The Molotov-Ribbentrop PactPartition or Reunion?
continued from the 21-3 Fall issue
A number of significant events happened in 1939 on the world stage. Most notably, on September 1 the Second World War started when the German armies invaded Poland. Seven days earlier German Reich was given carte blanche for invasion by singing an agreement with the Soviet Union, known as a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. According to this treaty Berlin and Moscow obligated “themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other either individually or jointly with other powers.” Together with non-aggression provisions the Pact contained a Secret Additional Protocol which determined Soviet and German spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. Guided by this Protocol, German Wehrmacht invaded Polish territory from the West on September 1, while the Red Army did the same from the East on September 17.
Polish opinion on these events is well-known. As the current President of Poland Lech Kaczynski recently stated in his speech, “when we were still defending Warsaw [against Germans]… that day Poland was knifed in the back” (www.viewlondon.co.uk). On September 17 Poland unexpectedly discovered that Moscow sided with Germany. The Soviets justified the invasion as an action to “liberate their blood brothers [Ukrainians and Belarusians] from Polish national oppression” and, at the same time, “to protect the lives and property of the people of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine” from Germany (Vakar 1956, 155).
How can we assess Soviet decision to cross the 1921-1939 Polish border from the Belarusian viewpoint? As a prominent researcher of Belarusian history Nicholas Vakar noted “to the Belarusians it [the reunion of Western and Eastern parts] meant the restoration of their own territorial integrity long disrupted by wars and revolution. They could feel that their country was a full-sized nation at last” (1956, 156). Indeed, since 1918 when the independence of Belarusian National Republic (BNR) was proclaimed within Belarusian ethnographic boundaries, the territory of the country was repeatedly occupied and re-occupied by German, Polish, and Soviet armies.
Let’s follow the chronology of events. When at the end of 1918 German troops left Minsk, the Red Army occupied the city. BNR government had to flee first to Vilnia*, then to Germany and began to work as a government-in-exile. Meanwhile, Polish armies were moving eastward to check the advance of the Reds. They succeeded in their offensive. On April 22, 1919 the troops of General Pilsudski entered Vilnia and a month later – Minsk. The new occupational power declared that the future of the country would be decided “by the free will of the people whose rights to self-determination shall in no wise be restricted” (1956, 109). Supported by the Allies, Poles offered Belarusians protection and, it seemed, federal status within the Polish state. However, a different view soon prevailed. On May 2, 1919, the Polish Sejm (Parliament) declared that Belarus, “the homeland of Kosciuszko, Mickiewicz, and Traugutt, belongs to Poland and is an inalienable part of the Polish state” (1956, 110).
The eastern Polish frontier was also a front line since no peace treaty was signed between Poland and the Soviet state. In 1920 the Red Army again started its westward march and on July 11 re-entered Minsk. The Soviets advanced further and were stopped only at the very gates of Warsaw in mid-August. The Poles, in their turn, reversed the disposition, put the Soviets to rout, and reoccupied western Belarus. Both sides were exhausted and, finally, started peace talks in 1921. The negotiations went on without Belarusian participation on either the Polish or the Soviet side. As a result, the treaty, signed March 18, 1921 in Riga, divided the Belarusian territory, with one part going to the Poles, and the other to the Soviets (1956, 116).
Eighteen years later, in September 1939, the territory of Belarus was reunited under the Soviet banner. It is a tragedy of history that the events that meant suffering and humiliation for some, marked realization of “the century-old dream,” as prominent Belarusian poet Janka Kupala called it, for others. Unfortunately, on the world stage great powers often act according to the principles of realpolitik and do not consider the interests of smaller nations. Throughout the 20th century the map of the world was substantially remade several times – after both World Wars and in the Decolonization period. For instance, in less than thirty years (1918-1945) Belarusian borders were altered by Germans, Soviets, Poles, and the Allies almost a dozen (!) times. The wishes and concerns of the ordinary people, of course, were not taken into consideration.
The case of Vilnia is an interesting example of how the great powers have used the city as a bargaining chip in their political games. Throughout the history Vilnia meant a lot to many peoples. Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, and Belarusians all had reasons to feel connected to the city. To Belarusians Vilnia was, first of all, the center of the national revival. Nasha Niva (Our Field) newspaper which played a significant role in the strengthening of the Belarusian national consciousness was edited and published in Vilnia from 1906 until 1917. The city was a meeting point for nationally-aware Belarusians. A Belarusian-language elementary school was opened in Vilnia in 1915.
According to the 1897 Imperial Russian census Jews, Poles, and Russians comprised 40, 31, and 20 percent respectively of the population of the city itself. However, if we consider Vilnia together with its surrounding district we encounter a different picture. According to the same census, Belarusians were first with 26.3 %, followed by Jews – 21.6%, Lithuanians – 21.3%, Poles – 20.4 %, and Russians and others – 10.4%.
In the turmoil of World War I and subsequent events Vilnia changed hands several times. From 1915 until 1918 the city was occupied by the German Empire. Lithuanians proclaimed their independence in Vilnia in 1918. Then Poles and the Soviets in turns controlled the city.. After the defeat in the battle of Warsaw the Soviets ceded the city (July 12, 1920) to officially neutral Lithuania in order to delay the Polish advance. However, in October 1920, Polish general Lucian Zeligowski and his troops seized the city and proclaimed it the capital of a new, albeit temporary, entity of Middle Lithuania. Soon after, Middle Lithuania joined the Polish state. The city of Vilnia remained under the Polish rule for eighteen more years.
The issue of Vilnia re-emerged again in 1939. There was a special provision regarding the city in the aforementioned Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. According to the agreement Vilnia together with its district was allotted to Lithuania, whereas the country itself was assigned to the German and later to the Soviet sphere of influence. In any case, on September 19, 1939 Vilnia was seized by the Soviet Union. At first, the city was incorporated into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). The officials from Soviet Belarus moved into the city, Belarusian-language schools were opened, and a newspaper Vilenskaja Prauda (Vilnia Pravda) was established.
However, on October 10, 1939 Soviet government signed a treaty with then-independent Lithuania without consulting with Belarusian communists. According to the treaty, the USSR handed over to Lithuania the city of Vilnia and the adjacent lands – 2,750 square miles with a population of 457,500 people. In return the Soviet Union got the right to establish army, navy, and air bases in Lithuania (1956, 159). One year later the Red Army used these bases to occupy Lithuania. Meanwhile, at the Extraordinary Fifth Session of the Supreme Soviet in accepting West Belarus into the BSSR, Vyacheslav Molotov explained the situation in the following way: “The Vilnia territory belongs to Lithuania not by reason of population. No, we know that the majority of population in that region is not Lithuanian. But the historical past and aspirations of the Lithuanian nation have been intimately connected with the city of Vilnia, and the Government of the USSR considered it necessary to honor these moral factors” (1956, 159 ).
In fact, both Soviet and Nazi regimes are widely known for dishonoring the moral factors they often appealed to. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is just one of the historical documents that highlight the exceptionally cruel character of Nazi and Soviet governments. Millions of people were held hostage to their political games, millions were annihilated. It is due to an intricate chain of circumstances that the Belarusian nation was reunited when Stalin and Hitler were partitioning Europe.
* Vilnia, as it is spelled in Belarusian, Wilno in Polish, Vilna in Russian, Vilnius in Lithuanian. The spelling of the name of the city changed, depending on political circumstances.
Ilya Kunitski is a historian from Belarus. He was recently awarded a Masters degree in Political Science by New York University with a focus on International Relations.
This article appeared in
Belarusian Review, Vol. 21, No. 4
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