Soviet citizens would have to “unmask” themselves as Polish agents. Because the groups and scenarios of the ostensible Polish plot had to be generated from nothing, torture played an important role in the interrogations. In addition to the traditional conveyer method and the standing method, many Soviet Poles were subjected to a form of collective torture called the “conference method.” Once a large number of Polish suspects had been gathered in a single place, such as the basement of a public building in a town or village of Soviet Ukraine or Soviet Belarus, a policeman would torture one of them in full view of the others. Once the victim had confessed, the others would be urged to spare themselves the same sufferings by confessing as well. If they wanted to avoid pain and injury, they would have to implicate not only themselves but others. In this situation, each person had an incentive to confess as quickly as possible: it was obvious that everyone would be implicated eventually anyway, and a quick confession might at least spare the body. In this way, testimony that implicated an entire group could be assembled very quickly.
The legal procedures were somewhat different than in the kulak operation, but no less scanty. In the Polish operation, the investigating officer would compose a brief report for each of the prisoners, describing the supposed crime—usually sabotage, terrorism, or espionage—and recommending one of two sentences, death or the Gulag. Every ten days he would submit all of his reports to the regional NKVD chief and a prosecutor. Unlike the troikas of the kulak operation, this two-person commission (a “dvoika”) could not sentence the prisoners by itself, but had to ask for approval from higher authorities. It assembled the reports into an album, noted its recommended sentence for each case, and sent them on to Moscow. In principle, the albums were then reviewed by a central dvoika: [Nikolai] Yezhov as the commissar for state security and Andrei Vyshynskii as state prosecutor. In fact, Yezhov and Vyshynskii merely initialed the albums after a hasty review by their subordinates. On a single day, they might finalize two thousand death sentences. The “album method” gave the appearance of a formal review by the highest Soviet authorities. In reality, the fate of each victim was decided by the investigating officer and then more or less automatically confirmed.
Biographies became death sentences, as attachment to Polish culture or Roman Catholicism became evidence of participation in international espionage. People were sentenced for the most apparently minor of offenses: ten years in the Gulag for owning a rosary, death for not producing enough sugar. Details of everyday life were enough to generate a report, an album entry, a signature, a verdict, a gunshot, a corpse. After twenty days, or two cycles of albums, Yezhov reported to Stalin that 23,216 arrests had already been made in the Polish operation. Stalin expressed his delight: “Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.”
In the city of Leningrad in 1937 and 1938, Poles were thirty-four times more likely to be arrested than their fellow Soviet citizens. Once arrested, a Pole in Leningrad was very likely to be shot: eighty-nine percent of those sentenced in the Polish operation in this city were executed, usually within ten days of the arrest. This was only somewhat worse than the situation of Poles elsewhere: on average, throughout the Soviet Union, seventy-eight percent of those arrested in the Polish operation were executed. The rest, of course, were not released: most of them served sentences of eight to ten years in the Gulag.
Leningraders and Poles had little idea of these proportions at the time. There was only the fear of the knock on the door in the early morning, and the sight of the prison truck: called the black maria, or the soul destroyer, or by Poles the black raven (nevermore). As one Pole remembered, people went to bed each night not knowing whether they would be awakened by the sun or by the black raven. Industrialization and collectivization had scattered Poles throughout the vast country. Now they simply disappeared from their factories, barracks, or homes. To take one example of thousands: in a modest wooden house in the town of Kuntsevo, just west of Moscow, lived a number of skilled workers, among them a Polish mechanic and a Polish metallurgist. These two men were arrested on 18 January 1938 and 2 February 1938, and shot. Evgenia Babushkina, a third victim of the Polish operation in Kuntsevo, was not even Polish. She was a promising and apparently loyal organic chemist. But her mother had once been a washer-woman for Polish diplomats, and so Evgenia was shot as well.
Most Soviet Poles lived not in Soviet Russian cities, such as Leningrad or Kuntsevo, but in westerly Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, lands Poles had inhabited for hundreds of years. These districts had been part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the course of the nineteenth century, when these territories were western regions of the Russian Empire, Poles had lost a great deal of their status, and in many cases had begun to assimilate with the surrounding Ukrainian and Belarusian populations. Sometimes, though, the assimilation was in the other direction, as speakers of Belarusian or Ukrainian who regarded Polish as the language of civilization presented themselves as Poles. The original Soviet nationality policy of the 1920s had sought to make proper Poles of such people, teaching them literary Polish in Polish-language schools. Now, during the Great Terror, Soviet policy distinguished these people once again, but negatively, by sentencing them to death or to the Gulag. As with the contemporary persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the targeting of an individual on ethnic grounds did not mean that this person actually identified himself strongly with the nation in question.
In the Ukrainian countryside, as throughout the Soviet Union, wives would ritually visit the prison each day, bringing food and clean undergarments. Prison guards would give them soiled undergarments in exchange. Since these were the only sign that husbands still lived, they were received with joy. Sometimes a man would manage to smuggle out a message, as did one husband in the underwear he had passed to his wife: “I suffer and I am innocent.” One day the undergarments would be soiled by blood. And the next day there would be no undergarments, and then there would be no husband.
The Polish operation was fiercest in Soviet Ukraine, in the very lands where deliberate starvation policies had killed millions only a few years before. Some Polish families who lost men to the Terror in Soviet Ukraine had already been horribly struck by the famine. Hanna Sobolewska, for example, had watched five siblings and her father die of starvation in 1933. Her youngest brother, Józef, was the toddler who, before his own death by starvation, had liked to say: “Now we will live!” In 1938 the black raven took her one surviving brother, as well as her husband. As she remembered the Terror in Polish villages in Ukraine: “children cry, women remain.”
The Polish operation was in some respects the bloodiest chapter of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. It was not the largest operation, but it was the second largest, after the kulak action. It was not the action with the highest percentage of executions among the arrested, but it was very close, and the comparably lethal actions were much smaller in scale.
Of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed. Not all of these were Poles, but most of them were. Poles were also targeted disproportionately in the kulak action, especially in Soviet Ukraine. Taking into account the number of deaths, the percentage of death sentences to arrests, and the risk of arrest, ethnic Poles suffered more than any other group within the Soviet Union during the Great Terror. By a conservative estimate, some eighty-five thousand Poles were executed in 1937 and 1938, which means that one-eighth of the 681,692 mortal victims of the Great Terror were Polish. This is a staggeringly high percentage, given that Poles were a tiny minority in the Soviet Union, constituting fewer than 0.4 percent of the general population. Soviet Poles were about forty times more likely to die during the Great Terror than Soviet citizens generally.
The Polish operation served as a model for a series of other national actions. They all targeted diaspora nationalities, “enemy nations” in the new Stalinist terminology, groups with real or imagined connections to a foreign state.