Controversies of the Polish-Soviet War, fought in 1919–20, concern the behaviour of the military forces and crimes they committed. Both sides raised charges of many violations of international law in order to sway public opinion in the West which was felt to be important for both sides.
Prisoners of war
One of the most controversial issues that surfaced in the 1990s, was the situation of Soviet prisoners of war in Poland. During this war between two countries experiencing great socioeconomic difficulties, and often unable to care for their own populations, the treatment of prisoners of war was far from adequate, with tens of thousands on both sides, in Russian and Polish camps, dying of communicable diseases. Between 16,000 to 20,000 of Soviet POWs – out of 80,000 – died in Polish camps; and a similar number of Polish POWs – out of about 51,000 – died in Soviet and Lithuanian camps.
After 1922 the Polish and Russian prisoners were exchanged among two sides. Ekaterina Peshkova the chairwoman of organization Assistance to Political Prisoners (Pompolit, Помощь политическим заключенным, Помполит). was awarded by an order of Polish Red Cross for her participation in the exchange of POWs after the Polish-Soviet War.
The Polish side claimed that during the Soviet retreat from Berdychiv, Kiev and Zhytomyr mass hostage-taking of civilians occurred, with hostages forced to go with the Reds all the way to the rear of the front. Similar claims were made that returning to Berdychiv the Bolsheviks threw out the sick and wounded from the hospital "disregarding the lives and honor of the medical personnel" and that in general the Soviet advance into Ukraine was characterized by mass killing of civilians and the burning of entire villages, especially by Budyonny's cossacks, designed to cow the Ukrainian population. Behind Polish lines, the Soviet forces hanged suspected enemies on the spot. Ultimately, in the pacification of Ukraine that began during the Soviet counteroffensive in 1920 and which would not end until 1922, the Soviets would take tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives. On 7 June the same day Budionny's Cossacks, spreading terror in the rear of recently broken Polish frontlines, burned a hospital in Berdychiv, with 600 patients and Red Cross nuns inside.
Some first hand accounts from participants may support the claim that such behavior was found on both sides. The rights of prisoners of war were often diseregarded; for example in January 1918 in Cichinicze near Mohylow Bolsheviks shot patients and personnel of a Polish hospital. Particularly notorious were the accounts concerning the former officer of the Imperial Russian and Bolsheviks armies, Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz, who switched sides in the conflict and became a general in Poland. Although Bułak-Bałachowicz is claimed to be a national hero to Belarusians in Poland for protection against Bolshevik terror, and his refusal to kill peasants on orders from Soviets, witness accounts claim that he was known to behave like an absolute ruler of the territories controlled by his troops, even conducting public executions As one Polish officer wrote in a letter to his wife: "This is the person without ideology. The bandit and the murderer and his comrades – subordinates are just like that. They know no shame and are similar to barbarians... I witnessed throwing the cut-off heads of Bolsheviks under his feet... I drank with him all night long and in the morning he with his group and me with my regiment went to the fighting. The massacre of Bolsheviks was horrific". There is evidence that the bands of Cossack "Colonel" Vadim Yakovlev were similarly cruel. He was a Don Cossack Ukrainian and Bolshevik officer who also switched to the Polish side along with his band and allegedly was a bloody marauder of villages and towns in Ukraine, Belarus, and was responsible for several anti-Jewish pogroms.
In 1919, Russian Jews were caught in the middle of a civil war, and became the victims of warring Red and White Russian, Ukrainian and Polish forces, among others. Thousands of pogroms resulted in the loss of an estimated 100,000 Jewish lives. Polish troops, Petlura's soldiers, and Bałachowicz's squads staged pogroms against Jews in practically every town they captured. Jews, accused by the Poles of treason, espionage and support of communism, were victims of murders in a string of cities in the course of the Polish-Soviet War. In Ukraine at this time, murders of Jews took place on an unprecedented scale, second only to the Holocaust years of World War II. Isaac Babel, a war correspondent embedded with the Red Army, in his 1920 diary wrote down many first-hand accounts of atrocities committed by both sides against the Jews. On 5 April 1919 in Pinsk a Polish officer, after hearing reports that Jewish inhabitants of the city were preparing to riot, panicked and instead of carrying the proper investigation ordered the execution of thirty-five Jews (Pinsk massacre). Similar hostilities, resulting in fewer casualties, took place in other towns. In Lida soldiers stopped several elderly Jews and cut off their beards with sabres and knives. During the pillage of Lida, Jewish homes were looted and 30 Jews were killed. Violence against Jews caused a major uproar and condemnation in the Polish parliament. Ignacy Daszyński, leader of the Polish Socialist Party, called all soldiers that commit acts of violence against the Jewish population "hooligans in uniform". However, Minister of War General Józef Leśniewski, in his written reply to the speaker of Parliament, defended anti-Jewish violence by Polish units in Lida, referring to Jews as a Communist-minded community and stating that the Polish Army had the right to kill their adversaries. The reports of these incidents caused the United States to send a commission led by Henry Morgenthau, Sr. and Sir Stuart M. Samuel. According to the findings of this Anglo-American Investigating Commission, a total of about 300 Jews lost their lives in all incidents. The commission also found out that the Polish military and civil authorities did do their best to prevent the incidents and their recurrence in the future. According to the Morgenthau report, some forms of discrimination against Jews was of political rather than anti-Semitic nature, rooted in political competition. The report specifically avoided use of the term "pogrom," noting that the term was used used to apply to a wide range of excesses, and had no specific definition. Tadeusz Piotrowski noted that Morgenthau Reported admitted that the word pogrom was inapplicable to the conditions existing within a war zone. Richard C. Lukas argues that in some places, Jews had made themselves vulnerable by collaborating with Poland's Lithuanian and Soviet enemies.
Similar to the Polish side, the Soviet government raised complaints on every occasion in diplomatic notes addressed to the Entente. One note stated that during the Soviet advance the retreating Poles, disappointed by their military misfortunes, engaged in "vengeful vandalism", as in Borisov where the Poles, following their retreat, shelled the city with artillery from another bank of the Berezina River "killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands without shelter." Another joint diplomatic note issued by Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia to the Entente blamed the Poles for heavily damaging Kiev including its civilian and art objects, such as St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, a charge the Poles denied, admitting only to the Kiev bridges destruction, claimed necessary to slow the Red Army (the bridges survived multiple hostilities and conflicts prior to Polish occupation of Kiev). That particular note seems to be based on Leon Trotsky's telegraph, and Trotsky himself admitted parts of it were false. Around the same time, on 7 June – two days after breaking Polish front line – Budyonny's 1st Army destroyed the bridges in Zhytomyr, wrecked the railway station and burned various buildings; Budyonny's troops would both spread terror and wreck infrastructure, to delay Polish army and disrupt it logistics, over the coming month in West Ukraine and East Poland.
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