The enormous influx of Soviet officers into the Polish army during and after World War II had its own cruel and cynical logic. First, the Soviets murdered the flower of the Polish military at Katyn (about 10,000 victims), and then, under the banner of fraternal aid, they filled the gulf caused by their own crime.
Between 1943 and 1968, some 21,000 Soviet officers passed through the Polish Army. This included 153 generals. This influx began in Sielce on the Oka River, where the 1st Tadeusz Kosciuszko Infantry Division was being formed on the initiative of communists from the Union of Polish Patriots.
It was May 1943. Less than two years had passed since the creation of General Władysław Anders’ army, which, with Joseph Stalin’s consent, had crossed the border into Iran in the spring of 1942 and had been fighting in the West ever since. Zygmunt Berling and a small number of others like him were left to the Union of Patriots headed by Wanda Wasilewska.
Berling was a pre-war officer, already in 1931 (at the age of 35) he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Imprisoned by the Soviets in Starobielsk, he avoided execution by cooperating with the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). He saved his life, and his military career gained great momentum. In 1940 he accepted USSR citizenship, and three years later he was already a brigadier general.
There weren’t many such officers, former citizens of the Second Polish Republic, who fell in love with the Soviet Union. Thus, cadre assistance from “big brother” proved indispensable. In July 1943 as many as 67% of officers of Kosciuszko Division came from the Red Army. By the end of 1944, when there were already two armies of the Polish Army, the fraternization rate dropped below 50%.
In absolute numbers, the situation was as follows: out of 40 thousand officers of the Polish Army, as many as 18,996 (including 36 generals) were citizens of the USSR. They wore Polish uniforms and saluted in Polish. But they spoke Russian and obeyed Russian orders. The latter could still be understood. After all, these two Polish armies fought as part of Russian fronts.
Edward J. Nalepa, the author of the book “Officers of the Red Army in the Polish Army 1943-1968,” writes that the Soviets in Polish uniforms suffered heavy losses during the war. They amounted to 5% of their personnel, or about 1,000 dead, dead from wounds, or missing. Nalepa also mentions the attitude of the Red Army towards service in Polish uniforms – mostly indifferent or unwilling. Only a few of them – mainly those of Polish origin – accepted the order with satisfaction.
The ones who were sent away
When the war ended and independent Poland was proclaimed, the presence of so many Soviet officers lost its raison d’etre. Especially when juxtaposed with the adjective “independent”. In accordance with the Polish personnel policy of August 1945, the Russians began to return to the country. Between 1945 and 1948, 16,926 officers (including 66 generals) were commissioned into the Red Army from Poland. Interestingly, 24 refused to go to the USSR. They were arrested and placed at the disposal of the Soviet military prosecutor’s office.
By January 1947, the political situation in Poland was still uncrystallized. At least in theory. People hoped that the Western allies would nevertheless claim us. The falsified elections of 1947 disillusioned even the greatest optimists. The Communists triumphed, and the West did not blink. Soon there was a purge in the Polish Army. Edward J. Nalepa writes:
“In the psychosis of an alleged war threat from Western countries, the process of purging the officer corps of “hostile and alien elements”, “accidental and demoralized”, undesirable for the cause of building socialism in Poland and close cooperation with the USSR, was intensified. On the basis of the political criteria adopted at the time, in the years 1949-1954 over 9 thousand officers were dismissed from military service, the majority of them being Second Republic cadres and officers originating from underground organizations of the Polish Underground State (ZWZ-AK, PAL, NSZ, BCh and others)”.
Someone had to replace these people. It was then that the “big brother” was asked for help again. He generously did not refuse and the Red Army began to return to Poland. Of course their presence was not as numerous as during the war and just after its end. In August 1949, 728 Soviet officers (including 15 generals) served in the Polish Army.
It is interesting how this service looked like from the formal side. A secret order of the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army (who was then Lieutenant General Michał Rola-Żymierski) dated 15 January 1945 stated:
“On the basis of the directives of the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, the following norms are established on the course of military service of generals and officers of the Red Army commissioned to serve in the Polish Army. Generals and officers of the Red Army, who are in the Polish Army, are to be regarded as having been temporarily seconded to the Polish Army on the assumption that they are on actual service in the Red Army. The time of service in the Polish Army shall be included in the general course of service. [Generals and officers of the Red Army […] as citizens of the USSR shall be exempt from the obligation to take the oath prescribed in the Polish Army. Offences against military duty shall be considered as violations of the oath taken in the Red Army. 4. (4) Generals and officers of the Red Army [… ] shall be subject to Polish Military Tribunals except for crimes for which the death penalty is prescribed. In such cases generals and officers shall be subject to the Military Tribunals of the Red Army” (materials of the Institute of National Remembrance).
In no other satellite country did a Soviet citizen become minister of defense. In Poland, this proved possible. Konstanty Ksawerowicz Rokossowski had to accept Polish citizenship, of course. Not only to become a minister, but also a member of parliament, deputy prime minister and Marshal of Poland.
Rokossowski is worth devoting a few sentences to. If only because many texts try to make a great Polish patriot out of him. He was indeed a Pole, born in Warsaw, in a railwayman’s family. His ancestors came from Wielkopolska (Greater Poland) and bore the Glaubicz coat of arms. Rokossowski served first in the tsarist army, and then, after the October Revolution, he joined the Bolsheviks and settled in the USSR. During World War II, he gained special recognition for Operation Bagration, which led to the elimination of the German Army Group “Middle”. He always took into account the human cost and tried to minimize losses. In this respect he was someone unique among the highest Soviet commanders.
One cannot talk about Polish patriotism in his case at all. He was a citizen of the USSR and acted for the benefit of the empire. And the fact that he knew the Polish language, that he did not deny his Polish origin and that in many situations he supported the Poles, does not yet mean patriotism. Nor does the fact that he subscribed to “Trybuna Ludu” and “Życie Warszawy” after returning to the Soviet Union.
For a long time after the war almost all the most important posts in the Polish Army were filled by conscripts from the East. Ryszard Kaluzny in his work entitled “Officers of the Soviet Army in the Land Forces in Poland. “Officers of the Soviet Army in the Land Forces in Poland” writes:
“At the beginning of 1955, 33 generals and over 170 officers of the Soviet Army were serving in the Armed Forces of the People’s Republic of Poland. They held 32 positions out of 50 most important ones – from the Minister of National Defense up to and including the Corps Commander”.
Let’s look at the list of chiefs of the General Staff of the Polish Army since 1945: Vladislav Korchits, Boris Pigarevich, Yuri Bordzhovsky. They were all Red Army men. Among the commanders of the land forces, the navy, the air force, or the armored forces, it was the same.
Richard Kaluzhny: “Among the military universities, the Military Technical Academy was the most dominated by Soviet officers. The basis for organizing the university in 1951 was a 45-member team of Soviet scientists and didacticians. They formed the command of the university, were the deans of faculties and heads of all departments.”
The political situation, which eventually led to the return of Soviet staff to their home country, began to change slowly after the death of Joseph Stalin (March 5, 1953). The breakthrough in Poland came with the 8th Plenum of the PZPR Central Committee, which took place in October 1956. Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power again. The Russians delegated to Poland began to pack in a hurry.
A few months earlier, in June, they had unfortunately managed to issue orders that contributed to the death of 57 people during the so-called Poznan events. The decision to use the army against the demonstrators was made by the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), which agreed with the proposal of Minister Rokossowski. The task was carried out by the most important of the Soviet generals delegated to Poland (he was the only one with the rank of General of the Army), the commander of the land forces Stanislaw Gilarowicz (his father’s name was Hilary) Poplawski.
Just before the October thaw, 76 Soviet officers were still serving in Poland: 28 generals, 32 colonels, 13 lieutenant colonels, two majors, and one captain. When Konstanty Rokossovski was dismissed from the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense on November 10, 1956, almost all of this group returned to Moscow. Two Soviet generals remained in Poland until March 1968: the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Army Yuri Bordzhovsky and the Commandant of the Military Technical Academy Mikhail Ovchinnikov. General Bolesław Kieniewicz, after demobilization in the USSR, decided to return to Poland and finished his life here.
This is how the period of fraternal staff assistance went down in history. After 1956, the famous saying of Tsar Alexander: “Kuritsa no ptica, Polsha no zagranitsa” ceased to be taken so literally. For a long time, however, the most important decisions concerning the Polish Army were made not in Warsaw but in Moscow.