Augustów Roundup. Soviets fighting counterrevolution their way

The action was carried out by the Soviets on the territory of a technically sovereign state. The “Polish” armed forces played the role of a political fig leaf. The militiamen together with the security police from Augustów and Suwałki, told the Red Army who and where should be arrested.

The first to approach were the troops fanned out at 5-8 metre intervals, then the second line and finally the heavy equipment with artillery. In less than two weeks, in July 1945, 7049 people were arrested, including 1675 Lithuanians.

After a few days 5115 inhabitants of the Augustów Forest area, including 1711 Lithuanians were released. The negatively verified Lithuanians were handed over to the security apparatus in Lithuania. The Poles were transported to the East or – as people would have said – in an unknown direction. All traces of them have been lost. Nothing either is known about the people handed over to Lithuania – even though there may have been Poles among them.

Feeble people’s power

In the vicinity of the Augustów Forest the independence underground drew its strength from the patriotic conduct of the local people; at the end of WW II this traditional patriotism was reinforced by the fresh memory of red Red Army’s rapes and pillages. All the more so as the terrain was tyrannised by the rear units which arrested suspected anti-communists and robbed the population.

At the turn of 1944 and 1945 the independence underground in the Białystok voivodship suffered heavy losses. For before the Eastern Front moved into this area, AK units had cooperated with the Soviet partisan movement, especially during Operation Tempest. So, when the Red Army arrived there, the NKWD apparatus knew perfectly well whom to arrest. When the Red Army advanced westwards, the forest troops – despite losses – resumed their intense activity.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The Home Army (known as the Citzens’ Home Army after being disbanded on March 19, 1945) liquidated Citizens’ Militia stations and informers collaborating with the new authorities. In 1945, in the Suwałki poviat (county, district) out of 14 communist municipal offices only two were functioning, the rest having been liquidated by the partisans. Therefore, the “people’s power” was practically non-existent.

Soviet soldiers and functionaries were also targeted by the underground. During the “first Soviet” (i.e. 1939-1941) and in the spring of 1945, Home Army partisans annihilated between 20 and 50 Soviet soldiers and functionaries.

Meanwhile, in July 1945 généralissime Joseph Stalin would travel through this very region of Białystok to the Potsdam Conference near Berlin. And the safety of the leader of the world proletariat was crucial here. But there were other reasons for the Augustów Roundup.

It was an area bordering the already Soviet Belarus and Lithuania, as well as the part of Prussia just annexed by the Soviets, later called the Kaliningrad District. The road from Prussia to the depths of the Soviet Union led through the northern Białystok region. The Red Army transported the captured goods there, including driving huge herds of cattle, which were intercepted by “forest men” from the Home Army.

As long as the war with Germany lasted, the power of the Polish communists could not be properly supported by the Soviet army, which the officials of the Polish Workers’ Party constantly strived for. The situation changed after the war, when the 50th Army of the III Belorussian Front was marching back home and could be used in the pacification of the Augustów area.

Eliminate everyone

The Augustów Roundup began on July 12, 1945. Already on July 11, in the area neighbouring Soviet Lithuania, the 2nd Guards Tank Corps of the III Belorussian Front began operations towards the south-west. The villages around the Augustów Forest and the forest itself were surrounded the next day.

The Russian staff officers expected resistance from an army of 8,000 partisans, equipped with tanks and artillery… so it is no surprise at all that they deployed some 50,000 thousand men. It has remained unknown to this day whence the Russians took the information about the power of the “forest men” in the forest.
Celebration of the 76th anniversary of the Augustów Roundup on the Hill of Crosses in Giby. Photo: PAP / Artur Reszko.
During the roundup, 388 villages and settlements were combed. The detainees were checked in temporary filtration camps, which functioned as the headquarters of the Poviat Public Security Office in Augustów, but also other places, even rural buildings, which, for this purpose, were taken from the hosts.

“Checkin” meant torture lasting several days, during which the investigators tried to learn as much as possible about the independence underground. There were three circles of camps. Those who were not released after a few or several days were transferred elsewhere. Those not released after the second stage of filtering were moved to the third location. The first and second places were known in the area, and the last was secret, where no one from the families reached with food or medicine.

The Augustów Roundup was a Red Army operation, with the leading role of the counter-intelligence service Smersh (Smert’ shpionam) carried out on the territory of a technically sovereign state, where the Provisional Government of National Unity, recognised by the western allies, had been in power for nearly a month. National unity consisted in the fact that in it Stanisław Mikołajczyk, a politician from London, was a deputy prime minister, while his party, the Polish Peasants’ Party remained legal… for some time.

When Stanisław Mikołajczyk was in Moscow negotiating his participation in the Polish government set up by the USSR, the same Moscow was a witness to the staged “Trial of the Sixteen” – high representatives of the Home Army and Polish Underground State, deceitfully detained and brought to the Soviet capital. Having that in mind, we are les surprised that the Red Army felt at home in the poviats of Augustów and Suwałki, as well as in the Lithuanian borderlands – and simply fought the counterrevolution.

The head of the military counterintelligence Smersh, Viktor Abakumov, in a cryptogram to the USSR Security Minister, Lavrentiy Beria, revealed thanks to the efforts of Nikita Petrov, vice-chairman of the Memorial association, expressed that “the number of those arrested on July 21 amounts to only 592 people”. What a disappointment!

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These 592 “bandits” (in the language of the Soviet secret police) never returned home, and not only them. Abakumov writes in the same cryptogram that the next few hundred people are being checked. He also informs what his intention are: “All revealed bandits, in the number of 592, will be liquidated. The remaining 828 people detained will be checked within five days and all identified bandits will be liquidated in the same way”.

The Augustów Roundup wasn’t either the first or the only such operation in the north-eastern part of pre-war Poland. The idea was to intimidate as many Poles as possible, which is reflected in the fact that women and almost children were also arrested. Among the victims there were 27 women, out of whom three were pregnant, and 15 minors.

Since February 1945, the territories of the Lithuanian and Belarusian SSRs, where the victims of the Augustów Roundup most probably set off for the last time, had been Soviet in the eyes of the world. The Soviets, for their part – both there and in Poland – combatted the same Second Polish Republic.

Political fig leaf

As we have mentioned, the action was carried out by the Soviets on the territory of a technically sovereign state. The “Polish” armed forces played the role of a political fig leaf. The memoires of soldiers who participated in the Augustów Roundup and of Poles who were conscripted into the Red Army by forces show that the army was informed that it would participate in the liquidation of bands composed of Germans, Gestapo officers and Volksdeutchers.

A reinforced, hundred-sixty strong company from the 1st Praga Infantry Regiment took part in the “checking”. They were commanded by 25-year-old lieutenant Maksymilian Sznepf.

His career was in a sense typical: born into a Jewish family in Drohobych, he was joined the Red Army, then the Tadeusz Kościuszko Division. He took part in the battles for Stalingrad, Lenino, Warsaw’s Praga (during the Warsaw Uprising), and even for Berlin. Then he served in the People’s Polish Army, was, inter alia, an officer of the Second Board of the General Staff (military intelligence) Many graduates of the University of Warsaw probably remember him from later years, because he was the head of the Military Training He was also – as Wikipedia emphasizes – the director of the Jewish Historical Institute. But also – which Wikipedia no longer mentions – the commandant of one of the detention centers for internees in December 1981.

In the Augustów Roundup, his unit was responsible for shooting at least one person who refused to surrender, although the prosecutor of the Białystok Branch of the Institute of National Remembrance, Zbigniew Kulikowski, puts the number at seventeen Home Army soldiers. Several of those handed over to the Polish security service and Smersh by the Praga Infantry Regiment never returned home and today are considered victims of the Augustów Roundup.
Functionaries of the Poviat Public Security Office (PUBP) in Augustów during the Augustów Roundup. Standing from the left: Mirosław Milewski, Ryszard Caban, Jan Szostak and Aleksander Kuczyński (head of this PUBP). Sitting in the centre is Major Ivan Vasilenko, advisor to the Suwałki Security Office. Photo: courtesy of the Institute of National Remembrance.
The second formation made up of Poles and participating in the roundup were officers of the District Public Security Office and the Citizens’ Militia in Augustów and Suwałki in a force of a few dozen. They told the Red Army who and where should be arrested although the Soviets entered the operation with their own information and had their own proscription lists. Polish security officials didn’t have access to their findings and investigation results. Their frustration is well-documented. In their reports, they complained that they didn’t know who to look for, and who not to look for.

The local security functionaries didn’t go down in the future history of the Polish People’s Republic, with one exception.

In 1944, 16-year-old Mirosław Milewski joins the Soviet Smersh. A year later, during the Augustów Roundup, he is already an officer of the Augustów Security Office. Then he consistently sticks to the “security” path. He is quickly promoted in the structures of the Ministry of Public Security, later in the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Security Service division, he reached the rank of Major General of the Citizens’ Militia. In the years 1980-1981 he was Ministry of the Interior, then a member of the Politbureau and Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party – this was the highest circle of power in the Polish People’s Republic. Associated with the death of Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko and the “Żelazo” scandal, he was sent to retirement in 1985.

Doesn’t know, doesn’t remember

As Jarosław Wasilewski wrote in one of the publications of the Institute of National Remembrance (“With Soviets against Poles”): “Even in free Poland, soldiers and functionaries of the former communist services did not want to help in learning the truth. Interrogated by the prosecutor in 1994, Maksymilian Sznepf did not remember anything from his service in the 1st Praga Regiment during the Augustów Roundup. He denied that he had carried out any actions against the Polish underground, testified that he did not even know where the towns pacified by his soldiers were located”.

It was the same with ex-security functionaries but the incontrovertible evidence is hidden in the archives of the Russian Federal Security Service, maybe in Belarussian archives too. It is precisely in Belarus that those who had returned home after the roundup were buried. Which is probably very close to the Polish border.

Not later by much, after the roundup, a slight correction of borders between Belarusian SSR and Poland took place. Everything indicates that the Soviets learnt the Katyń lesson – you can make a legally valid accusation of a mass murder only if you find the bodies.

– Krzysztof Zwoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Sokółka, Podlaskie Voivodship, September 21, 2020. Unveiling of the monument to the victims of the Augustów Roundup. Young people from local schools with portraits of the victims. Photo: Michał Kość / Forum.
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