Soviet-Polish war of 1920

Soviet-Polish war of 1920
Soviet-Polish war of 1920
Soviet-Polish war of 1920
Soviet-Polish war of 1920


The history of the Soviet-Polish war against the background of fratricidal civil strife in Russia

The Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1920 was part of the great Civil War in the territory of the former Russian Empire. But on the other hand, this war was perceived by the Russian people - both by those who fought for the Reds and by those who were on the side of the Whites - precisely as a war with an external enemy.

New Poland "from sea to sea"

This duality was created by history itself. Before the First World War, most of Poland was Russian territory, other parts of it belonged to Germany and Austria - an independent Polish state did not exist for almost a century and a half. It is noteworthy that with the outbreak of World War II, both the tsarist government and the Germans and the Austrians officially promised the Poles, after the victory, to recreate an independent Polish monarchy. As a result, thousands of Poles in 1914-1918 fought on both sides of the front.

The political fate of Poland was predetermined by the fact that in 1915 the Russian army, under pressure from the enemy, was forced to retreat from the Vistula to the east. The entire Polish territory was under the control of the Germans, and in November 1918, after the surrender of Germany, power over Poland automatically passed to Józef Pilsudski.

For a quarter of a century, this Polish nationalist was engaged in the anti-Russian struggle; with the outbreak of the First World War, he formed "Polish legions" - detachments of volunteers as part of the troops of Austria-Hungary. After the surrender of Germany and Austria, the "legionnaires" became the basis of the new Polish government, and Pilsudski officially received the title of "Head of State", that is, dictator. At the same time, the new Poland, led by a military dictator, was supported by the winners of the First World War, primarily France and the United States.

Paris hoped to make Poland a counterweight to both defeated, but not reconciled Germany, and Russia, in which the Bolshevik rule, incomprehensible and dangerous for the West European elites, appeared. The United States, on the other hand, realizing for the first time its growing power, saw in the new Poland a convenient excuse to spread its influence into the very center of Europe.

Taking advantage of this support and the general turmoil that gripped the central countries of Europe at the end of World War I, the revived Poland immediately entered into conflict with all its neighbors over borders and territories. In the west, the Poles began armed conflicts with the Germans and Czechs, the so-called "Silesian uprising", and in the east - with the Lithuanians, the Ukrainian population of Galicia (Western Ukraine) and Soviet Belarus.

For the new extremely nationalist authorities in Warsaw, the troubled time of 1918-1919, when there were no stable powers and states in the center of Europe, it seemed very convenient to restore the borders of the ancient Rzeczpospolita, the Polish empire of the 16th-17th centuries, stretching od morza do morza - from sea and to the sea, that is, from the Baltic to the Black Sea coast.

The beginning of the Soviet-Polish war

No one declared war between nationalist Poland and the Bolsheviks - amid widespread uprisings and political chaos, the Soviet-Polish conflict began outright. Germany, which occupied the Polish and Belarusian lands, surrendered in November 1918. And a month later, Soviet troops moved into the territory of Belarus from the east, and Polish troops from the west.

In February 1919, in Minsk, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the creation of the "Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic", and on the same days the first battles of Soviet and Polish troops began on these lands. Both sides tried to quickly correct the chaotic borders in their favor.

The Poles were more fortunate then - by the summer of 1919, all the forces of Soviet power were diverted to the war with Denikin's white armies, which launched a decisive offensive on the Don and Donbass. By that time, the Poles had seized Vilnius, the western half of Belarus and all of Galicia (that is, western Ukraine, where Polish nationalists fiercely suppressed the uprising of Ukrainian nationalists for six months).

The Soviet government then several times offered Warsaw to officially conclude a peace treaty on the terms of the actually formed border. It was extremely important for the Bolsheviks to free up all forces to fight Denikin, who had already issued a "Moscow directive" - an order for a general offensive by the whites on the old Russian capital.



Soviet poster. Photo:

The Poles of Pilsudski did not respond to these peace proposals at that time - 70 thousand Polish soldiers, equipped with the most modern weapons, just arrived in Warsaw from France. The French formed this army back in 1917 from Polish emigrants and prisoners to fight the Germans. Now this army, very significant by the standards of the Russian Civil War, was useful for Warsaw to expand its borders to the east.

In August 1919, the advancing White armies occupied the ancient Russian capital Kiev, and the advancing Poles captured Minsk. Soviet Moscow found itself between two fires, and in those days it seemed to many that the days of Bolshevik power were numbered. Indeed, in the event of joint actions by the Whites and the Poles, the defeat of the Soviet armies would have been inevitable.

In September 1919, the Polish embassy arrived in Taganrog at General Denikin's headquarters, which was greeted with great solemnity. The mission from Warsaw was headed by General Alexander Karnitsky, Knight of St. George and former Major General of the Russian Imperial Army.

Despite the solemn meeting and a lot of compliments that the white leaders and representatives of Warsaw expressed to each other, the negotiations dragged on for many months. Denikin asked the Poles to continue their offensive to the east against the Bolsheviks, General Karnitsky suggested, for a start, to determine the future border between Poland and the "United Indivisible Russia", which will be formed after the victory over the Bolsheviks.

Poles between reds and whites

While negotiations with the Whites were underway, the Polish troops halted the offensive against the Reds. After all, the victory of the whites threatened the appetites of the Polish nationalists in relation to the Russian lands. Pilsudski and Denikin were supported and supplied with weapons by the Entente (an alliance of France, England and the United States), and if the White Guards succeeded, it was the Entente who would become the arbiter on the borders between Poland and "white" Russia. And Pilsudski would have to make concessions - Paris, London and Washington, the victors in the First World War, having become at that time the rulers of the destinies of Europe, have already defined the so-called Curzon Line, the future border between the restored Poland and the Russian territories. Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Minister, drew this line along the ethnic border between Catholic Poles, Uniate Galicians and Orthodox Belarusians.

Pilsudski understood that in the event of the capture of Moscow by the whites and negotiations under the patronage of the Entente, he would have to cede part of the captured lands in Belarus and Ukraine to Denikin. For the Entente, the Bolsheviks were outcasts. The Polish nationalist Piłsudski decided to wait until the Red Russians would push the White Russians to the outskirts (so that the White Guards would lose their influence and no longer compete with the Poles in the eyes of the Entente), and then start a war against the Bolsheviks with the full support of the leading Western states. It was this option that promised the Polish nationalists maximum bonuses in case of victory - the capture of huge Russian territories, up to the restoration of the Commonwealth from the Baltic to the Black Sea!

While the former tsarist generals Denikin and Karnitsky were wasting time on polite and fruitless negotiations in Taganrog, on November 3, 1919, there was a secret meeting between representatives of Pilsudski and Soviet Moscow. The Bolsheviks managed to find the right person for these negotiations - the Polish revolutionary Julian Markhlewski, who had known Pilsudski since the anti-Tsar uprisings of 1905.

At the insistence of the Polish side, no written agreements were concluded with the Bolsheviks, but Pilsudski agreed to stop the advance of his armies to the east. Secrecy became the main condition of this oral agreement between the two states - the fact of Warsaw's agreement with the Bolsheviks was carefully hidden from Denikin, and mainly from England, France and the United States, who provided political and military support to Poland.

Polish troops continued local battles and skirmishes with the Bolsheviks, but the main forces of Pilsudski remained motionless. The Soviet-Polish war came to a standstill for several months. The Bolsheviks, knowing that in the near future there was no need to fear a Polish offensive on Smolensk, almost all of their forces and reserves were deployed against Denikin. By December 1919, the white armies were defeated by the Reds, and the Polish embassy of General Karnitsky left the headquarters of General Denikin. On the territory of Ukraine, the Poles took advantage of the retreat of the White troops and occupied a number of cities.


Polish trenches in Belarus during the battle on the Neman. Photo:

It was the position of Poland that predetermined the strategic defeat of the Whites in the Russian Civil War. This was directly admitted by one of the best Red commanders of those years, Tukhachevsky: "Denikin's offensive on Moscow, supported by the Polish offensive from the west, could have ended much worse for us, and it is difficult even to predict the final results …".

Pilsudski's offensive

Both the Bolsheviks and Poles understood that an informal truce in the fall of 1919 was a temporary phenomenon. After the defeat of Denikin's troops, it was Pilsudski who became for the Entente the main and only force capable of resisting the "Red Moscow" in Eastern Europe. The Polish dictator skillfully took advantage of this circumstance by bargaining for large military aid from the West.

In the spring of 1920, France alone supplied Poland with 1,494 guns, 2,800 machine guns, 385,000 rifles, about 700 aircraft, 200 armored vehicles, 576 million cartridges and 10 million shells. At the same time, many thousands of machine guns, over 200 armored vehicles and tanks, more than 300 aircraft, 3 million sets of uniforms, 4 million pairs of soldiers' shoes, a large number of medicines, field communications and other military equipment were delivered by American steamers to Poland from the United States.

By April 1920, Polish troops on the borders with Soviet Russia consisted of six separate armies, fully equipped and well-armed. The Poles had a particularly serious advantage in the number of machine guns and artillery pieces, and in aviation and armored vehicles, Pilsudski's army was absolutely superior to the Reds.

After waiting for the final defeat of Denikin and thus becoming the main ally of the Entente in Eastern Europe, Pilsudski decided to continue the Soviet-Polish war. Relying on the weapons generously supplied by the West, he hoped to quickly defeat the main forces of the Red Army, weakened by long battles with the Whites, and force Moscow to cede all the lands of Ukraine and Belarus to Poland. Since the defeated whites were no longer a serious political force, Pilsudski had no doubt that the Entente would also prefer to give these vast Russian territories under the control of the allied Warsaw, rather than see them under the rule of the Bolsheviks.

On April 17, 1920, the Polish "Chief of State" approved a plan to seize Kiev. And on April 25, Pilsudski's troops launched a general offensive into Soviet territory.

This time, the Poles did not drag out the negotiations and quickly concluded a military-political alliance against the Bolsheviks with both the Whites who remained in Crimea and the Ukrainian nationalists of Petliura. Indeed, in the new conditions of 1920, it was Warsaw that was the main force in such unions.

The head of the Whites in the Crimea, General Wrangel, bluntly stated that Poland now has the most powerful army in Eastern Europe (at that time 740 thousand soldiers) and it is necessary to create a "Slavic front" against the Bolsheviks. In Warsaw, an official representation of the White Crimea was opened, and on the territory of Poland itself, the so-called 3rd Russian Army began to form (the first two armies were in Crimea), which was created by the former revolutionary terrorist Boris Savinkov, who knew Pilsudski from the pre-revolutionary underground.

The fighting was fought on a huge front from the Baltic to Romania. The main forces of the Red Army were still in the North Caucasus and Siberia, where they finished off the remnants of the White armies. The rear of the Soviet troops was also weakened by peasant uprisings against the policy of "war communism".

On May 7, 1920, the Poles occupied Kiev - this was the 17th change of power in the city over the past three years. The first strike of the Poles was successful, they captured tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers and created a vast foothold on the left bank of the Dnieper for a further offensive.

Tukhachevsky's counteroffensive

But the Soviet government was able to quickly transfer reserves to the Polish front. At the same time, the Bolsheviks skillfully used patriotic sentiments in Russian society. If the defeated whites went for a forced alliance with Pilsudski, then broad sections of the population of Russia perceived the invasion of the Poles and the capture of Kiev as external aggression.


Sending mobilized communists to the front against the White Poles. Petrograd, 1920. Reproduction. Photo: RIA Novosti

These national sentiments were reflected in the famous appeal of the hero of the First World War, General Brusilov, "To all former officers, wherever they are", which appeared on May 30, 1920. Brusilov, who was not at all sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, declared to all of Russia: "As long as the Red Army does not let Poles into Russia, I am on my way with the Bolsheviks."

On June 2, 1920, the Soviet government issued a decree "On the release from responsibility of all White Guard officers who will help in the war with Poland." As a result, thousands of Russian people volunteered for the Red Army and went to fight on the Polish front.

The Soviet government was able to quickly transfer reserves to the Ukraine and Belarus. In the Kiev direction, the main striking force of the counteroffensive was the cavalry army of Budyonny, and in Belarus against the Poles the divisions that were liberated after the defeat of the white troops of Kolchak and Yudenich went into battle.

Pilsudski's headquarters did not expect the Bolsheviks to be able to concentrate their troops so quickly. Therefore, despite the enemy's superiority in technology, the Red Army again occupied Kiev in June 1920, and Minsk and Vilnius in July. The Soviet offensive was facilitated by the uprisings of the Belarusians in the Polish rear.

Pilsudski's troops were on the verge of defeat, which worried the western patrons of Warsaw. First, a note from the British Foreign Office was issued with a proposal for a truce, then the Polish ministers themselves turned to Moscow with a request for peace.

But here the sense of proportion betrayed the Bolshevik leaders. The success of the counter-offensive against Polish aggression gave rise to hope among them for proletarian uprisings in Europe and the victory of the world revolution. Leon Trotsky then bluntly suggested "probing the revolutionary situation in Europe with the Red Army bayonet."

The Soviet troops, despite the losses and devastation in the rear, continued their decisive offensive with their last strength, trying to take Lvov and Warsaw in August 1920. The situation in western Europe was then extremely difficult, after the devastating world war, all states, without exception, were shaken by revolutionary uprisings. In Germany and Hungary, local communists then quite realistically claimed power, and the appearance of the victorious Red Army of Lenin and Trotsky in the center of Europe could really change the whole geopolitical alignment.

As Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who commanded the Soviet offensive on Warsaw, wrote later: "There is no doubt that if we had won a victory on the Vistula, the revolution would have engulfed the entire European continent with a fiery flame."

"Miracle on the Vistula"

In anticipation of victory, the Bolsheviks have already created their own Polish government - the "Provisional Revolutionary Committee of Poland", headed by the communist Poles Felix Dzerzhinsky and Julian Markhlevsky (the one who negotiated with Piłsudski about an armistice at the end of 1919). The famous cartoonist Boris Yefimov has already prepared a poster for Soviet newspapers "Warsaw was taken by the Red Heroes."

Meanwhile, the West has stepped up military support for Poland. The de facto commander of the Polish army was the French General Weygand, the head of the Anglo-French military mission in Warsaw. Several hundred French officers with extensive experience of the world war became advisers in the Polish army, creating, in particular, the radio intelligence service, which by August 1920 had established the interception and decryption of radio communications of the Soviet troops.

On the side of the Poles, an American aviation squadron, funded and staffed by pilots from the United States, actively fought. In the summer of 1920, the Americans successfully bombed the advancing cavalry of Budyonny.

The Soviet troops that had made their way to Warsaw and Lvov, despite the successful offensive, found themselves in an extremely difficult situation. They broke away from the supply bases for hundreds of kilometers, due to the devastation in the rear, they could not deliver replenishment and supplies in time. On the eve of the decisive battles for the Polish capital, many Red regiments were reduced to 150-200 fighters, the artillery lacked ammunition, and the few serviceable aircraft could not provide reliable reconnaissance and detect the concentration of Polish reserves.

But the Soviet command underestimated not only the purely military problems of the "campaign on the Vistula", but also the national sentiments of the Poles. As in Russia, during the Polish invasion, a response surge of Russian patriotism arose, so in Poland, when the Red troops reached Warsaw, a national upsurge began. This was facilitated by active Russophobic propaganda, representing the advancing Red troops in the guise of Asian barbarians (although the Poles themselves in that war were extremely far from humanism).


Polish volunteers in Lviv. Photo:

The result of all these reasons was the successful counter-offensive of the Poles, launched in the second half of August 1920. In Polish history, these events are called unusually pathetic - "Miracle on the Vistula." Indeed, this is the only major victory for Polish arms in the past 300 years.

Peaceful Riga Peace

The actions of Wrangel's white troops also contributed to the weakening of the Soviet troops near Warsaw. In the summer of 1920, the Whites just launched their last offensive from the territory of the Crimea, capturing a vast territory between the Dnieper and the Sea of Azov and diverting the Red reserves to themselves. Then the Bolsheviks, in order to free some of their forces and secure the rear from peasant uprisings, even had to agree to an alliance with the anarchists of Nestor Makhno.

If in the fall of 1919 Pilsudski's policy predetermined the defeat of the Whites in the attack on Moscow, then in the summer of 1920 it was Wrangel's blow that predetermined the defeat of the Reds in the attack on the Polish capital. As the former tsarist general and military theorist Svechin wrote: "Ultimately, the Warsaw operation was won not by Pilsudski, but by Wrangel."

The Soviet troops defeated near Warsaw were partially captured, and partially retreated to the German territory of East Prussia. Only near Warsaw, 60 thousand Russians were taken prisoner, all in all, over 100 thousand people ended up in Polish prisoner-of-war camps. Of these, at least 70 thousand died in less than a year - this clearly characterizes the monstrous regime that the Polish authorities established for the prisoners, anticipating the Nazi concentration camps.

The fighting continued until October 1920. If during the summer the Red troops fought to the west over 600 km, then in August-September the front again rolled back more than 300 km to the east. The Bolsheviks could still gather new forces against the Poles, but they chose not to risk it - they were increasingly distracted by peasant uprisings that flared up throughout the country.

Pilsudski, after the costly success near Warsaw, also did not have sufficient forces for a new offensive on Minsk and Kiev. Therefore, peace negotiations began in Riga, which ended the Soviet-Polish war. The final peace treaty was signed only on March 19, 1921. Initially, the Poles demanded monetary compensation from Soviet Russia in the amount of 300 million tsarist gold rubles, but during the negotiations they had to cut their appetites by exactly 10 times.

As a result of the war, the plans of either Moscow or Warsaw were not implemented. The Bolsheviks failed to create Soviet Poland, and Pilsudski's nationalists were unable to recreate the ancient borders of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which included all Belarusian and Ukrainian lands (the most zealous supporters of Pilsudski insisted even on the "return" of Smolensk). However, the Poles for a long time returned to their rule the western lands of Ukraine and Belarus. Until 1939, the Soviet-Polish border was only 30 km west of Minsk and was never peaceful.

In fact, the Soviet-Polish war of 1920 in many respects laid the problems that “shot out” in September 1939, contributing to the outbreak of World War II.

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