The Soviet capital of West Belarus

After September 17, 1939, the USSR took over the areas inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians, who, according to Soviet declarations, were oppressed by Poland. Meanwhile, in Bialystok Voivodeship (province), which was almost fully incorporated into the Soviet Union (Suwałki was taken by Germany), as much as 72% of the population were Poles, 12.5% Belarusians, and 12% Jews. That is perhaps why Białystok was intended to be the capital of the new Polish Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) – eventually, however, it became the seat of government of the so-called West Belarus.

Soviet Army entering Białystok. Photo – public domain

The Soviet occupation of Bialystok began on September 22. The NKVD installed itself in the Voivodeship Office building at Mickiewicza Street and began to spread terror without delay. Arrests and repressions targeted state officials, policemen, foresters, veterans of the Polish–Soviet War of 1920, people known for their patriotic activities, entrepreneurs and owners of factories and land estates.

The first month of Soviet occupation was not only marked by terror, but also by intrusive political agitation. The Soviets wanted to legalize the annexation and, to this end, called elections to the so-called People’s Assemblies. There were to be three: the people’s assemblies of Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, and Poland. At first, Vilnius was to be the capital of West Belarus, and Białystok the capital of the Polish SSR. However, after September 20, a revision was made to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, where Lithuania came under the Soviet sphere of influence (with Vilnius transferred to the Lithuanians), for which the Soviets gave part of Poland to Germany. In addition, both occupiers agreed that they would not strive for any form of a Polish state, not even as a puppet state. In this way, Białystok became the capital of West Belarus.

Although the election campaign began on October 7, the entire propaganda machine was launched earlier. Two thousand agitators, 96,000 portraits of Stalin, 43,000 posters and 40,000 copies of the USSR constitution were imported from the Belarusian SSR. Residents spent almost the entire month at election rallies.

The Communist Party of Poland and the Communist Party of Western Belarus were liquidated in 1938, both as organisations and physically, as all party leaders were murdered by the NKVD. The candidates for the People’s Assembly were therefore ordinary enthusiasts of the Soviet system, people sent from the USSR, or appointed by the NKVD, often against their will. In the search for NKVD candidates, they often had to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

“Liberated Białystok” – new Soviet newspaper in Polish. Photo: public domain

On election day, October 22, polling stations were open from 6am to 12pm. For encouragement, the first voters were to get vodka, sausage, and candies. The rest were rounded up. Red Army soldiers walked around the houses to chase to the election those who had not yet voted. In Sokółka, even the dead were ordered to vote. One of the residents died on election day. A polling ballot was stuck between his fingers, and his hand was shaken to make his ballot fall into the ballot box. Officially, the turnout was as high as 96.7%, and the candidates received 90% to 100% support, with only minor exceptions. In two constituencies in the former Białystok Voivodeship, there was such a bad opinion of two candidates that the election had to be repeated.

On October 28, the People’s Assembly began to meet in Bialystok. One of the first things that this quasi-parliament did was to establish a public holiday on September 17. After two days, the Assembly made a request to join the USSR. On November 2, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR graciously accepted this request. On November 29, Polish citizens in the territories taken by the USSR were granted Soviet citizenship.

Edward Horsztyński

 

Article is an abstract published with permission of the author. Full text in Polish: https://ddb24.pl/artykul/bialystok-za-pierwiego/517589?fbclid=

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