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The history Putin doesn’t want you to hear The 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland is still a touchstone issue – as the case of a Russian blogger found guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism” shows.

German and Soviet troops salute each other at Brest-Litovsk in September 1939. The two countries worked together to dismember Poland (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

German and Soviet troops salute each other at Brest-Litovsk in September 1939. The two countries worked together to dismember Poland (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

September 17, 2019   5 mins

In June 2016, a 37-year old Russian blogger named Vladimir Luzgin was prosecuted by a court in Moscow. Found guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism”, he was fined 200,000 roubles (about £2,500) under a law passed by the Russian Parliament in 2014 criminalising anything that “desecrates symbols of Russia’s military glory”. His crime was to share an article on social media – an article correctly pointing out that the Soviet Union had invaded Poland in collaboration with Nazi Germany in 1939. The court, however, decreed that Luzgin had “knowingly shared false information”, a decision which was later upheld by Russia’s Supreme Court.

Luzgin’s case tells us all we need to know about Russia under Vladimir Putin. The odious communist ideology may be gone, but the aggressive mendacity of the Kremlin continues. Those who once accused the outside world of “falsifying history” over the existence of the Secret Protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Pact are falsifying history still.

To those in the West’s comfortable “permanent present”, such arguments might seem impossibly arcane, but the Luzgin case is far from trivial. Indeed, it strikes at the very heart of the Soviet – and now Russian – narrative of the Second World War; the idea that the Soviet Union’s war only began in 1941, with the German invasion, and that – consequently – the Soviet contribution to that war was only ever that of victim and liberator.

The truth – verboten in Putin’s Russia – is much more complex: for the 22 months before June 1941, Stalin’s Soviet Union was Hitler’s accomplice, invading Poland and Finland, and occupying the Baltic States and Bessarabia (modern-day Moldova). The USSR entered World War Two in 1939 very much as an aggressor.

Understandably, then, the Soviet invasion of Poland – which opened at dawn on 17 September 1939 – is still a touchstone issue for modern Russia, not least as it began the USSR’s involvement in the war, and marked the first concrete manifestation of that collaboration with Hitler’s Germany.

It all began somewhat haltingly. In the weeks before the invasion, Hitler’s diplomats had pressed Stalin for a date when the Red Army would advance to claim the territories earmarked for Moscow in the Nazi-Soviet Pact’s Secret Protocol. But Stalin had hesitated, watching for Western reactions and wary of jeopardising his professed “neutrality” by appearing too closely aligned to Hitler.

When Stalin finally acted, a propaganda narrative was devised to dress up his invasion as a humanitarian intervention. It was trailed in a Pravda article by his propaganda chief Andrei Zhdanov, on 14 September, as an attempt to secure order following the supposed collapse of the Polish state, an effort to bring succour to the region’s beleaguered Byelorussian and Ukrainian populations. The word invasion, of course, was never mentioned. But an invasion it most certainly was.

The Red Army, which had been conducting large-scale exercises on the Polish frontier for days, had amassed some 500,000 troops for the operation, alongside 5,000 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft. The instruction issued by Boris Shaposhnikov, the Chief of the General Staff, to his commanders said nothing about humanitarian intervention. Instead, it spoke – without irony – of a “lightning strike” to destroy Polish forces.

Shaposhnikov got his wish. The Red Army – despite its own lack of preparedness and equipment – advanced swiftly against the lightly armed troops of the Polish “KOP” border defence corps, which lacked aircraft, armour and artillery. The resulting chaos among the defenders was exemplified by the report of the KOP commander of the city of Czortków, who was asked by his superiors in Warsaw: “Is it German or Soviet planes that are attacking?” It was a question that neatly summed up Poland’s predicament.

The Soviet advance into Poland was also aided by some more modish tactics: the deployment of agents provocateurs, deception – and most notably the use of disinformation. The Red Army invasion was accompanied by a host of – often conflicting – propaganda messages to confuse the defenders; announcing, for instance, that Soviet forces were coming to liberate the working class, or that they were coming to Poland’s aid against the Germans. In one instance, the invaders were played into town by a Red Army band playing the Polish military hymn “We are the First Brigade”. Such ruses succeeded. It was not unusual for Polish garrisons to welcome Soviet forces before realising their mistake.

Others were not so accommodating. Bitter pitched battles were fought at Husiatyn, Dzisna and around the static defences and bunkers at Sarny; while sieges ensued before the cities of Grodno and Wilno fell to Red Army forces. Later in the campaign, Polish resistance would bloody Red Army noses at Szack, Husynne and Wytyczno.

In a few instances, German and Soviet forces even collaborated, despite the official order that they were to maintain a 25-km distance from one another. The best example of this collusion was at Brześć (the former Brest-Litovsk), where a joint parade of Wehrmacht and Red Army troops was held to mark the German handover of the city to Soviet control. General Heinz Guderian and his Soviet counterpart Semyon Krivoshein smiled amicably for the newsreel cameras, as a swastika fluttered behind them.

Like its German equivalent, the Soviet invasion of Poland was studded with atrocities. The Red Army, carrying world revolution in its knapsack, eagerly targeted Polish officers, aristocrats and local dignitaries, many of whom would meet their fate the following year in the death pits of the Katyń massacres. For others, Soviet “class justice” was more immediate. A local official at Pińsk was tied to a wagon by his feet and driven around the cobbled streets until he breathed his last. At Mokrany, captured Polish officers were summarily executed by firing squad. As they were led away, their men were told: “Those are your masters, shot dead in Mokrany forest.” Just as the Germans had imported race war to western Poland, so the Red Army brought class war to the east.

That brutal campaign would be the prelude to a brutal occupation. Within months, Polish society in the Soviet zone of occupation would be communised, with those deemed socially or politically undesirable deported to an unknown fate in Siberia, Kazakhstan and the other less hospitable parts of the USSR. After sham elections, the region was then annexed to the Soviet Union. By that time, Poland had already been wiped from the map by Hitler and Stalin’s collusion.

The Soviet Union entered the Second World War on 17 September 1939, when it invaded Poland as an aggressor and as Hitler’s confederate. This, obviously, is profoundly – and embarrassingly – at odds with the old Soviet narrative of the war, and now with the narrative propounded by Putin’s Russia, which is one reason why the latter has been so vehement in its denials and its efforts to smear Poland.

But, however much it might be denied, the truth is clear; Vladimir Luzgin was right. The Soviet Union invaded Poland in collusion with Nazi Germany, and until modern Russia can acknowledge that fact, and look its dark Soviet history squarely in the eye, its narrative of the Second World War will be based upon a lie.

Roger Moorhouse’s First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 is published by Bodley Head

Roger Moorhouse is historian of the Second World War. His latest book, First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 is published by Bodley Head.


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4 years ago

I can only confirm the correctness of the story. I lived in Denmark and we were first occupied in Spring 1940 and did have a free press before that. From my point of view so many years later, my comment would be: Germany was prepared for fighting Russia, and Russia did not know that, so German progress was easy and swift. The winter 1941-42 however there was a “climate change”, that put a stop to that at Stalingrad, because the German forces did not have winter uniforms, nor oil to keep the motors going at -50C, where I lived one could walk to Sweden across the Baltic sea. Similar things has happened before during a “climate change” in 1812 when Napoleon went towards Moscow. If you have any plans for the 2030ties there will be an other “climate change” where the temperature will go down