In 1937, the Soviet NKVD began an investigation into the “most powerful and probably the most important diversionist-espionage networks of Polish intelligence in the USSR.”
The operation began with NKVD Order 00485, an order that set the pattern for later mass arrests. Operational Order 00485 clearly listed the sort of person who was to be arrested: all remaining Polish war prisoners from the 1920-21 Polish-Bolshevik war; all Polish refugees and emigrants to the Soviet Union; anyone who had been a member of a Polish political party; and all “anti-Soviet activists” from Polish-speaking regions of the Soviet Union. In practice, anyone of Polish background living in the Soviet Union–and there were many, particularly in the Ukrainian and Belorussian border regions–was under suspicion. The operation was so thorough that the Polish Consul in Kiev compiled a secret report describing what was happening, noting that in some villages “anyone of Polish background and even anyone with a Polish-sounding name” had been arrested, whether a factory manager or a peasant.
But the arrests were only the beginning. Since there was nothing to incriminate someone guilty of having a Polish surname, Order 00485 went on to urge regional NKVD chiefs to “begin investigations simultaneously with arrests. The basic aim of investigation should be the complete unmasking of the organizers and leaders of the diversionist group, with the goal of revealing the diversionist network …”
In practice, this meant–as it would in so many other cases–that the arrestees themselves would be forced to provide the evidence from which the case against them would be constructed. The system was simple. Polish arrestees were first questioned about their membership in the espionage ring. Then, when they claimed to know nothing about it, they were beaten or otherwise tortured until they “remembered.” Because Yezhov was personally interested in the success of this particular case, he was even present at some of these torture sessions. If the prisoners lodged official complaints about their treatment, he ordered his men to ignore them and to “continue in the same spirit.” Having confessed, the prisoners were then required to name others, their “co-conspirators.” Then the cycle would begin again, as a result of which the “spy network” grew and grew.
Within two years of its launch, the so-called “Polish line of investigation” had resulted in the arrests of more than 140,000 people, by some accounts nearly 10 percent of all of those repressed in the Great Terror. But the Polish operation also became so notorious for the indiscriminate use of torture and false confessions that in 1939, during the brief backlash against mass arrests, the NKVD itself launched an investigation into the “mistakes” that had been made while it was being carried out. One officer involved remembered that “it wasn’t necessary to be delicate–no special permission was needed in order to beat people in the face, to beat without limitation.” Those with qualms, and apparently there were some, had explicitly been told that it was Stalin and the Politburo’s decision to “beat the Poles for all you are worth.”
At least one young Pole, Karol Wojtyla–preoccupied in 1938 with his confirmation, his high school graduation, and his enrollment in university–outlasted not just the NKVD, but the Soviet Union itself. He got, if not the last laugh, at least the last beatific smile. May he rest in peace.