European Memories

of the Gulag



TIMELINE (1939-1941)


23 August: the German-Soviet Pact, signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov, seals for a time an alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union and marks out each country’s spheres of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

1 September: Hitler invades Poland, unleashing the Second World War in Europe.

17 September: Soviet troops enter Poland and the eastern part of the country is annexed to the Ukrainian and Belarusian SSRs.

September-October: the USSR forces the Baltic states to sign mutual assistance treaties. Wilno (now Vilnius), which had been Polish before the war, is detached from Belarus and joined to Lithuania.

November 1939-March 1940: the “Winter War” between the USSR and Finland, which stands up against the territorial demands of its powerful neighbour.


In 1940 and 1941, the Soviets, who annexed eastern Poland (western Ukraine and Belarus) under the German-Soviet Pact, arrange four major waves of deportation from these regions designed to purge them of “undesirable elements”. Each deportation operation has a clear target at the outset.

February: deportation of the military settlers, osadnicy, Polish Army veterans who had fought during the First World War or in the Russian-Polish war of 1920 and had been allotted land with the strategic objective of establishing a Polish presence in the border areas.

April: deportation mostly of representatives of the former Polish law enforcement system (urban and rural policemen, prison warders, administrative staff), members of the propertied classes (landlords, self-employed craftsmen, manufacturers, shopkeepers) and relatives of those already purged.

June: deportation of refugees who fled from western Poland when it was occupied by the Germans. Staying in western Ukraine and Belarus, now in Soviet hands, they are offered citizenship. Those who refuse are deported to Siberia or the Great North. Of the 75,000 deportees, 80% are Poles of Jewish origin. 

June-July: after the Fall of France, Stalin accelerates the annexation of the Baltic states into the USSR.

The Red Army enters the three countries, and emissaries are sent from Moscow to coordinate the annexation with the help of local forces. The Baltic states become Soviet Socialist Republics.


June: the fourth and last operation is held not only in the former Polish eastern territories but also the three Baltic countries and Moldova (annexed in August 1940), with the aim of “cleansing” these areas, in the terms of the Soviet decrees, of anti-Soviet, criminal and “socially dangerous” elements. 

In this operation, ten categories are targeted and divided between those who are to be arrested and sentenced to hard labour and those who are to be deported and put under house arrest in special settlements.

The active members of counter-revolutionary and nationalist parties, former police officers, rural policemen, prison warders, senior civil servants and former officers compromised by written evidence, land owners, industrialists and businessmen, and criminals are to be sentenced to from 5 to 8 years’ forced labour; their property is to be confiscated and once they have served their sentences they are to live in internal exile for 20 years in distant regions of the USSR. The families of people in these categories and German refugees who ought to have been repatriated to Germany but had refused the transfer – for whom there is evidence of anti-Soviet activity or suspected contacts with foreign counter-espionage – are to be deported for 20 years to special settlements and have their property confiscated.

More than 85,000 “anti-Soviet elements” are deported in this way to special settlements in Siberia and Kazakhstan, including 37,000 from eastern Poland, 23,000 from Moldova and 25,000 from the Baltic countries. Of the Baltic deportees, 12%-15% are of Jewish origin.

22 June 1941: start of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The four years of this “Great Patriotic War” are marked by bloody fighting, extreme living conditions and murderous occupations: more than 25 million Soviet citizens die. The western borders of the USSR are the first territories occupied by the Germans; they quickly apply their policy of exterminating the Jews.

July 1941: Sikorski-Mayski Agreement signed in London by the premier of the Polish government-in-exile and the Soviet Ambassador to the UK, following which a decree is issued on 12 August granting “amnesty” to the Poles imprisoned or deported to the USSR and the Anders Army is formed on Soviet territory.

August: deportation to Central Asia of approximately one million Germans from the Volga, Caucasus and Crimea, accused of collusion with Nazi Germany. The Volga German ASSR is abolished.

September: deportation to Kazakhstan of some 89,000 Finns from the Leningrad region.

                                                                                                           Alain Blum et Marta Craveri