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«Protecting the oppressed Ukrainians» — how the Soviet press justified the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939

On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland. The Red Army invaded the country's eastern territories, fulfilling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact under which Nazi Germany and the USSR had shared spheres of influence. The Polish ambassador to the USSR, Waclaw Grzybowski, was handed a note stating that the Polish Republic no longer existed. The Soviet press first wrote about the failure of the Polish government, and later about the need for the Red Army to march on Poland to liberate the Russian-speaking population oppressed by the Poles.

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In Russia, they've never seemed to learn to talk about bringing troops into Poland in 1939. To the majority of people, the War (with a capital letter) began on June 22, 1941 - so everyone was taught since childhood; what happened before that, nobody knows for certain. For a scholarly minority, World War II began on September 1, 1939 with the attack on Poland by Hitler's troops, and any Soviet or post-Soviet intellectual will remember that the German tanks were thrown against the Polish cavalry. A characteristic example is Iosif Brodsky's poem, which is called «September 1, 1939»:

The day was called September the First.

The kids were off to school now it was autumn.

The Germans raised the red-and-white striped

barrier of the Poles, and the droning tanks,

like fingernails on silver-foil for chocolate,

flattened the cavalry.

But the narrative of the discussion of the Soviet invasion of Poland, which was launched 83 years ago on September 17, 1939, never took shape. There is a number of reasons for this: in Soviet times this topic was meticulously silenced, and in the 1990s it was not properly reflected upon - whether intentionally or not is hard to say.

Only an absolute minority of people in Russia and in the Russian-speaking world in general have discussed the war, which is referred to in encyclopedias as the «Polish campaign of the Red Army». Any attempt to reflect critically on what happened then is almost inevitably perceived as something hostile, «Russophobic» or «renegade». This is the force of the inertia of the Soviet discourse on the war, which, let me remind you, cannot be questioned in today's Russia for fear of criminal prosecution.

Only an absolute minority of people in Russia discuss the «Polish campaign of the Red Army»

At some point, now or later, when an opportunity arises, we will have to discuss those events one way or another. But as it often happens, before we can construct a new narrative, we must first deconstruct the old narratives. The easiest place to find them is in the world press dating back to September 1939.

Interestingly, unlike the German and Anglo-Saxon press, the Soviet media reported virtually nothing on the invasion of Poland in real time. For example, the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, the mouthpiece of the Defense Commissariat of the USSR, on the day of the invasion limited itself to rousing reports about the success of the conscription campaign throughout the country.

The newspaper «Red Star» of 17.09.1939
The newspaper «Red Star» of 17.09.1939

This was not a coincidental detail. In Soviet Russia, it was not up to the newspaper editors to decide what and when to report. It was up to the supreme party leadership to decide. The silence was a reminder of the powerlessness of the «little man» in the USSR (note that many architectural critics say that the broad Stalinist avenues and high-rise buildings also conveyed this idea).

The first reports about the invasion of Poland began to appear in the Soviet press only the next day, on September 18, and the narrative began to be constructed along with them. Initially, as in the German press during the same days, the emphasis was on the fact that the Polish state had «failed» and had effectively ceased to function, so the troops were entering as if not for war but for security.

Troops entered as if not for war but for security

In general, it is typical that the articles about Poland in Völkischer Beobachter and Pravda seemed identical. Here, for example, is a quote from NSDAP's main newspaper of September 17:

«The Soviet authorities consider themselves obliged, in order to protect their own interests and to protect the Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities in Eastern Poland, to order their troops to cross the Soviet-Polish border on Sunday, at six o'clock in the morning Moscow time (four o'clock in the morning Central European time).»

Gradually the Soviet narrative evolved. Less and less was said about the collapse and failure of the Polish government, and the focus of attention shifted to the fact that the «Poland of the Pans» (a typical cliché of the time; there was also «the boyar Romania») was hurting the Ukrainians and Belarusians in every way, so we had to intervene.

It is interesting that in terms of formal logic, these two points - 1) Poland failed as a state, and 2) Poland was a strong state which exploited our Slavic brothers - did not really fit together, but no one cared. It is just that the first narrative was gradually replaced by the second, as the troops advanced, and the newspapers, too, did not forget to report on their encounter accompanied by «widespread jubilation.»

Take, for example, the September 19 Pravda article by Yemelyan Yaroslavsky (the left opposition depicted him as Stalin's pet dog in newspaper cartoons of the 1920s). Here are the main points:

  • We are going to help our own people;
  • Western Belarus and Ukraine were only a colony, an appendage of the «main» Poland;
  • Locals were dissatisfied with Polonization;
  • There was an «abuse» of the national culture of these peoples, they were not allowed to learn and use their languages to the fullest extent.
Cartoon depicting Stalin and Yaroslavsky disseminated after the 15th Congress of the VKP(b) by the «left opposition»
Cartoon depicting Stalin and Yaroslavsky disseminated after the 15th Congress of the VKP(b) by the «left opposition»

There were constant reference to brotherly peoples, who needed a helping hand. Well, of course, the author was not stingy with emotion. Here is a typical excerpt:

«Everywhere our units appear, our brothers greet the valiant Red Army with exceptional enthusiasm. They throw themselves into their arms with tears of joy and offer apples and milk. The joy is so great that every peasant is ready to give the last mug of milk, to share the last piece of bread. In many places, the population is still tearing down Polish flags and signs of government offices, hanging red cloths in the streets just as the Soviet troops approach.»

On the same day, September 19, the Polish newspaper Kurjer Warszawski published an article entitled «Violation of the Eastern Border» with the telling subtitle «Under the Guise of Protecting the Population, the Soviet Union Violates the Non-Aggression Pact.»

Newspaper Kurjer Warszawski of September 19, 1939
Newspaper Kurjer Warszawski of September 19, 1939

It is interesting that, in contrast to later interpretations, Polish journalists from the capital, which was being approached from both sides by enemy armies, were more moderate then. I think this can be explained by the fact that the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not known then.

The authors of that article were seriously trying to parry Soviet propaganda clichés. No, our state still exists. And no, we did not ask for protection, and neither did the Belarusians and Ukrainians. And in general, they are all «decent and reliable Polish citizens.» The author also speculates about what will happen if Warsaw recognizes the actions of the Soviet troops as aggression (I mean, will London and Paris then declare war on Moscow, as they had previously declared war on Berlin). However, the author obviously did not know that Britain and Poland also had secret agreements, according to which the security guarantees concerned only an attack by Germany.

Polish journalists wrote: «No, we did not ask for protection and neither did the Belarusians and Ukrainians

The British press itself described the Red Army offensive in an overwhelmingly negative and critical manner. At the same time, the discourse offered was also understandable to readers: for example, The Times called the actions of Berlin and Moscow a new partition of Poland, and the Red Army was actually accused of invasion. At the same time, we can say that this narrative was somewhat simplified: obviously, British journalists believed their audience was not very knowledgeable about the Belarusians and Ukrainians. For example, in the

Daily Express one could read about «unsubstantiated claims [made by Moscow] about the suppression of Russian minorities in Poland»

The Daily Express wrote about «Moscow's unsubstantiated claims about suppression of Russian minorities in Poland»

At the same time, U.S. newspapers were much calmer, maintaining the general isolationist neutrality that the White House and State Department were adhering to at the time. Most newspapers confined themselves to a dry presentation of the facts and Moscow's position.

History has put everything in its place. What can be tentatively called the British narrative (the fourth partition of Poland) has long dominated the world when it comes to this episode of the world war. And with good reason - it really is closest to the actual facts (not at all because there is any conspiracy). However, this is true for half the world, but not for Russia. In Russia, too, the first three partitions of Poland have not been much condemned, nor has been the entry of troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Looking at Soviet and British newspapers from September 1939, you realize that it is very difficult to take the modern Russian average man and immediately immerse him in the British narrative. It is practically impossible. It would cause a very strong reaction of rejection, because it would destroy the usual worldview of the average Russian.

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