2019 10 15 stryjek1a


Between 12 and 19 July 1945, troops of Marshal Ivan Bagramyan’s 3rd Belorussian Front, backed by detachments of the Polish Army and Public Security (UB) functionaries, launched a massive dragnet operation in Augustów Forest on the Polish-Lithuanian border. Covering the counties (poviats) of Augustów and Suwałki in Poland and Lazdijai in Lithuania, it was the last military operation of that taskforce, which several weeks later was finally dissolved.


Writing on 19 July 1945, Lieutenant Aleksander Kuczyński, the Public Security chief for the Augustów county thus described the operation: “On the 10th of July, huge numbers of Soviet personnel were deployed to Augustów county with the goal of liquidating the bandits there. On 11–12 July, I produced Russian-language rosters of registered active members of the AK (Home Army) and had several major documents translated into Russian, which material I conveyed to the Soviet command, together with pointers as to how to locate the bandits. The operation began on 12 July, with the participation of UB operatives. … On 15 July, throughout the county, the Soviet units rounded up 477 individuals for further vetting; 5 UB operatives took part in the action; and according to our dossier, among those detained were 24 AK members. … On 17 July … a total of 441 people were detained, of whom 47 were identified in the vetting, based on the material in our possession. Seven UB operatives took part. … on 18 July, 280 individuals were detained throughout the county.”

The town of Augustów was not spared the arrests, neither. This is how Helena Kondracka remembers the incarceration of her husband, Paweł, on 14 July 1945: “They came at night and surrounded the house, automatic weapon in hand. Three of them banged the door and shouted to let them in, fast. Without lighting up a candle, we checked that there was no way of escaping, an so I opened the door. One … rushed up my husband to get dressed … they said that they were taking him for questioning and that he would come back. … I cried and protested that innocents were being taken away by bandits, but one of them replied: watch your words.”

If anyone managed to escape, they could expect their families to be persecuted. In Białogóra, Giby municipality, detainee Stanisław Cieślukowski asked for a moment to change his clothes and then – with his keeper out, to lit a cigarette – he ran away and hid in bulrush on the lakeside, using a reed to breathe. The Soviets set off in pursuit. Cieślukowski’s daughter, Maria Krzywak, recollected: “The soldiers moved in all directions. One, walking in above waist deep water, headed straight towards Father, but someone on the road let out a shout, and that soldier turned back, changed direction, and passed by Father. … They took with them my half-brother – Father’s son with his first wife – only because he bore the same first name, Stanisław. My brother was then 15 years’ old.”

Early in the operation the Soviets succeeded in defeating a partisan unit under the command of Władysław Stefanowski, a.k.a. “Grom”, outside Brożany Lake. Most Polish fighters were captured, with only few escaping. The ensuing arrests decimated the conspirators. Given the scale of the roundup operation, any resistance was futile, and the commanders of former-Home Army partisans issued orders to hide arms and ammunition, and disperse into bunkers and other hideouts. Summing up the operation, Major General Bychkovsky, head of the NKVD Border Troops of the Lithuanian District, concluded that “following the action by Red Army units to clean up Suwałki county from Home Army bandits and other hostile elements,” the partisan units “were crushed, with most of their members either killed or captured alive, and the surviving remnants either revealing themselves or dispersing.” That conclusion, sadly, was quite correct. There can been no doubt that the Soviet pacification dealt a heavy blow to the underground, and it took a long time before the disorganised structures were brought back in order.

During the manhunt, a total of 7,049 people were captured, of whom 5,115 were subsequently released following a vetting process. Those retained were subjected to closer examination. A group of over 500 Lithuanians (of whom 252 were found to be “bandits”) were put at the disposal of NKVD and NKGB authorities of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, while no less than 592 Poles, considered to be partisans, were shot and buried in an unknown place (the whereabouts of around a thousand of other detainees remain unknown). No information was provided to the families.

The magnitude of the crime – annihilating hundreds of people in two, relatively small counties – horrified the local community. Despite decades’ long attempts to erase the crime from memory, families repeatedly sought to throw light on the fate of the “missing”. The mounting problem was not lost on the authorities. In a book published in the 1980s in the popular series Żółty Tygrys (in as many as 270,000 copies), the Soviet executions were explained away by “rabid anti-communism and anti-Soviet phobia” of the post-war underground. Here is a passage from this book: “In Białystok Voivodship, soon after liberation, there were instances in which Soviet soldiers from sapper units conducting mine-clearance operations fell victim to reactionary clandestine groups. Taking part in the pursuit of perpetrators of those crimes were also Polish Public Security units, aided by local residents. Under war-time law, as observed in the frontline area, the perpetrators were brought before Soviet military courts.”

It was in the twilight of the Polish People’s Republic that the voice of victims’ families sounded the most resonant. In 1987, a Citizens’ Committee to search for the Suwałki region residents missed in July 1945 was set up. Roughly around that time exhumations began in forest graves outside Giby, but it turned out that these contained the remains of German World War II soldiers. The subject was taken up in the run-up to the 1989 parliamentary election, when Solidarity Civic Committee candidates, Andrzej Wajda and Professor Bronisław Geremek, backed the families of the victims, thus adding a national dimension to the issue. First publications appeared in which the criminal operation was discussed in the open, including a documentary reportage series by Alicja Maciejowska.

Following the 1989 watershed in Polish politics, the Augustów roundup of July 1945 finally became the subject of many articles and monographs by historians. Still, despite continued efforts which included an investigation by prosecutors from the Institute of National Remembrance, much remains unknown to this day, such as, for example, the place where those executed are buried. For quite a long time, no direct piece of evidence was available that could testify unequivocally to the very fact of the crime having been committed. A major breakthrough came with the findings of the Russian historian Nikita Petrov, a collaborator of the distinguished association Memorial, who found documents that leave no doubt that the execution was conducted by functionaries of the Smersh. The responsibility for the execution and for keeping it secret lied with the Smersh HQ envoy, Major General Ivan Gorgonov and Smersh commander at the 3rd Belorussian Front, Lt General Pavel Zelenion.

Petrov’s discovery gave a new impulse to historical investigations, and as part of this effort the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding launched in 2012 its own research into the Soviet authorities’ fight against the Polish underground forces in 1943–1945. Right from the beginning the Augustów roundup was to be given much attention, and so – in hopes of running the project jointly – talks with Russian archives were opened, initially meeting with encouraging response. A preliminary plan provided that Polish-Russian studies, conducted under the aegis of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters, would produce several volumes of documents and one substantive volume. The expectation was that digging up the most sensitive questions of the past, which even today remain highly charged, would bring positions closer and help soften the most heated arguments over history. That plan, however, had to be revised, following the Russian occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, and also in response to the international public’s reaction to the aggressive actions taken by the Russian state against independent Ukraine. Very soon the prospect of a joint publication of historical works proved all by impossible. Consequently, acting in parallel and independently from one another, both sides took the decision to work on the publications by themselves.


The difficulties notwithstanding, Polish participants in the project conducted a host of source searches in archives in Moscow and elsewhere, which, we believe, throw some new light on the subject. For example, the researchers pored through materials related to the NKVD units responsible for protecting the rear of the 3rd Belorussian Front. In June 1945, these included: the 57th Division of the NKVD, the independently operating border-guard regiments bearing the numbers of 13, 31, 33, 86, 132, 217, and also the detached taskforces 102 and 105. Yet the archive queries revealed that these NKVD units did not contribute to the Augustów dragnet operation (and it looks like the same holds for the NKVD Regiment 385 of the 62nd Division, sometimes mentioned in literature on the subject). Most of these units did conduct operations to “clean up area from anti-Soviet bandits”, but in other regions.


The 57th Division of the NKVD was indeed deployed in July 1945 to maintain “law and order” in former East Prussia. As of the 1st of July, each of its three constituent regiments was stationed in several different locations: the 369th Riflemen Regiment under Lt Colonel Trophimenko in Olsztyn, Orneta and Elbląg; the 370th Riflemen Regiment under Lt Colonel Matushchenko in Gołdap, Insterburg (now: Chernyahhovsk) and Königsberg; and the 371st Riflemen Regiment under Lt Colonel Mashchenko in Kętrzyn, Pisz and Bartoszyce. Tasked with the protection of major transport infrastructure (including railway bridges) the division personnel was thinly spread all over the area, presenting a cause for concern to the Division Commander, Colonel Barladyan. It cannot be ruled out that some of the division’s units were indeed deployed in the Augustów operation, but basically most of its resources had other “CheKa-type” (secret police) assignments.

As for the six detached regiments, these were busy fighting the underground in Lithuania at that time. During the Augustów operation, the NKVD’s 13th regiment conducted secret-police and military operations against the Lithuanian underground in the Biržai county, and in early August it launched cleaning-up operations closer to the Polish border, in Marijampolė and Lazdijai counties.


The 31st and 33rd regiments of the NKVD, alongside the 220th Border Guard Regiment, conducted operations in Vilnius and Trakai counties (what today comes to us as a surprise, they were under operational command of, both, the 1st Baltic Front and, for reasons unknown, the 1st Ukrainian Front). Between 10 June and 20 August 1945 these regiments killed 220 “bandits”, in addition to detaining 423 “bandits” and 118 “bandit collaborators”. Also, a total of 1,684 deserters and civilians were captured, and 5,836 individuals revealed their underground affiliations.

The 86th regiment conducted an operation outside Beryn, killing 24 Lithuanian partisans on 18 July 1945 and, on 15 August 1945, forcibly resettling into Soviet interior 62 Lithuanian families. Throughout July 1945 the regiment killed 46 „bandits” and detained 535 people, including: 507 suspects, 4 draft evaders, and 17 „bandits”.

The 132nd regiment, starting from 11 July, pursued the Lithuanian underground in the Rokiškis county. In 27 manhunt operations conducted in that month, 12 partisans were killed and 15 taken prisoner; out of the 307 detained suspects, 20 were recognised as “bandits”. Next month, the regiment carried out counterinsurgency operations near Lake Žuvintas and elsewhere in the Marijampolė county.

The 217th regiment of the NKVD was involved during that time in secret-police and military operations outside Ukmergė, and later in the Šiauliai county, under operational command of the Leningrad Front’s rear-line protection units.


Faced with these data, project researchers came to the following conclusion: the partisans were indeed executed by Smersh, but responsibility for the manhunt operation lied primarily with the Red Army. Any remaining doubts were dispelled by the publication on the website of Pamyat Naroda association of a series of documents from the Central Archives of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defence (the first to spot them were researchers from the Białystok branch of the Institute of National Remembrance). The said Central Archive is among those that are basically closed to outsiders, which indicates that the publication could hardly be regarded as a mistake or an instance of carelessness.


According to the disclosed material, the Augustów manhunt was carried out by the 50th Army, under Lt General Fyodor Ozerov, a conqueror and later a commander of Königsberg. His order directed troops to comb through forests and settlements in the neighbourhood of Suwałki, Augustów, Druskininkai, Jaziewo and Sejny between 12 and 18 July, with as many as four riflemen corps assigned to the operation. These were: the 29th Corps, under Lt General Yakov Fokanov (comprising Riflemen Divisions 73 and 102); the 69th Corps, under Major General Nikolai Multan, (divisions 110, 124 and 153); the 81st Corps, under Lt General Fyodor Zakharov, (divisions 2, 307 and 343), and the 124th Corps, under Lt General Ivan Ivanov, (divisions 51, 208 and 216). This force of eleven infantry divisions was supported by the 2nd Armoured Corps, adding up to something like 45,000-50,000 troops – a big number, indeed, even if the Soviets really believed that the Augustów Forest hid as many as 8,000 partisans (their actual strength was just a small fraction of that).


The 50th Army Staff was located in Suwałki, and operational command in Augustów. Troops were to operate by day, scouring the area in two lines, separated by a distance of 6–8 metres. Anyone arising even the slightest suspicion (meaning, in practice, anyone between 16 and 60 years’ of age) was to be detained and handed over to Smersh for further investigation.

There can be no doubt, even though the actual document has not yet been identified, that the direct order for the 50th Army was issued by the Commander of the 3rd Byelorussian Front, Marshal Ivan Bagramyan. Several weeks later he ordered Red Army units under his command to mount a similar operation in Latvia.

Why such a wide-scale pacification was launched remains unknown, with two parallel hypothesis suggested in literature. The first, propounded by Tomasz Łabuszewski and Krzysztof Jasiewicz, among others, sees the causes of these events in the region’s earlier history of anti-Soviet conspiracy in 1939–1941, and even the partisan actions during the January Uprising of 1863. The Soviets launched the manhunt operation, this reasoning goes, in revenge for the local community’s patriotic posture, and in search of some measure of calm on the new Polish-Soviet border.

This dovetails with Tadeusz Radziwonowicz and Barbara Bojaryn-Kazberuk’s supposition that the Soviets resorted to a “single, large-scale and fast operation, crowned with almost a ‘perfect’ crime”, with the aim of ensuring security for the freshly incorporated Königsberg/Kaliningrad region. “The operation had the effect of ‘cleaning up’ the area, removing possible threats to the security and flow capacity of transport routes between the region and the contiguous U.S.S.R., and speeding up the incorporation and militarisation of the area. Maybe, then, this should be counted among the operation’s strategic objectives?”

On the other hand, Russian historian Nikita Petrov speculates that the dragnet operation had to do with Stalin’s journey to the Potsdam conference, and that the aim was to provide security for nearby railway lines. But the Soviet delegation took a different route, through Minsk, Terespol, Siedlce, Kutno and Poznań, and it was well protected by units of several NKVD divisions: the 7th Division of the NKVD on the section between Minsk and Terespol; the select Felix Dzerzhinsky 1st Division of the NKVD (responsible for Moscow’s security) between Terespol and Siedlce; units of the 58th, 59th and 64th NKVD Divisions on the section from Siedlce, through Kuto, to Poznań; and then troops of the 63th Division and other units. Partisans, especially from distant Suwałki and Augustów, were thus unable to pose a threat to the Soviet delegation even if they indeed had such intentions.


This is one reason why we believe that yet another explanation should be taken into account, by viewing the Augustów roundup in a broader context of communist policies of the time. It should be remembered that similar actions were then being taken in different regions of Lithuania, western Belarus, western Ukraine, and also throughout the eastern part of Poland, in the voivodships of Białystok, Lublin and Rzeszów. Back in May 1945, the Supreme Commander of the Polish Armed Forces, Marshal Michał Rola-Żymierski, ordered the 1st, 3rd and 9th infantry divisions to move to these regions and actively fight the anti-communist underground, using the support of the 1st Armoured Brigade. Polish troops were told not to take prisoners when encountering resistance from the partisans who refused to reveal their underground affiliations and give up their weapons. In practice that meant a court martial and summary execution for those captured on the battlefield. The same applied to unit commanders. A company of the 1st Infantry Division (fighting in the famed Battle of Lenino) actually conducted arrests, jointly with the 50th Army, around Puńsk and Sejny. Between mid-June and October 1945, units of the Polish Armed Forces (including the 8th Infantry Division, along with those already mentioned) defeated 23 resistance units, killing 700 partisans and taking 1,500 prisoners. Their spoils included 14 heavy machine guns, 72 light machine guns, 723 rifles, 170 submachine guns and 110 revolvers.

In this context, we believe, consideration should be given to the hypothesis that the Augustów roundup was just a part of a large-scale operation to liquidate the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian underground, conducted in north-eastern Poland, and that the direct go-ahead order came from the Supreme Command of the Red Army. Through a series of dragnet, secret-police, and military operations, the Soviets sought to destroy the resistance movement in this territory, their motives including the expectation of a possible outbreak of the third world war. The operations, it must be stressed, were conducted simultaneously with the proceedings of the Potsdam conference, when such an outbreak was deemed quite unlikely – and yet the Soviet high command could not dismiss that scenario. The supposition that the order to launch the Augustów action was issued in Moscow is directly confirmed by the position of the Russian Federation’s Central Military Prosecution Office, presented to Poland in January 1995. This is how the lead-up to the Soviet operation was described by the Russian investigators, who had access to materials unknown to Polish historians: “It has been established that in connection with numerous attacks on Soviet Army soldiers on Polish territory, the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, in compliance with an order from the Supreme Commander [i.e., Stalin – ed. note] developed a plan for a military operation in Augustów Forest … to detect and disable all formations of the anti-Soviet ‘Home Army’.” This interpretation is backed by the fact that a report on the operation was submitted to Stalin himself, as was noticed by Barbara Bojaryn-Kazberuk.

It should be added that the orders received by units of the Red Army and the Polish Army were basically very similar, and that potentially they could lead to similar outcomes, i.e., mass executions. That nothing like this happened in the operational area of the Polish Army should be attributed to the rank and file’s aversion to take on the partisans. Communists noticed that they were unfavourably disposed to fighting partisans, and that they often deserted or even turned sides. Such sentiments would have been further exacerbated by mass executions of former-Home Army combatants. Consequently, the operations were the most brutal in the counties of Suwałki and Augustów, where Red Army units operated.


Importantly, we still do not have answers to many questions about that period’s persecutions. It remains a mystery why the Augustów roundup was conducted almost exclusively by Red Army units. Even if one assumes that the motive was to facilitate collaboration with the Polish Army, it still remains unknown why the Soviet actions were not confined to Soviet territory and why the Polish Army was not sent to the area where arrests were made. Was that influenced by the circumstance that the future Polish-Soviet border had yet to be delineated (which was finally arranged a month later)? Or perhaps such was the request of the Polish comrades, coping as they were with their own limitations? Maybe, those are right who see the Soviet operation as a revenge on the region’s Polish residents? Or was it just a matter of accident? And finally, the deployment of Red Army units could have resulted from the NKVD’s relative weakness in that area (against the actual or supposed strength of the independence fighters), or from the availability of regular Soviet troops prior to the beginning of peacetime reductions.


These questions are yet to be researched. The documents presented in this volume throw light not only on the direct course of Red Army operations at the time of the Augustów manhunt, but also on the developments in neighbouring regions, most notably the roundups by the Polish Army in the voivodships of Białystok and Warsaw, and also the secret-police and military operations to calm down the situation in Lithuania, Belorussia and Latvia. As these documents demonstrate, the Soviet secret services everywhere fought mercilessly against, and repeatedly rounded up, the “enemies of the revolution.”

It must be emphasised that viewing the Augustów roundup in the context of other persecutions and repressions of that time is instrumental in recognising its uniqueness. Even though the brutal communist pacifications were common, it was only the Augustów operation that produced such an inordinate number of victims. The scale of the crime – at least 600 people shot dead – puts it among very special events. In the period between the end of World War II and the outbreak of Balkan wars in the 1990s, it was Europe’s biggest mass murder. While during and immediately after the war the Soviets conducted hundreds and thousands of counterinsurgency operations, sometimes with the participation of Red Army units, the usual pattern was that these were accompanied by a strong NKVD force. In the Augustów region, however, partisans were pursued and arrested by Red Army soldiers, serving under the command of Smersh officers and in collaboration with the Polish Public Security Service.

Łukasz Adamski, Grzegorz Hryciuk, Grzegorz Motyka


(Translation: Zbigniew Szymański)