Polish government doesn’t exist, so there are no Polish diplomats either

The Polish diplomats were allowed to leave the Soviet Union only after the firm intervention of the dean of the diplomatic corps in Moscow, the German Ambassador Friedrich von Schulenburg. Jerzy Łojek wrote that his attitude had been extraordinary and surprising.

The Soviet aggression of September 17, 1939 came as a dramatic shock to the Polish government, army and society as a whole. Alas, it also came as a bitter surprise for the Polish diplomats in Moscow. Their departure from the USSR, albeit guaranteed by international law, proved problematic, although our diplomats in that country didn’t have it easy even before the war. They were observed attentively, and their contact with the locals was reduced to minimum. So it was in Moscow, where the embassy was located, but also in Kyiv, Minsk and Leningrad, where consulates general operated.

After September 17, 1939 the Soviets came to the conclusion that there was no need to apply any international conventions with regard to the staff of Polish diplomatic missions: if they assumed that there was no Polish state, the Polish government had ceased to exist, then there were no Polish diplomats either.

They knew nothing?

Unfortunately, the Polish authorities had no information about the secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which is still understandable (although the French and the British having found out about it, didn’t report this fact to Warsaw). Surprisingly, they didn’t expect the USSR to have any intention of invading Poland either. This was claimed by our ambassador in Moscow, His Excellency Wacław Grzybowski, who – despite having served there since 1936 – understood the Soviets rather poorly. As Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos point out in their book “Józef Beck”, Grzybowski wrote in a telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Warsaw on September 8 that “the Soviets would maintain unconditional restraint and neutrality”. And he reported on September 9 that the Soviets “had adopted a position of wait-and-see neutrality”. This was a very naive way of thinking.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Meanwhile, already on September 11, the Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Sharonov left Kremenets, where the Foreign Ministry and all diplomatic missions had taken shelter. It was described in the account of US Ambassador Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr. His encounter with a Brazilian diplomat in the streets of Kremenets was reconstructed in the novel “Wrzesień Ambasadora [“Ambassador’s September”] as follows:

“He took a look – it was the Brazilian envoy, a swarthy, dark-complexioned man, who spoke French a with a distinctive Portuguese accent.
- A warm welcome to you – Anthony smiled.
- Are you on your way back from the ministry?
- Of course…
- So you haven’t seen Sharonov, have you?
Anthony made a puzzled face.

- I saw him over an hour ago. He said he had been given permission for a temporary departure to the Soviet Union.
- There it is… - The Brazilian was clearly outraged. – He drove past me in his car. I think he had five suitcases atop and a few more strapped to the sides of the car. So much luggage for a trip that is to last a day or two?
- Indeed… - Anthony nodded his head. – Well, it is also conceivable that he takes his wife and children back.
- But his military attaché, this colonel, was with him…”
Of course, Sharonov never returned to Poland.

On the same day, Józef Beck wrote to Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz that the rumours of a possible partition of Poland between Germany and the USSR were unrealistic. Interestingly, major Rafał Protasowicki, head of the Polish General Staff Second Department (Intelligence) outpost in Minsk, transmitted information to the country that Red Army troops were massing on the Polish border – he wrote about it in a report prepared in October 1939 in Paris. Perhaps this and other warnings did not reach the Polish authorities?
Waclaw Grzybowski was a Polish ambassador to Prague before taking up his post in Moscow. Photo: NAC / IKC
On September 16 Beck sent an instruction to Ambassador Grzybowski asking him to inquire of Molotov “whether, in the present grave situation, Poland can count on: 1) the purchase of food, 2) sanitary materials, 3) the transit of war material from the Allied countries”. He added that he was “treating the above as a survey” of how Moscow would react.

But as Biddle’s account shows, the employees of our ministry were no longer so sure that everything was perfect beyond the eastern border. Here is the conversation between the ambassador and high-ranking officials of the Foreign Ministry in Kuty on September 16:

“I think we’re most worried about the Soviets”, Starzewski finally said. – They are mobilizing. We know that they concentrated a large number of units opposite Ternopil...
– How do you know this?
Starzewski burst into laughter.
– We have our own intelligence – he muttered. – And our Border Protection Corps units report what they know and see. And sometimes they know a lot.
Łubieński put out his cigarette butt in the ashtray.
– Tsarist Russia or Bolshevik Russia are one and the same – he said. – It has the same intentions. Firstly, it wants to rule the Baltic Sea. To achieve this, it needs to regain Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Secondly, it wants to control the Dardanelles so that it can easily send its ships to the Mediterranean Sea. And finally, thirdly, although this is in the longer term, it wants to take over India. The rest are trifles. Although for us a possible attack on Poland would certainly not be such a trifle...”

Michał Łubieński was the director of Beck’s office, Paweł Starzewski – was the minister’s personal secretary. What did Beck himself really think? The above-mentioned account by Ambassador Biddle shows that during his last conversation with the Polish minister on September 16 in Kuty, they didn’t discuss the Soviet Union at all.

September 17: at war with Russia

The Polish embassy in Moscow was located at 30/1 Spiridonovka St, on the corner of Balshoy Patriarashiy pyeryeulok [Lane] and near the Patriarch’s Ponds, known from “The Master and Margarita” [by Mikhail Bulgakov], in a large building erected at the beginning of the 20th century, which previously housed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, that is, the Soviet equivalent of the Foreign Ministry (at that time, Soviet ministers were called “people’s commissars”), and later the Supreme Court. That’s where Wacław Grzybowski held office.

The Ambassador recalled the night of September 16-17, 1939 as follows: “In the middle of the night I suddenly received a telephone call. It was from the office of Deputy Commissar Potemkin, who said that he had an important message for me from the Soviet government and asked if I could come to see him at three in the morning. I looked at my watch; it was 2.30 am, an unusual time for such invitations. But I replied that I would come”.

The Ambassador got into the car and drove to Kuznetskiy Bridge 5, to the headquarters of Narkomindel, as the USSR Foreign Ministry was then called. In a straight line, the distance was over two kilometers, and at night the car covered it in ten minutes.
Grzybowski entered the large building of the former Revenue House i.e. the first Russian insurance company [All-Russia Insurance Company; the edifice itself is usually referred to as the Lubyanka Building].

“I was prepared for bad news, but the news that awaited me was even worse. Potemkin read to me the text of Molotov’s note, saying that the Polish state had ceased to exist, and, in view of this fact, the Soviet government had ordered its troops to cross the borders of Poland. I protested vehemently against the lie, citing the examples of Serbia and Belgium, which were occupied during the previous war, and yet no one recognized that they had ceased to exist as states. I categorically refused to accept the note, stating that I could only inform the government about Soviet aggression. It was half past three when I left Potemkin’s office. At five past five, I sent a telegram to Minister Beck by clair (or claris, i.e. an open message – ed.), which did not reach him until eleven in the morning. Soviet troops invaded Poland’s borders at five o’clock that same morning”, he recalled.

The note read as follows: “The Polish-German war revealed the internal bankruptcy of the Polish state. During ten days of military operations, Poland lost all its industrial areas and cultural centers. Warsaw as the capital of Poland no longer exists. The Polish government has collapsed and shows no signs of life. This means that the Polish state and its government effectively ceased to exist, and thus the treaties concluded by the USSR and Poland lost their validity (...) The Soviet government cannot remain indifferent when brothers of one blood, Ukrainians and Belarusians, living in Polish territory, abandoned to their fate, were deprived of defence. Taking into account this situation, the Soviet government ordered the command of the Red Army to issue an order to cross the border in view of protecting the lives and property of the people of Western Ukraine and Belarus. At the same time, the Soviet government intends to make every effort to free the Polish nation from the misfortunes of war into which its mad leaders have forced it and to allow it to lead a peaceful life”.

The situation was doubly difficult because the Soviet authorities, for obvious reasons, did not want to facilitate Grzybowski’s contact with the Polish Foreign Ministry, while Minister Beck was in Kuty and had very limited opportunities for action and contact abroad. Nevertheless, as soon as he learned about the Soviet attack, he sent instructions to the Polish Ambassador: “Today, Soviet troops crossed the borders of Poland at a number of points. Please protest immediately, demand explanations and the withdrawal of troops from Polish territory”.

Beck then sent a telegram to the Polish Consulate in Chernivtsi, Romania, ordering dispatches to the embassies in Paris, London, Rome, Washington, Tokyo and Bucharest: “Today, Soviet troops launched an aggression against Poland, crossing the border at a number of points with large units. The Polish troops put up armed resistance. Faced with the superiority of [the enemy] forces, they conduct a retreat fight. We have registered a protest in Moscow. This action is a classic example of aggression”. And then another instruction appeared – this time for Polish diplomatic missions to organize a “protest against Soviet insinuations” that the Polish state was disintegrating. The minister sent a telegram to Grzybowski: “Our troops put up active resistance to the Soviet invasion. I fully approve of the Ambassador’s behaviour. Please demand your passports and leave Moscow”.

All this meant that the Polish Foreign Ministry recognised that a state of war had existed between the Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union. This is evidenced by the use of the word “aggression” and the order to Grzybowski. Former Foreign Minister Jan Szembek wrote a few months later: “we are at war with Russia by the very fact of aggression. (…) For a state of war to exist, its formal declaration is not a necessary condition. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 or the Polish-German War of 1939 are classic examples of this.

However, President Ignacy Mościcki’s speech of September 17 was slightly milder and said that “our eastern neighbour has invaded our lands, violating applicable agreements and eternal principles of morality”. The word “war” was not mentioned. It was very much the same in the case of Marshal Śmigły-Rydz’s order: “The Soviets have entered. I order a general withdrawal to Romania and Hungary by the shortest routes. Do not fight the Bolsheviks, unless they attack or try to disarm our troops. The task of Warsaw and the cities that were to defend themselves against the Germans remains unchanged. Cities approached by the Bolsheviks should negotiate with them regarding the departure of their garrisons to Hungary or Romania”.
Soviet propaganda poster from 1939: a Red Army soldier pierces a Polish eagle with a bayonet, freeing a Belarusian and Ukrainian peasant. Photo: Wikimedia
Śmigły also did not write about a war, he did not even use the word “aggression”, and it is not very clear how cities located far from the Hungarian or Romanian border were to negotiate the departure of troops to these countries. Lviv (or more precisely, General Władysław Langner, who commanded its defense) concluded an agreement with the Soviets that the officers would go to some neutral country, but the Soviets violated it immediately after signing.

Intervention of the German Ambassador

In Moscow and other cities, Polish diplomats found themselves trapped. They should have left without any problem. The Polish ambassador in Berlin, Józef Lipski, left via Denmark after September 1, 1939, and then reached Poland via Sweden and Latvia – and even met with Minister Beck in Kuty. As the Belarusian historian Ihar Melnikau described it, the authorities in Minsk “interned” employees of the Polish Consulate General in Minsk. There is also a report that “dissatisfied” Soviet citizens broke into the building of the Polish diplomatic mission and tore down the plaque with the Polish eagle at the entrance. Then an NKVD officer appeared in the consulate corridor.

Ultimately, our diplomats were allowed to leave the Soviet Union only after the firm intervention of the dean of the diplomatic corps in Moscow, the German Ambassador Friedrich von Schulenburg. In his book “Aggression on September 17, 1939” Jerzy Łojek wrote that von Schulenburg’s attitude had been extraordinary and surprising. The German demanded that the Soviet authorities immediately fulfil their obligations under international law towards the Polish mission and respect diplomatic customs.

Earlier, the Soviets had demanded that their diplomats be allowed to leave Warsaw (Ambassador Sharonov was no longer there), but von Schulenburg, thanks to his contacts with the Wehrmacht High Command, arranged for the evacuation of all Soviet personnel (62 people) outside the besieged Warsaw and their departure through Königsberg to the USSR. And it was this argument that is said to have convinced Molotov.

Kidnapping of the consul

In Kyiv, on the corner of Hrushevsky (then Kirov) and Shovkovychna (then Liebknecht) Streets, there is a beautiful one-storey building. Before the war it housed the Polish Consulate General. This is where the Polish diplomats led by Consul General Jerzy Matusiński had been staying since September 17.
Matusiński entered the Foreign Service in May 1926. He held the post of Deputy Head of the General Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the years 1933-1935 he was Consul General in Pittsburgh (1933-1935), in 1935 in New York, in 1935-1937 in Lille and from 1937 in Kyiv.

Our diplomats were supposed to leave Moscow for Helsinki. On October 1, 1939, at 2:00 am, Jerzy Matusiński was summoned to the headquarters of the Plenipotentiary of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the USSR with the Government of the Ukrainian SSR to discuss the transfer to Moscow. Although he had only 350 meters to travel, he drove a car accompanied by two drivers.

The consulate employees waited for them until 6 am and then sent one of the caretakers to check whether the consul’s car was still parked in front of the Plenipotentiary’s office. The Soviets did not allow the caretaker to leave the building, but he saw that the car was missing. At 9.00 the Poles managed to call the police station – they were informed that no one had called Matusiński anywhere.

Ambassador Grzybowski asked the dean of the diplomatic corps Schulenburg and his deputy, the Italian Augusto Rosso, to intervene. At first, deputy commissioner Vladimir Potemkin said he knew nothing about the consul’s fate. In a later conversation with Schulenburg, he announced that Matusiński “is not in our hands”. Therefore, Grzybowski decided to leave the diplomats without explaining the whole matter, and the train to Finland left on October 10.

According to Professor Wojciech Skóra, a historian studying the case, the USSR authorities recognized Matusiński as a spy. After the German aggression against the USSR, one of the Poles released from prison said that he met a kidnapped driver from the Polish consulate who told him that Matusiński had been imprisoned by the NKVD. In 1942, further similar information appeared.

It is known that when the consul arrived at the gate of the office of the Plenipotentiary of the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, six men dressed in civilian clothes got out of the car standing nearby. They searched the Poles and took them to the prison at Korolenko (today Volodymyrska) Street. Then the abductees arrived at a railway station in the suburbs and spent the night in a prison wagon. On October 10, the train reached Moscow, and the Poles were taken to the NKVD detention center in Lubyanka. This was reported by the first driver of the consulate, Andrzej Orszyński, released in 1941, who joined General Anders’ army. The second driver, Józef Łyczek, was also released (both were granted amnesty after the German aggression against the USSR), but he died in unexplained circumstances.


The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of July 30, 1941 restored diplomatic relations between Poland and the USSR. However, it made no mention of the state of war between the two countries. In the additional protocol, the USSR government also guaranteed “amnesty” for Polish citizens: political prisoners and exiles deprived of their liberty in prisons and labour camps in the USSR, as well as prisoners of war. But since it spoke of an “amnesty” for POWs (which was a strange phrase in itself), it recognised that state anyway.

On July 17, 1942, the Chief of the Polish Military Courts, Stanisław Szurlej, decided in a special circular that starting from July 30, 1941, the USSR should not be treated as an enemy - so until the conclusion of the Sikorski-Mayski agreement, that country was considered an enemy.

The activities of the Polish Embassy in the building at Spiridonovka Street were reactivated. However, after the diplomatic corps had been moved to Kuibyshev, the Polish mission was also transferred there. But its activity did not last long. After the discovery of the Katyń massacre in April 1943, the Soviets broke off diplomatic relations with Poland and closed the embassy on April 25, 1943, and its staff left Kuibyshev on May 5 of that year.

The Polish Embassy returned to Spiridonovka Stret in 1945 (albeit with the address Balshoy Patriarashiy Pyeryeulok, temporarily renamed after Adam Mickiewicz). But it represented a very different Polish authority – one completely subservient to Moscow.

– Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

When writing the text, the author used, among others:
- monograph „Porwanie kierownika polskiej placówki konsularnej w Kijowie Jerzego Matusińskiego przez władze radzieckie w 1939” included in the book “Polska dyplomacja na Wschodzie w XX – początkach XXI wieku”, H. Stroński & G. Seroczyński (Eds.), Olsztyn-Kharkiv 2010;
- monograph „Jak we wrześniu 1939 roku bolszewicy porwali polskiego konsula” by Ihor Melnikau (Nowa Europa Wschodnia, March 10, 2023);
- book by prof. Jerzy Łojek „Agresja 17 września 1939” (many editions, the first as a samizdat publication in the Polish People’s Republic);
- book by Marek Kornat and Mariusz Wołos „Józef Beck” (Warsaw 2021);
- his own novel „Wrzesień ambasadora” (Warsaw 2022).
Main photo: September 18, 1939. A Red Army soldier in front of a Polish PWS-26 trainer plane shot down near Rivne. Photo: Wikimedia / photograph from the collection of the British Imperial War Museum
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