, N81, 2002
  13. Associated Press, April 7, 2010, Putin says Stalin massacred Poles out of revenge [2][dead link]
  14. Associated Press, April 7, 2010, Putin says Stalin massacred Poles out of revenge [3]

Further reading

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