Did the Soviet Union Invade Poland in September 1939?

(The answer: No, it did not.)

By Grover Furr, Montclair University, NJ

sovietNavysniper

Soviet navy sniper, 1941.

Here’s a recent article in The New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009, p. 17) by Timothy Snyder, Yale University professor, academic expert in this area — and fanatic anticommunist — who just has to know that what he writes here is, to put it politely, false:

Because the film (although not the book)* begins with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 rather than the joint German-Soviet invasion and division of Poland in 1939… the Soviet state had just months earlier been an ally of Nazi Germany… (* “Defiance”)

“Behind Closed Doors” (PBS series 2009):

“After invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets divided the country as they had agreed to do in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact…”

http://www.pbs.org/behindcloseddoors/in-depth/struggle-poland.html

Wikipedia article: “Soviet invasion of Poland”:

“… on 17 September, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east…”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_invasion_of_Poland

Every historian I have read, even those who do not conform to Cold War paradigms, state unproblematically that the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939.

But the the truth is that the USSR did not invade Poland in September, 1939. Even though the chances are at least 99 to 1 that every history book you can find says that it did. I have yet to find an English-language book that gets this correct. And, of course, the USSR had never been an “ally” of Nazi Germany.

I will present a lot of evidence in support of this statement. There is a great deal more evidence to support what I say – much more than I can present here, and no doubt much more that I have not yet even identified or located.

Furthermore, at the time it was widely acknowledged that no such invasion occurred. I’ll demonstrate that too.

Probably the truth of this matter was another victim of the post-WW2 Cold War, when a great many falsehoods about Soviet history were invented or popularized. The truth about this and many other questions concerning the history of the first socialist state has simply become “unmentionable in polite company.”

Demonizing – I use the word advisedly, it is not too strong – the history of the communist movement and anything to do with Stalin has become de rigueur, a shibboleth of respectability. And not only among avowed champions of capitalism but among ourselves, on the left, among Marxists, opponents of capitalism, the natural constituency of a movement for communism.

Some time ago Doug Henwood tweaked me on the MLG list for “defending Stalin.”
I could make a crack about what defenses of Stalin have to do with a “sensible materialism,” but that would be beneath me. (MLG list May 17 2009)

Doug thinks he knows something about Stalin and the USSR during Stalin’s time. He doesn’t! But you can’t blame him too much, since none of us do. More precisely: We “know” a lot of things about the Soviet Union and Stalin, and almost all of those things are just not true. We’ve been swallowing lies for the truth our whole lives.

I’ll be brief in this presentation. I have prepared separate web pages with references to much of the evidence I have found (not all – there is just too much). I’m also preparing a longer version for eventual publication.

The Nonaggression Treaty Between Germany and the USSR of August 1939

For a discussion of the events that led up to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 an excellent account is still Bill Bland, “The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939″ (1990). I have checked every citation in this article; most are available online now. It’s very accurate, but far more detail than the present article requires.

Before we get into the question of the invasion that did not take place, the reader needs to become familiar with some misconceptions about the Nonaggression Treaty and why they are false. These too are based on anticommunist propaganda that is widely, if naively, “believed.” The most common, and most false, of these is stated above in the PBS series “Behind Closed Doors”

…the Nazis and the Soviets divided the country as they had agreed to do in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact…

This is completely false, as any reading of the text of the M-R Pact itself will reveal. Just read the words on the page (see below).

The Soviets Wanted to Protect the USSR – and therefore to Preserve Independent Poland

[For the text of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact see m-rpact.html

It is conventionally stated as fact that the Nonaggression Pact between the USSR and Germany (often called the “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” or “Treaty” after the two foreign ministers who signed it) was an agreement to “partition Poland”, divide it up. This is completely false. I’ve prepared a page with much fuller evidence; see “The Secret Protocols to the M-R Pact Did NOT Plan Any Partition of Poland”. No doubt a big reason for this falsehood is this: Britain and France did sign a Nonaggression Pact with Hitler that “partitioned” another state — Czechoslovakia. That was the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938. Poland too took part in the “partition” of Czechoslovakia too. Poland seized a part of the Cieszyn area of Czechoslovakia, even though it had only a minority Polish population. This invasion and occupation was not even agreed upon in the Munich Agreement. But neither France nor Britain did anything about it. Hitler seized the remaining part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. This had not been foreseen in the Munich Agreement. But Britain, France, and Poland did nothing about it.

So the anticommunist “Allies” Britain, France, and Poland really did participate in the partitioning of a powerless state! Maybe that’s why the anticommunist “party line” is that the USSR did likewise? But whatever the reason for this lie, it remains a lie. The Soviet Union signed the Nonaggression Pact with Germany not to “partition Poland” like the Allies had partitioned Czechoslovakia, but in order to defend the USSR. The Treaty included a line of Soviet interest within Poland beyond which German troops could not pass in the event Germany routed the Polish army in a war. The point here was that, if the Polish army were beaten, it and the Polish government could retreat beyond the line of Soviet interest, and so find shelter, since Hitler had agreed not to penetrate further into Poland than that line. From there they could make peace with Germany. The USSR would have a buffer state, armed and hostile to Germany, between the Reich and the Soviet frontier.

The Soviets — “Stalin”, to use a crude synecdoche (= “a part that stands for the whole”) — did not do this out of any love for fascist Poland. The Soviets wanted a Polish government — ANY Polish government — as a buffer between the USSR and the Nazi armies. The utter betrayal of the fascist Polish Government of its own people frustrated this plan. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the Polish government had two alternatives in the event its army was smashed by an attacking army.

1. It could stay inside the country, perhaps moving its capital away from the invading army. From there it could have sued for peace, or surrendered.

2. The Polish government could have fled to an allied country that was at war with Germany: either France or England

Rumania was neutral in the war. By crossing into neutral Rumania the Polish government became prisoners. The legal word is “interned”. They could not function as a government from Rumania, or pass through Rumania to a country at war with Germany like France, because to permit them to do that would be a violation of Rumania’s neutrality, a hostile act against Germany. I will discuss “internment” and the international law on this question extensively below.
The USSR did not invade Poland – and everybody knew it at the time. When Poland had no government, Poland was no longer a state. (More detailed discussion below.)

What that meant was this: at this point Hitler had nobody with whom to negotiate a cease-fire, or treaty. Furthermore, the M-R Treaty’s Secret Protocols were void, since they were an agreement about the state of Poland and no state of Poland existed any longer. Unless the Red Army came in to prevent it, there was nothing to prevent the Nazis from coming right up to the Soviet border. Or — as we now know they were in fact preparing to do — Hitler could have formed one or more pro-Nazi states in what had until recently been Eastern Poland. That way Hitler could have had it both ways: claim to the Soviets that he was still adhering to the “spheres of influence” agreement of the M-R Pact while in fact setting up a pro-Nazi, highly militarized fascist Ukrainian nationalist state on the Soviet border.

At the end of September a new secret agreement was concluded. In it the Soviet line of interest was far to the East of the “sphere of influence” line decided upon a month earlier in the Secret Protocol and published in Izvestiia and in the New York Times during September 1939. This reflected Hitler’s greater power, now that he had smashed the Polish military. See the map at new_spheres_0939.html

In this territory Poles were a minority, even after the “polonization” campaign of settling Poles in the area during the ‘20s and ‘30s. You can see the ethnic / linguistic population map at curzonline.html

How do we know this interpretation of events is true?

polishPolicemencaptured

< Polish soldiers in custody of the Red Army. [1939]

How do we know the USSR did not commit aggression against, or “invade”, Poland when it occupied Eastern Poland beginning on September 17, 1939 after the Polish Government had interned itself in Rumania? Here are nine pieces of evidence:

1. The Polish government did not declare war on USSR.

The Polish government declared war on Germany when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939. It did not declare war on the USSR.

2. The Polish Supreme Commander Rydz-Smigly ordered Polish soldiers not to fight the Soviets, though he ordered Polish forces to continue to fight the Germans.

See rydz_dont_fight.html

3. The Polish President Ignaz Moscicki, interned in Rumania since Sept. 17, tacitly admitted that Poland no longer had a government.

See moscicki_resignation.html

4. The Rumanian government tacitly admitted that Poland no longer had a government.

See moscicki_resignation.html

The Rumanian position recognized the fact that Moscicki was blowing smoke when he claimed he had legally resigned on September 30. So the Rumanian government fabricated a story according to which Moscicki had already resigned back on September 15, just before entering Rumania and being interned (NYT 10.04.39, p.12). Note that Moscicki himself did not claim this!

Rumania needed this legal fiction to try to sidestep the following issue. Once Moscicki had been interned in Rumania – that is, from September 17 1939 on – he could not function as President of Poland. Since resignation is an official act, Moscicki could not resign once he was in Rumania.

For our present purposes, here’s the significant point: Both the Polish leaders and the Rumanian government recognized that Poland was bereft of a government once the Polish government crossed the border into Rumania and were interned there.

Both Moscicki and Rumania wanted a legal basis – a fig-leaf — for such a government. But they disagreed completely about this fig-leaf, which exposes it as what it was – a fiction.

5. Rumania had a military treaty with Poland aimed against the USSR. Rumania did not declare war on the USSR.

The Polish government later claimed that it had “released” Rumania from its obligations under this military treaty in return for safe haven in Rumania.

But there is no evidence for this statement. No wonder: it is at least highly unlikely that Rumania would have ever promised “safe haven” for Poland, since that would have been an act of hostility against Nazi Germany. Rumania was neutral in the war and, as discussed below, insisted upon imprisoning the Polish goverment and disarming the Polish forced once they had crossed the border into Rumania.  The real reason for Rumania’s failure to declare war on the USSR is probably the one given in a New York Times article of September 19, 1939:

“The Rumanian viewpoint concerning the Rumanian-Polish anti-Soviet agreement is that it would be operative only if a Russian attack came as an isolated event and not as a consequence of other wars.” – “Rumania Anxious; Watches Frontier.” NYT 09.19.39, p.8.

That means Rumania recognized that the Red Army was not allied with Germany, an “other war.” This is tacit recognition of the Soviet and German position that Poland no longer had a government, and therefore was no longer a state.

6. France did not declare war on the USSR, though it had a mutual defense treaty with Poland. See m-rpact.html for the reconstructed text of the “secret military protocol” of this treaty, which has been “lost” – i.e. which the French government still keeps “secret”

7. England never demanded that the USSR withdraw its troops from Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, the parts of the former Polish state occupied by the Red Army after September 17, 1939.  On the contrary, the British government concluded that these territories should not be a part of a future Polish state. Even the Polish government-in-exile agreed! See maisky_101739_102739.html These documents are in the original Russian, with the relevant quotations translated into English below them.

8. The League of Nations did not determine the USSR had invaded a member state.

Article 16 of the League of Nations Covenant required members to take trade and economic sanctions against any member who “resorted to war”.

No country took any sanctions against the USSR. No country broke diplomatic relations with the USSR over this action.  However, when the USSR attacked Finland in 1939 the League did vote to expel the USSR, and several countries broke diplomatic relations with it. See http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1939/391214a.html

A very different response! which tells us how the League viewed the Soviet action in the case of Poland.

9. All countries accepted the USSR’s declaration of neutrality.  All, including the belligerent Polish allies France and England, agreed that the USSR was not a belligerent power, was not participating in the war. In effect they accepted the USSR’s claim that it was neutral in the conflict.  See FDR’s “Proclamation 2374 on Neutrality”, November 4, 1939:

“…a state of war unhappily exists between Germany and France; Poland; and the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa,…” – http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=15831&st=&st1=

also “152 – Statement on Combat Areas” – defines “belligerent ports, British, French, and German, in Europe or Africa…” – http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=15833&st=&st1=

The Soviet Union is not mentioned as a belligerent. That means the USA did not consider the USSR to be at war with Poland. For the Soviet Union’s claim of neutrality see soviet_neutrality.html

Naturally, a country cannot “invade” another country and yet credibly claim that it is “neutral” with respect to the war involving that country. But NONE of these countries declared the USSR a belligerent. Nor did the United States, the League of Nations, or any country in the world.

The Polish State Collapsed

By September 17, 1939, when Soviet troops crossed the border, the Polish government had ceased to function. The fact that Poland no longer had a government meant that Poland was no longer a state. On September 17 when Molotov handed Polish Ambassador to the USSR Grzybowski the note Grzybowski told Molotov that he did not know where his government was, but had been informed that he should contact it through Bucharest. See polish_state_collapsed.html

In fact the last elements of the Polish government crossed the border into Rumania and so into internment during the day of September 17, according to a United Press dispatch published on page four of the New York Times on September 18 with a dateline of Cernauti, Rumania. See polish_leaders_flee.html

Without a government, Poland as a state had ceased to exist under international law. This fact is denied — more often, simply ignored — by anticommunists, for whom it is a bone in the throat.

We take a closer look at this issue in the next section below. But a moment’s reflection will reveal the logic of this position. With no government — the Polish government was interned in Rumania, remember — there is no one to negotiate with; no body to which the police, local governments, and the military are responsible. Polish ambassadors to foreign countries no longer represent their government, because there is no government. (See the page polish_state_collapsed.html , especially the NYT article of October 2, 1939 )
The Question of the State in International Law

See state_international_law.html for more details.

katiushas

Katyushas firing at German lines. Highly mobile batteries, "Stalin's Organs" were widely feared among Hitler's troops.

* The Secret Protocol to the M-R Pact was no longer valid, in that it was about spheres of influence in “Poland”, a state.  By September 15 at the latest Germany had taken the position that Poland no longer existed as a state (discussed further here). Once Poland ceased to exist as a state this Secret Protocol did not apply any longer. Therefore if they wanted to the Germans could march right up to the Soviet frontier. Or – and this is what Hitler was in fact going to do if the Soviet Union did not send in troops — they could facilitate the creation of puppet states, like a pro-Nazi Ukrainian Nationalist state.

In any case, once Hitler had taken the position that Poland no longer existed as a state, and therefore that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s agreement on spheres of influence in the state of Poland was no longer valid, the Soviet Union had only two choices: either to

1. Send the Red Army into Western Ukraine and Wester Belorussia to establish sovereignty there; or 2. Let Hitler send the Nazi army right up to the Soviet border.

* Since the Polish state had ceased to exist, the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact was no longer in effect.  The Red Army could cross the border without “invading” or “committing aggression against” Poland. By sending its troops across the border the USSR was claiming sovereignty, so no one else could do so – e.g. a pro-Nazi Ukrainian Nationalist state, or Nazi Germany itself.

* Legitimacy flows from the state, and there was no longer any Polish state.

Therefore the Polish Army was no longer a legitimate army, but a gang of armed men acting without any legitimacy. Having no legitimacy, the Polish Army should have immediately laid down its arms and surrendered. Of course it could keep fighting — but then it would no longer be fighting as a legitimate army but as partisans. Partisans have NO rights at all except under the laws of the government that does claim sovereignty.

* Some Polish nationalists claim that the Soviets showed their “perfidy” by refusing, once they had sent troops across the Soviet frontier, to allow the Polish army cross the border into Rumania.

But this is all wrong. The USSR had diplomatic relations with Rumania. The USSR could not permit thousands of armed men to cross the border from areas where it held sovereignty into Rumania, a neighboring state. Imagine if, say, Mexico or Canada tried to permit thousands of armed men to cross the border into the USA!

Re-negotiation of “Spheres of Influence” September 28 1939

See new_spheres_0939.html

All this is referred to directly in a Ribbentrop (German Foreign Minister)-to-Schulenburg (German ambassador to Moscow) communication of September 15-16 — Telegram No. 360 of 15 September 1939 — with its reference to “the possibility of the formation in this area of new states.”

Note that Ribbentrop is very displeased with the idea that the Soviets would “tak[e] the threat to the Ukrainian and White Russian populations by Germany as a ground for Soviet action” and wants Schulenberg to get Molotov to give some other motive. He was unsuccessful; this was exactly the motive the Soviets gave:

“Nor can it be demanded of the Soviet Government that it remain indifferent to the fate of its blood brothers, the Ukrainians and Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland, who even formerly were without rights and who now have been abandoned entirely to their fate.The Soviet Government deems it its sacred duty to extend the hand of assistance to its brother Ukrainians and brother Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland.”

- TASS, September 17, 1939; quoted in New York Times September 18, 1939, p. 5; also Jane Degras (Ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy 1933-1941, vol. III (London/New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 374-375.

The German government was already considering that Poland no longer existed — there’s no reference to “Poland”, only to “the area lying to the East of the German zone of influence”, etc.

Polish Imperialism

A word of explanation regarding the Soviet reference to “the fate of its blood brothers, the Ukrainians and Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland.”

At the Treaty of Riga signed in March 1921 the Russian Republic (the Soviet Union was not officially formed until 1924), exhausted by the Civil War and foreign intervention, agreed to give half of Belorussia and Ukraine to the Polish imperialists in return for a desperately-needed peace.  We use the words “Polish imperialists” advisedly, because Poles — native speakers of the Polish language — were in the small minority in Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, the areas that passed to Poland in this treaty. The Polish capitalist regime then encouraged ethnic Poles to populate these areas to “polonize” them, and put all kinds of restrictions on the use of the Belorussian and Ukrainian languages. Up till the beginning of 1939, when Hitler decided to turn against Poland before making war on the USSR, the Polish government was maneuvering to join Nazi Germany in a war on the USSR in order to seize more territory. As late as January 26, 1939, Polish Foreign Minister Beck was discussing this with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Warsaw. Ribbentrop wrote:

… 2. I then spoke to M. Beck once more about the policy to be pursued by Poland and Germany towards the Soviet Union and in this connection also spoke about the question of the Greater Ukraine and again proposed Polish-German collaboration in this field…M. Beck made no secret of the fact that Poland had aspirations directed toward the Soviet Ukraine and a connection with the Black Sea…(Original in Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik… Serie D. Bd. V. S. 139-140. English translation in Documents on German Foreign Policy. 1918-1945. Series D. Vol. V. The document in question is No. 126, pp. 167-168; this quotation on p. 168. Also in Russian in God Krizisa T. 1, Doc. No. 120.)

Polish Foreign Minister Beck was telling Ribbentrop that Poland would like to seize ALL of the Ukraine from the USSR, for that was the only way Poland could have had “a connection with the Black Sea.”  In occupying Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine the USSR was reuniting Belorussians and Ukrainians, East and West. This is what the Soviets meant by the claim that they were “liberating” these areas. The word “liberation” is conventionally used when an occupying imperialist power withdraws, and that’s what happened here.

The Polish Government In Exile

At the beginning of October 1939 the British and French governments recognized a Polish government-in-exile in France (later it moved to England). This was an act of hostility against Germany, of course. But the UK and France were already at war with Germany. (The USA took the position of refusing to recognize the conquest of Poland, but treated the Polish government-in-exile in Paris in an equivocal manner. Evidently it wasn’t sure what to do.)

The USSR could not recognize it for a number of reasons:

* Recognizing it would be incompatible with the neutrality of the USSR in the war. It would be an act of hostility against Germany, with which the USSR had a non-aggression pact and a desire to avoid war. (The USSR did recognize it in July 1941, after the Nazi invasion).

* The Polish government-in-exile could not exercise sovereignty anywhere.

* Most important: if the USSR were to recognize the Polish government-in-exile, the USSR would have had to retreat back to its pre-September 1939 borders — because the Polish government-in-exile would never recognize the Soviet occupation of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine.

Then Germany would have simply marched up to the Soviet frontier.

To permit that would have been a crime against the Soviet people, of course. And, as the British and French soon agreed, a blow against them, and a big boost to Hitler as well. See should_the_ussr_have_permitted.html

Polish Government Uniquely Irresponsible

No other government during WW2 did anything remotely like what the Polish government did. Many governments of countries conquered by the Axis formed “governments in exile” to continue the war. But only the Polish government interned itself in a neutral country, thereby stripping itself of the ability to function as a government and stripping their own people of their existence as a state.  What should the Polish government leader have done, once they realized they were completely beaten militarily?

* The Polish government should have remained somewhere in Poland – if not in the capital, Warsaw, then in Eastern Poland. If they had set up an alternative capital in the East — something the Soviets had prepared to do East of Moscow, in case the Nazis captured Moscow — then they could have preserved a “rump” Poland.  There it should have capitulated – as, for example, the French Government did in July 1940. Or, it could have sued for peace, as the Finnish government did in March 1940. Then Poland, like Finland, would have remained as a state, though it would certainly have lost territory.

* Or, the Polish government could have fled to Great Britain or France, countries already at war with Germany.

Polish government leaders could have fled by air any time. Or they could have gotten to the Polish port of Gdynia, which held out until September 14, and fled by boat.

* Why didn’t they? Did Polish government leaders think they might be killed? Well, so what? Tens of thousands of their fellow citizens and soldiers were being killed!

o Maybe they really did believe Rumania would violate its neutrality with Germany and let them pass through to France? If they did believe this, they were remarkably stupid. There’s never been any evidence that the Rumanian government gave them permission to do this.

o Did they believe Britain and France were going to “save” them? If so, that too was remarkably stupid. Even if the British and French really intended to field a large army to attack German forces in the West, the Polish army would have had to hold against the Wehrmacht for a month at least, perhaps more. But the Polish Army was in rapid retreat after the first day or two of the war.

o Or, maybe they fled simply out of sheer cowardice. That is what their flight out of Warsaw, the Polish capital, suggests.

Everything that happened afterwards was a result of the Polish government being interned in Rumania.

Here’s how the world might have been different if a “rump” Poland had remained after surrender to Hitler:

* A “rump” Poland might finally have agreed to make a mutual defense pact that included the USSR. That would have restarted “collective security”, the anti-Nazi alliance between the Western Allies and the USSR that the Soviets sought but UK and French leaders rejected.

That would have* greatly weakened Hitler; * probably eliminating much of the Jewish Holocaust; * certainly preventing the conquest of France, Belgium, and the rest of Europe;

* certainly prevented many millions of deaths of Soviet citizens. * Poland could have emerged from WW2 as an independent state, perhaps a neutral one, like Finland, Sweden, or Austria.  All this, and more – if only the Polish government had remained in their country at least long enough to surrender, as every other government did.

Conclusion: Why Is The Truth About the International Communist Movement Important?

In a discussion on the MLG list in March 2008 Barbara Foley wrote:

… If we on the left want to see a revived movement for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the construction of egalitarian societies that will allow human beings to be human, then we need to have as clear an understanding as possible of both the achievements and failures of previous attempts at revolutionary social transformation. Many great things happened in the USSR and China as these societies attempted to build socialism; there were also many tragedies and reversals.

Barbara has hit the nail on the head. We are never going to figure out how to build that just, egalitarian society based upon collectivity and cooperation – what has traditionally been called “communist” – until we have learned the lessons, positive as well as negative, from the rich history and experiences of those who have preceded us.

The Soviet Union

First among these our predecessors are the brave, intelligent, and visionary people of the Soviet Union during the time of Lenin and Stalin (I put Khrushchev in a different category altogether). They, and especially Joseph Stalin, have been slandered, traduced, demonized by the class enemy, the capitalists and their researchers.

This is appropriate. It’s logical that the capitalists, and those who support exploitation, should hate Lenin, Stalin and the communists of their time.

However, the experts of the class enemy have shown far more class consciousness than we have! They have not only been promoting lies that benefit them and discourage us — that is to be expected. But they have persuaded us to believe these lies! and that is OUR faults.

Falsehoods about the USSR during Stalin’s time, 1920s-1953

I’ve spent most of the past decade studying the documents from the former Soviet archives that have been published since the end of the USSR in 1991. They shed a completely new light on the history of the USSR during the Stalin period. I could sum up the main lesson by quoting the title of a song by Wierd Al Yankovich: “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

The history of the USSR during these years must be redone again from the beginning. Here’s a list of just a few of the cardinal events in this history that are either largely or completely distorted in anticommunist historiography (including the anticommunist historiography in Russia itself):

* The so-called “man-made famine in Ukraine” is a myth. It was not “man-made” nor confined to the Ukraine. It was one — the last — of a series of natural famines caused by crop failures that had occurred frequently throughout Russian history and that are familiar in most agricultural societies.

* The defendants in the famous “Moscow Show Trials” of 1936, 1937 and 1938 were not framed, but were guilty of at least those crimes to which they confessed.

* Leon Trotsky too, an absent codefendant in each of these trials, did conspire with Germany and Japan to overthrow the Soviet government, put an end to the Comintern, and dismember the Soviet Union, and sabotage military defense during wartime, provided he got help to come to power.

* The “Great Terror” of mass executions that did indeed take place in the USSR between 1937 and 1938 was an attempt by some Party leaders and the head of the NKVD (secret police) Nikolai Ezhov to sow distrust and discontent among parts of the Soviet population in order to weaken it during an attack and so facilitate the overthrow of the Soviet regime. Stalin and the other Party leaders associated with him opposed this and put an end to it — when they found out about it.

* Stalin tried hard to institute a social-democratic type of democracy in the USSR in the 1930s, and made further attempts during the 1940s, but was opposed and defeated in this by Party leaders.

* Nikita Khrushchev’s famous attack on Stalin in his “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956 is completely dishonest. A careful study of each of Khrushchev’s “revelations”, or accusations, against Stalin and Lavrentii Beria, shows that every one of them can be proven false in the light of documentary evidence from former Soviet archives.

I could make a much longer list.

In short, nothing we have been told; nothing in the famous “canonical” antisoviet and anti-Stalin books that are routinely cited, is trustworthy.

Our Job

It is easy to feel indignant at such wholesale lying. But perhaps we should not be surprised that anticommunist researchers, funded by capitalist institutions, should falsify the history of the Soviet Union and the communist movement generally. What should we expect them to do? Instead, we should look to our own shortcomings. It’s past time that we on the Left showed as much class consciousness as the capitalist “scholars”. We have to see through their falsehoods.

It’s essential that we sweep aside the mountains of lies about the history of the USSR and the international communist movement of the 20th century and learn what really did happen, so we can assess both its weaknesses and strengths, and learn to do better.  Until we undertake that task seriously our efforts towards building that better society of justice and equality cannot possibly succeed. All of our criticism and theorizing will be built on a foundation of lies. Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek, Badiou, and many others — all “believed” Khrushchev’s lies about Soviet history and Stalin, and theorized accordingly.

China

There’s an attempt to likewise demonize Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. For some reason it has not been as successful – not yet, anyway.

There’s also an attempt to recuperate the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party, and Mao more generally. Some really interesting work has been done on this! Our own Dan Vukovich, formerly of Santa Clara and now teaching in Hong Kong, is contributing to this effort. We need a similar effort with regard to Soviet history of the Stalin period (as well as before and afterwards).

The anticommunist attempt – largely successful, so far – to demonize Stalin and the USSR during his time, is part of a larger reactionary, even fascist, project: to likewise condemn as evil all revolutionary attempts to achieve a non-exploitative society of equality and justice. We simply must resist it with everything we’ve got. But we can only do that by patient historical work. Theoretical work has to be grounded on the historical reality – on what really happened, not on falsehoods.

The main failing among those who are recuperating the Chinese communist experience is, once again, one-sidedness. In response to the totalizing negativity of anticommunist falsifiers they are tempted to embrace an equally totalizing positive attitude about the Cultural Revolution. Yet the Cultural Revolution failed, and China had turned decisively towards capitalism before Mao died.

A similar historical movement is going on within Russia now – one to recuperate Stalin and the glory years of the USSR, when the eyes of much of mankind were on the successes, evident and apparent, of collectivization, industrialization, and socialism in the USSR. But this movement is also fatally one-sided, a bourgeois reaction against the reactionary demonization of the USSR and Stalin.

The “criticisms” of communist history that pass as truths today not just in bourgeois textbooks and culture but on the Left as well, are worse than useless — they are a smokescreen of lies. Their purpose is to obscure what really happened and so to prevent us from learning the real lessons of the successes and ultimate failures of our communist predecessors.

Dialectical, Marxist Study Needed

The attempts to recuperate the Chinese and the Soviet revolutions – what we might call, as the Chinese called it, “the historical experience of the dictatorship of the proletariat” – share some serious flaws:

* they are, for the most part, not being made using a Marxist methodology;

* they are not undertaken for the purpose of figuring out “what was right” and “what went wrong” from the viewpoint of learning lessons, positive and negative, about how to make a communist revolution and build that communist society.

Therefore they run the danger of falling into nationalist, rather than Marxist or communist, patterns.  Our task is to learn the lessons, positive and negative, from the Soviet and Chinese experience, so we and those who come after us, can do it better next time.  To do that we need to know what really happened. My presentation today is intended as a small part of that essential work.

GROVER FURR teaches English at Montclair University, NJ. He’s an expert on matters relating to Stalinism, historical propaganda, and the nature of the Soviet experience.

13 comments

  • Don Hays

    THIS IS A SUPERB PIECE, A BREATH OF FRESH AIR AFTER ALMOST A CENTURY OF UNINTERRUPTED LIES. Thanks for publishing. I’ll pass it on.

  • Brandon Meyers

    The American left has been particularly gullible in swallowing the anti-communist version of history, in general, and the anti-Stalin/Soviet Union story in the specific. This has opened huge crevasses between various left groups, all to the benefit of the capitalists, who could not celebrate enough the discord and self-inflicted wounds observed in the progressive camp. Maybe it’s a perversely American thing (especially after the close of WW2) to cave in easily to systemic pressures, and to seek “respectability from those whose seal of approval should be regarded as the kiss of dishonor for people honestly engaged in social change. But that’s the record, and it’s disgusting. In this context, it’s also opportune to mention that American liberalism has been an extremely pernicious player in these developments, and continues to play the role assigned by history to such political forces of the faux left. Obama and his cohorts are just the latest example. At best, they disempower the genuine left; at worst they give the left a bad name (via repeated self-inflicted failures) and end up squandering revolutionary pressures.

    There are examples of signal treachery all over the so-called left, and many instances of rank cowardice, opportunism, and other sickening deviations, not the stuff revolutions are made of. Against this context, it’s encouraging to see the work of this lonely voice, Prof. Furr, to use some truth to pierce the dense fog of disinformation that envelops this subject, a truly titanic task. The sooner we see the historical record as it is, the sooner we’ll be able to find our place on the political map. Till then, we’re all suckers.

  • Alan

    What a crock of crap. Yeah, the Polish government was semi-Fascist and anti-Semitic. By the way, so was Stalin’s Russia…

    And if they didn’t divide Poland, then what were Soviet troops doing in Poland from September 17, 1939 to June 22, 1941 besides deporting Polish officials to be murdered at Katyn and sending Menachem Begin and others to “safety” – safety being the Gulag?

    They claim there was no Polish government left. On the contrary, the government, and again, admittedly NOT a perfect one, got to Romania, then via France to England. It was NOT recognized by the Communazi Stalin – but he didn’t even put in his own puppets (since he had murdered most of them in the Purges) until Lublin in 1944.

    Once again Grover the Communist presents a fabricated, disingenuous version of history trumped by the facts, including the evidence of thousands of Polish officers murdered at Katyn. “oh, we made a bad mistake”…

  • Jozef Foerch

    I completely agree with you Alan…this truly is a fabrication by someone either hellbent on making a name for themselves based off of the ability to concoct a ludicrous argument…or someone who is off their rocker. To answer to your “facts” and “evidence”…
    “1. The Polish government did not declare war on USSR.”- Was it needed? When the USSR was blaring on the microphones that they were there to help fight the fascists and the Govt in Poland was scrambling for a direction to evade to in order to survive? Remember that the Soviet intentions were only realized later when Poland was swallowed up. Bear in mind also that the US never declared war against either North Vietnam or North Korea however we were very much at war with both countries. Also consider Iraq and Afghanistan wherein we overthrew the existing governments and replaced them with “democratically elected” ones.

    “2. The Polish Supreme Commander Rydz-Smigly ordered Polish soldiers not to fight the Soviets, though he ordered Polish forces to continue to fight the Germans.” Well sure…..if he were to give the order for the Poles for 1/3 of them to turn around it would have expedited to capitulation of the entire country. You notice on the very same message and communication that you cited that Rydz-Smigly (effective head of state) does in fact declare that the USSR has invaded. Also something to note in that the Polish reserves were all deployed at this point and that only Border Guard Units (Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza) were sporadically positioned throughout the eastern borders…and they had no weapons to counter the kind of columns that were marching in with an estimated 450,000 plus infantry and support. How can you counter against that with 20,000 Border Guards?

    “3. The Polish President Ignaz Moscicki, interned in Rumania since Sept. 17, tacitly admitted that Poland no longer had a government.”- Well his name is actually Ignacy Mościcki first off…..but that should allow others to see the amount of research you have truly conducted into the persons involved in this scenario. Second Point….your newspaper articles that you quote are from the Third Reich sources via a telephone interview with the NYT. How could you cite that as a source? These are the same people that claimed Polish cavalry charged tanks because they were stupid and did not know any better. Also the same people that claimed that Poland attacked the Radio Station at Gleiwitz. Fact is….Mościcki was interned in a nation desperately clinging to it’s pro-Western agreements and right in the middle of the Polish Campaign .. Armand Călinescu (Prime Minister) was shot by Iron Guard assassins. The power struggle between the Pro-Western Romanian Gov’t (albeit submissive to the Germans) and the Iron Guard had just been escalated to a higher level. Mościcki was not allowed passage through to France until he had resigned…so of course..this is what he was going to do. How is it that if no Polish government existed that Sikorski and allies started almost immediately on building the Polish Government in Exile? For what purpose would that serve if Poland was full of cowards and idiots as you suggest?

    I do not have time or the inclination to respond to each of your line items and preposterous “evidence” that you have collected. You claim that a “Smart Poland” would have gone east to hide behind the Russian curtain and that surely the outcome of destruction in the East would have been decreased significantly if that had occurred. Your point is as disillusioned as your entire article clearly perpetuates your brain to be. The outcome surely would not have changed. The Soviets invaded Poland on September 17th in accordance with their communications with Berlin on the active participation in the partitioning of Poland. The were greatly inclined to do so at little cost to themselves (as Poland had gotten away with in Teschen a year prior) in that the entire Polish Armed Forces were focused on the containing the German threat and not the Russian backstab. Your insistence that a “Smart Poland” would surely have flown directly to France or England if it truly wished to survive are both ignorant and deprived of the situational facts around this Military Campaign. The Polish Navy left port on the day before the war started (Aug 30th) and had completed a miracle in that it evaded the German Fleet that was actively seeking it. The Polish Airforce would truly have been shot down by the superior Luftwaffe Air Cover that completely enveloped the entrance to the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Prussia and every other Western exit to get to France or Britain. It only made sense to go to Romania…and it had been the evacuation plan all along. Your insistence the Russia be the country to lean on is again ignorant to the fact that Poland and the USSR had been at war just 20 yrs prior and had not made any marked effort to improve their relations as Poland completely allied itself with the West rather than the Marxist Russians.

    -On a parting note….English teachers should stick to teaching English rather than delving into subject matters they are not experts in. I feel sorry for your students in that I can only imagine the expectations that they have in class as far as learning the curriculum they had intended to learn vs. the Socialist Agenda/ Stalin Apologist-Revisionist Agenda that you so ignorantly support and embrace.

  • Russian agents never sleep. Zdrawstwuj archivist39! Re-writing history seems to be one of their objectives now.
    If Russians did not invade Poland (which they did do) what was the purpose of their visit on 17th September 1939 other than killing and raping the Polish? A friendly visit?
    What an idiot and rotten liar you are archivist39. I despise liars.

  • bestyrsz golhain

    Thanks a lot. Despite error and wrong tactics give glory and respect for Soviet Union

  • Robert Cullman

    THIS FOR FOERCH:

    He asserts:

    On a parting note….English teachers should stick to teaching English rather than delving into subject matters they are not experts in. I feel sorry for your students in that I can only imagine the expectations that they have in class as far as learning the curriculum they had intended to learn vs. the Socialist Agenda/ Stalin Apologist-Revisionist Agenda that you so ignorantly support and embrace...”

    The above implies that in the social sciences and humanities, at least, specialization is an impregnable wall guaranteeing expertise (and truth?), and that such specialization should benefit students and society at large. While there’s no doubt specialization confers a valuable degree of ready expertise on a given task, this fact is more applicable in carpentry or other trades, or in the applied sciences, such as medicine, than in the social sciences, where personal political prejudices, careerism, etc. often dictate the thinking (and the findings…).

    Historians and economists are especially vulnerable to these vices. In this context, Michael Parenti’s ASSASSINATION OF JULIUS CAESAR is a must-read exploration of how conservative historians have disfigured history and thereby implanted ideological platforms beneficial to the ruling classes and the status quo. The claim such men are or were above personal bias is simply ludicrous. It is similar to the claim that “professional journalists” practice truth and impartiality. I stopped believing that crock when I turned 7.

    Economics, another critical area to formulate and defend opinions injurious to the well-being of the majority, is packed with apologists bolstering a plutocratic status quo. The work of John Bates Clark, Milton Friedman and other “neoclassical economists” comes readily to mind, but the profession is crammed with charlatans and prostitutes holding the most august pulpits, all loaded with impressive sounding advanced degrees. Their convoluted, arcane prescriptions are often so idiotic as to be laughable. (For example both Friedman and Stiglitz blamed the workers for their unemployment during the Great Depression.) Their esoteric math a smokescreen to keep the hoi polloi from seeing the chicanery represented by their “science.” But they are not laughed at in the highest councils, and they go on to win Nobel Prizes and great accolade, for they do the devil’s work of legitimating the rule of the rich against the public interest.

    Finally, isn’t Henry Kissinger an academic star of the maximum magnitude? Wasn’t he lauded from the highest precincts and given the direction of the nation in foreign affairs? And what did he deliver? Among other things, a conspiracy to overthrow the duly elected government of Chile’s Salvadore Allende, a crime for which he is still wanted in several countries in Europe…Need I say anything more?

  • Robert Cullman

    Some of the people who attack “archivist39″ are pissing on the wrong tree, or against the wind. Archivist39 did not write this article, which was penned by professor Grover Furr to sort out the maze of lies concerning the Cold War and the whole history of anti-sovietism in the US and elsewhere. If some of the facts do not fit the propaganda you’ve been fed, that’s your problem. At this site the editors are committed to presenting materials otherwise banished from the mainstream “respectable” media, a devious weaver of misinformation, imperialist tool, and accomplice in many of the biggest crimes of the modern period. Too bad you don’t like what you read here. I do, and that’s why I keep coming back.

  • Wow…what a learned man you are?!?! To have dedicated so much time to have even considered retorting against my argument…I applaud you. What I love is the amount of rhetoric you use in your retorts and that you seemingly are convinced that merely using large words is powerful enough to dominate a discussion. This is where you are wrong. The content of your retort merely perpetuates that someone is entitled to say whatever they want…even if it goes against the grain. I do agree with this…however…in this case you can take all the “anti-sovietism” BS and go back to the drawing board. Facts are…what facts are…and no amount of twisting words and preaching about how the mainstream has it all wrong can successfully argue a case that the Soviets did not in fact invade Poland in 1939 which was the subject of the disagreement before you went on a tangent. So lets establish some facts:
    1.) This article was written by Grover Furr….a recognized Socialist and Stalin Apologist who would prefer the US were modeled after the Soviet Union of early times. He is also teaching his views and beliefs in a classroom setting that is obviously subjecting his gullible and fragile (college state of mind) students to his misguided beliefs.
    2.) I came on here to set facts straight and to disapprove of any spreading of disbelief in the (norm) argument that the Soviets did not invade Poland.
    3.) You came on here to spread your wings and to tout a very well rounded vocabulary (kudos again) and to flaunt your abilities to argue. This is great…but your two cents falls on deaf ears in that I came here tear apart an article written with no factual evidence that the Soviets did not invade Poland on September 17th 1939.
    4.) This site is reserved for conspiracy theorists, mole people, anti-establishment wanderers and other such persons that would chose to publish anything that comes to mind as long as it is against the system and the status quo.

    So Robert….in conclusion….this is the only response (though I feel it to be adequate) that you will hear from me unless you can provide me with details that counter what I presented in my rant on how Grover is a nut-bag who needs to get his facts straight. If you can…please do…if not…save your rhetorical skills for someone who cares. Have a fantastic day!

  • Paul D.

    I’m no scholar on this subject, but I have read enough to know this is a blemish on the history of the Soviet Union which still resonates loudly today.

    From the article:

    “But only the Polish government interned itself in a neutral country, thereby stripping itself of the ability to function as a government and stripping their own people of their existence as a state.”

    You learn something new everyday I suppose. One of the problems is that American academia in particular has no stomach for alternate opinions, no matter how concise and cited – cold war propaganda still triumphs reason.

    Further, everything that does confront the conventional wisdom of the West falls into some category which treats serious scholars that dare to question the prevailing occidental orthodoxy as if they are whack job holocaust deniers.

    The bourgeois educational systems are just doing their job…consciously, and unconsciously defending the interests of a history the bourgeois feel cozy with.

    Thank you for this piece. I have read it closely, and with great interest, and an open mind – as most things should be read.

  • what a load of crap

    Revisionist history at it’s finest…Your sketchy facts are a joke. I for one, have several first person accounts of what happened to poles on the russian border. My father’s entire family was taken by armed russian soldiers in February of 1940. They were deported to a labor camp in Siberia and spent 2 years cutting timber for the russian war machine. When Hitler turned on russia, Stalin “pardoned” the deportees. He needed more men to fight the germans.

  • B.O.Zon

    What is an invasion?

    A basic definition from wiki says “An invasion is a military action of soldiers entering a foreign land.”.
    And then, what does a state of affairs in the invaded country has to do with it?
    Or declarations or lack of it by any other governments or international bodies.

    Poles invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938 , even if it’s government was in a miserable state. Furr agrees to it ,as most historians do, so lets not use double standards.

    Invasion is a simple idea that prof. Furr has problems with.

    After invasion followed annexation (wiki : Annexation (Latin ad, to, and nexus, joining) is the de jure incorporation of some territory into another geo-political entity (either adjacent or non-contiguous).
    That is, incorporation of the Polish land into the Soviet Union, extension of soviet administration, school systems and even offer of soviet citizenship (on some conditions). And of course a very harsh treatment as was the fate of all soviet citizens.

  • raf

    you are a bunch of LIARS including your “guru” grover furr

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