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Sowjetische Partisanen in Weißrußland

Innenansichten aus dem Gebiet Baranovici 1941-1944. Eine Dokumentation

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Edited with an introduction and annotations by Bogdan Musial. Russian documents translated into German by Tatjana Wanjat. Schriftenreihe der Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, vol. 88. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag (, 2004. 271 pages. ISBN 3-486-64588-9. Paper. Euro 24.80 from the publisher. In German.

Stalin’s victory over Hitler in the Second World War saved the Soviet Union from destruction and ensured its perpetuation for the next half century. The military feat was reinforced by the Soviets’ skillful exploitation of their triumph over the Nazis. Soviet propaganda used the victory to whitewash communism of its crimes and reinforce its fake moral dimension in the West. The legacy of the defeat of Nazi Germany was applied to legitimize the perpetuation of Soviet power at home and its imposition abroad, in particular in East Central Europe. All this was reflected in the creation of narratives for both domestic and foreign consumption.

The central narrative centered on the alleged Soviet fight against a worldwide “fascism.” The narrative stated that “the Soviet people” under the leadership of the communist party resisted “fascism” until its defeat in 1945. The resistance culminated in “The Great Patriotic Fatherland War” (1941-1945). This narrative required the suppression of a number of historical events. Thus the Nazi-Soviet collaboration, on both official and unofficial levels, was vehemently denied. The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 23 August 1939 was reduced to a communist tactical retreat. The Soviet murder of the Polish officers in the Katyn Forest was denied and delinked from the Nazi mass murder of prominent Poles in the Palmiry Forest, even though both were synchronized crimes whose aim was to exterminate Poland’s elite. The memories of the exuberant welcome of the Nazis by Soviet citizens in the summer of 1941 and the massive participation of “the Soviet people” in the Nazi war effort against “the Soviet Fatherland” were buried. The extermination of the Jews was depicted as “martyrdom of Soviet citizens” and stripped of its uniqueness. And, unlike the struggle of the Nazis and their collaborators against the Polish independent underground, the onslaught of the Soviets and their proxies on pro-Western Poles was depicted as “the struggle against fascism.”

One of the most important elements in this narrative was the subnarrative of “the Soviet Partisan Movement.” According to this narrative (26), the communists organized the masses that rose up to display “Soviet patriotism” in defending the “Soviet fatherland.” The “Soviet people” in the occupied territory either flocked to the ranks of communist guerrillas or supported them wholeheartedly. Enjoying universal popular support and equipped with crucial war supplies by Moscow, Stalin’s partisans were able to inflict enormous casualties on the German “fascists” and their collaborators. Thus, according to the communist narrative, they contributed mightily to the victory over Hitler and legitimized the Soviet power in eastern Europe.

By January 1944, out of 1,156 Soviet partisan units of 187,571 fighters, 723 units comprising 121,903 persons, or 65 percent of the total, operated in tiny Belarus.

This narrative is still present in Russian and Western history textbooks, but it began to unravel when independent scholars were granted access, however limited, to the Soviet archives. Polish scholars Zygmunt Boradyn and Kazimierz Krajewski were the first to expose the falsehoods of “the Soviet Partisan movement” in their case studies of present-day Lithuania and Belarus. However, their works have not yet been translated into English. The German historian of Polish background, Bogdan Musial, has a broader access to scholarly readers.

Musial has edited a selection of Soviet documents concerning communist guerrillas in Poland’s prewar province of Nowogródek (now Belarus) that the Soviets renamed “the region (oblast) of Baranovichi.” He divided his work into five parts: the origin and organization of the regional Soviet partisan structures; the partisan military operations and propaganda; their relations with the civilian population and internal affairs; their attitude toward the Jewish partisans; and their struggle against the Polish noncommunist underground.

According to the documents issuing from Minsk (the bulk of Musial’s archival selection was obtained in that city), the Soviet guerrilla operations were initiated by the NKVD/NKGB immediately after the Nazi invasion of the USSR and of its occupied Polish, Baltic, and Romanian territories. On 26 June 1941 the Soviet leadership in Belarus ordered fourteen guerrilla units into the field. They consisted of 1,162 fighters including 539 NKGB, 623 NKVD, and the remainder the Red Army (17-18). These detachments were quickly wiped out or dispersed. The forests and swamps of Belarus filled up with tens of thousands of Soviet troops, the stragglers whose regular units had been destroyed in the Blitzkrieg. For the most part, these stragglers remained militarily inactive and found some employment with the local rural population, both Polish and Belarusan. The Germans left them alone until Spring 1942, when they tried to apprehend them. The stragglers fled back into the forest, individually and in small groups, where they established encampments and bases. Soon these groups were joined by the fugitive Soviet POWs and some Jews. There were also camps established and run exclusively by Jewish inhabitants of the area. Meanwhile, the remnants of the original NKVD commandos who had survived the Nazi assault of summer and fall 1941, and new NKVD men sent as reinforcements by Moscow, located the forest hideaways and gradually subordinated to themselves many of their denizens. Simultaneously, the NKVD men reestablished the clandestine communist party structures. By January 1944, out of 1,156 Soviet partisan units of 187,571 fighters, 723 units comprising 121,903 persons, or 65 percent of the total, operated in tiny Belarus (21).

In July 1944, the Soviet irregular forces in the Baranowichi region consisted of 11,193 fighters, 10 percent of them women. The majority of the partisans were Belarusans: 6,792, or 60.7 percent. The remainder consisted of gentile Russians (2,598, or 23.2 percent), Jews (973, or 8.7 percent), gentile Ukrainians (526, or 4.7 percent), gentile Poles (143, or 1.3 percent), and others (161, or 1.4 percent) (36). Many of them were forcibly drafted (36, 42, 74). Some of them eventually deserted, the Poles in particular (134, 136, 253-54).

Jews were a special case among the Soviet partisans. The documents show that they were forced into the forest by the Nazi danger. The young and armed Jews were usually welcomed by the Soviets. Women, children, and the elderly were abandoned at best and victimized at worst. There were even instances when Jews were killed by the Soviet partisans (155, 158). Eventually, however, separate Jewish groups, both guerrilla units and mixed family groups of refugees, were subordinated to the communist partisan leadership and were considered as Soviet assets (124).

The Jewish partisans had a difficult time. Even within the Soviet partisan units they had to contend with “hatred of Jews” (91). The Soviet leadership vowed to curb anti-Semitic words and deeds, but at the same time it punished expressions of Jewish solidarity. In May 1943, “partisan Grigorii Rivin, Jewish by nationality, [was] shot because of his systematic spreading of Jewish chauvinism.” Rivin’s transgression was that he openly and frequently complained that “Jews were not accepted into the [partisan] unit . . . [and that] they were harassed” (190). In June 1943 in Mironka, after a Jewish sentry mistakenly killed a Soviet partisan, the latter’s comrades unleashed themselves upon the Jewish patrol, killing seven of its members (192). In the wake of such occurrences, the supreme command of the Soviet partisan Stalin Brigade announced that the “spreading of Jewish chauvinism and, equally, of anti-Semitism is a fascist method to destroy the partisan vigilance” (192). The former was punished seriously, while the latter appears chiefly to have been denounced verbally.

Perhaps for that reason only a few Jews considered themselves Soviet or communist. Most seem to h ave been conscious that theirs was a uniquely Jewish experience. Most focused on the survival of the remnants of their community at any price. This included accommodating to the Soviet ways. A few Jewish leaders took advantage of the situation to solidify their power over their Jewish underlings. Those who challenged them were punished, occasionally even killed. One story recorded here is that of Tuvia (Anatol) Bielski and his staff who sentenced Israel Kesler to death. According to his judges, Kesler was a prewar thief and arsonist. He ran a brothel in Naliboki and served as an informer for the Polish intelligence. Following the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland, Kesler fled to Lithuania and later hid in Naliboki. After June 1941, Kesler allegedly denounced communists, including Jewish party activists, to the Nazis. Subsequently, he escaped from a Nazi-established ghetto and joined the Bielski partisans. He was caught plundering peasants and shot (203-205). These charges display the signs of a standard Stalinist character assassination. Why Bielski have accepted a criminal, and a Polish or Nazi collaborator, into the unit in the first place? Was Kesler really unique in his plunderings when all other Soviet partisans gathered supplies in a similar way?

In the meantime, a Soviet informer accused Bielski himself of embezzling gold; no serious consequences followed, however (203). Charges of robbery were also levied at Jewish partisans by their Soviet comrades (193). According to the report of 28 May 1943, “some groups, among them the Jewish ones, preoccupy themselves not with struggle but with capturing supplies. Some persons in them, who had fled from a camp, carry out banditry (plundering, drunkenness, and rape)” (123).

The complaints about these alleged transgressions sound disingenuous, coming as they do from the Soviet sources. The Soviet-allied guerrillas routinely engaged in plundering peasants. Documents show that partisan activity often amounted to banditry, rape, pillage, and murder (52-53, 88, 111-112, 144, 158, 166). Occasionally individual transgressors were punished. On the whole, however, the leadership of the Soviet irregular forces considered robbery to be a legitimate modus operandi. Since they largely lacked popular support, the Soviet guerrillas raided villages and manors for supplies. As a top Soviet commander put it, “Most partisan units feed, clothe, and arm themselves at the expense of the local population and not by capturing booty in the struggle against fascism. That arouses in the people a feeling of hostility, and they say, ‘The Germans take everything away and one must also give something to the partisans’” (48). However, this aspect of the Soviet partisan movement has been eliminated from the standard Soviet narrative about them. According to that narrative, the Soviet partisans killed 1.5 million “Germans and their collaborators.” In reality, the casualties inflicted on the enemy did not exceed 45,000, half of them Germans. As Musial puts it, “The higher the position of the official submitting the report, the higher the enemy losses reported” (22).

In the meantime, the Soviet partisan commanders deluged Moscow with “euphoric reports about their military successes which did not reflect reality” (107). Regarding the German antipartisan pacification action “Hermann” in the Naliboki Forest undertaken between 13 July and 8 August 1943, the communist partisan leader reported the annihilation of the staff and the commanding officer of the infamous SS-Dirlewanger Sonderbrigade, and boasted of “3,000 killed and wounded enemies, 29 POWs taken, 60 destroyed enemy vehicles, 3 tanks and 4 armored cars taken over.” The Soviet losses were put at “129 killed, 50 wounded, and 24 missing” (107). In reality, Dirlewanger died after the war and his staff escaped unscathed. The German casualty rolls show 52 killed, 155 wounded, and 4 missing. On the other hand, the Nazis reported 4,280 killed and 654 captured “bandits” (107-108). Among the combat casualties, in addition to Soviet guerrillas, there were also Polish independent Home Army partisans. However, most of the losses consisted of civilian Poles and Belarusans, including the denizens of Naliboki which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. Hundreds of inhabitants were shot, several hundred were deported to slave labor in the Reich, and only a few managed to flee.

The drama of Naliboki reflected not only the extreme character of Nazi policies toward the civilian gentile population, but also the brutality of the erstwhile Soviet occupiers-turned-partisans. It appears that for the majority of small farmers in Belarus, the situation resembled one in Darfur in 2005. On 8 May 1943, two months before the Nazis obliterated the town, the Soviet partisans massacred 128 gentile men of Naliboki in a surprise night attack. They were members of the local self-defense force. Many of them also participated in the Polish underground Home Army (116, 119, 152, 191). In another case in January 1944, the Soviet guerrillas torched the village of Koniuchy, killing at least thirty-four gentile civilians.

Although assaults on Polish gentiles had already become commonplace in 1942, they multiplied in number, scale, and fierceness when, in the wake of the Katyn affair, Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile in London in April 1943. Henceforth, Soviet Partisan propaganda dubbed the Polish prime minister General Władysław Sikorski’s policy “criminal and hostile to the people” (122), and Pravda published editorials alleging that the London government collaborated with Hitler. Communist propaganda routinely referred to the pro-Western Polish underground army as “bands of the White Poles” (84-86, 250). According to another propaganda directive, the Polish underground was to be referred to as “the protégés of the Gestapo” (134).

The narrative thus created was assisted by the Soviet commanders who wrote in their reports about “the archenemy of our Fatherland: the German occupiers and their Polish lackeys” (144). The men massacred in Naliboki were referred to as “counterrevolutionary elements: policemen and spies” (119). The Polish guerrilla groups were described as “hostile toward Soviet power” that included “notorious fascists” (227). “Poles fighting against the [Soviet] partisans are German agents and enemies of the Polish people,” said a top secret order of May 1943 (228). The Poles were routinely lumped together with the Nazis as in the report of 1 December 1943, where the Commander of the Lenin Brigade bragged that “thanks to the intelligence provided by our informers we cleansed the territory of the forest of German and Polish spies” (63). In other reports, one reads about “the Polish spy Maria Downar” who was shot, and nineteen Polish “anti-Soviet elements” who were captured (137-42). On 23 June 1943, the Soviet partisan leadership authorized denouncing the Polish underground to the Nazis. Later, orders went out to “shoot the [Polish] leaders” and “discredit, disarm, and dissolve” their units (223). It was alleged that the Home Army units were “not Polish partisan groups but groups formed by the Germans. . . . These German groups which consist of Poles are to be destroyed,” according to the top secret order of 29 June 1943 (237). On 5 December 1943, it was resolved that “the [NKVD] Chkalov Brigade should commence the cleansing of the area of the White Polish band. . . . The band, especially the policemen, landlords, and settlers, is to be shot. But no one must know about this” ( 250-51).

Such orders merely confirmed the existing situation. Since 1942, individual Polish gentile patriots were routinely assassinated and Polish guerillas and underground groups were assaulted, sometimes by treachery. Feigning friendship, the Soviets lured at least two sizable Polish guerrilla detachments to their destruction. Musial’s study suggests that the Soviets seldom attacked German military and police targets. They preferred to assault the poorly armed and trained Belarusan and Polish self-defense forces. The guerrillas torched and leveled Polish landed estates much more frequently than they blew up military transports and assaulted other hard targets. “[B]y the end of 1943, most large landed estates had been destroyed” (106).

According to Musial, by fall 1943 a full-fledged local Polish-Soviet war raged in the territory of present-day Belarus and Lithuania. Between May 1943 and July 1944 at least 230 battles were fought between the adversaries (225). The Polish Home Army reeled under the Soviet assaults and felt abandoned by the Allies, as these territories were beyond the range of the Western supply planes. In that situation, says Musial, a few Home Army commanders accepted some weapons and ammunition from the Germans, in order to counterattack the communists (224).

The Polish underground was established in the area in fall 1939. It was both anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet. The latter attitude stemmed from the memories of Soviet terror between 1939 and 1941, and was reinforced by the conduct of the Soviet partisans. Musial’s book shows that most members of the Polish underground were Catholic. Ethnic Poles probably constituted a plurality. But there were also Belarusans, some of them Eastern Orthodox, “locals,” individuals without any particular national consciousness, and a few Jews (58). Most underground members were part-time fighters. They were mobilized for a specific action and then released back to civilian life. A few full-time partisan units were organized in summer 1942. Most were self-defense squads hitting the Nazi terror apparatus or fending off criminals and Soviet partisans who robbed Polish villages. The latter case included the interception and execution of ten members of a Soviet Jewish group in Dubniki in November 1943 (194-95, 197). The accepted traditional narrative says that they died as victims of Polish anti-Semitism. Musial’s work was made possible by the partial opening of the Soviet archives; one can expect more information when the archives become fully accessible.

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