Western Belorussia in 1939 shown in dark green
|Country||Belarus, partly in Poland and Lithuania|
|Today part of||Hrodna, Brest, Minsk (partially) and Vitsebsk (partially); Podlasie Voivodeship (partially), South Eastern areas of the Republic of Lithuania including Vilnius|
Western Belorussia or Western Belarus (Belarusian: Заходняя Беларусь: Zachodniaja Biełaruś; Polish: Zachodnia Białoruś; Russian: Западная Беларусь: Zapadnaja Belorussija;) is a historical region of modern-day Belarus comprising the territory which belonged to the Second Polish Republic during the interwar period in accordance with the international peace treaties. Before the 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland it used to form the northern part of the Polish Kresy macroregion. Following the end of World War II in Europe the territory of Western Belorussia was ceded to the Soviet Union by the Allied Powers, while the city of Białystok with surroundings was returned to Poland. Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Western Belorussia formed a significant part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). Today, it constitutes the western part of the sovereign Republic of Belarus.
Created by the USSR after the conquest of Poland, the new western provinces of Byelorussian SSR acquired from Poland included Baranavichy (Барановичская об.), Belastok (Белостокская об.), Brest (Брестская об.), Vileyka (Вилейская об.), and the Pinsk Region (Пинская об.). They were reorganized one more time during the Soviet counteroffensive of 1944 into the contemporary western provinces of Belarus which include all of Grodno (Hrodna) and Brest voblasts (see map), as well as parts of today's Minsk and Vitsebsk voblasts. The city of Wilno (Belarusian: Вільня, Vilnia, today's Vilnius) was returned by the USSR to the Republic of Lithuania which soon after that became the Lithuanian SSR.
The territories of contemporary Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states were a major theatre of operations during World War I; all the while, the Bolshevik Revolution overturned the interim Russian Provisional Government and formed the Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks withdrew from the tsarist war with the Central Powers by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and ceded Belarus to Germany for the next eight and a half months. The German high command used this window of opportunity to transfer its troops to the Western Front for the 1918 Spring Offensive, leaving behind a power vacuum. The non-Russians, who inhabited the lands given by the Soviets to imperial Germany, saw the treaty as an opportunity to set up independent states under the German umbrella. Three weeks after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on 3 March 1918 the newly formed Belarusian Central Council declared the founding of the Belarusian People's Republic across the territory of modern-day Belarus. The idea was rejected by the Germans and by the Bolsheviks as well. For the American delegation led by Wilson, this was also unacceptable; the Americans intended to protect the territorial integrity of European Russia.
The fate of the region was not settled for the following three and a half years. The Polish–Soviet War which erupted in 1919 was particularly bitter; it ended with the Treaty of Riga signed in 1921. Poland and the Baltic states emerged as independent countries opposite the USSR. The territory of modern-day Belarus was split by the treaty into the Polish Western Belorussia and the Soviet Eastern Belorussia, with the border town in Mikaszewicze. Notably, the peace treaty was signed with the full active participation of the Belarusian delegation on the Soviet side. Poland abandoned all rights and claims to the territories of Soviet Belarus (paragraph 3), while the Soviet Russia abandoned all rights and claims to Polish Western Belarus.
Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic in Exile
As soon as the Soviet-German peace treaty was signed in March 1918, the newly formed Rada of the Belarusian Democratic Republic laid territorial claims to Belarus based on areas specified in the Third Constituent Charter unilaterally as inhabited by the Belarusian majority. The same Rada charter also declared that the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk of March 1918 was invalid because it was signed by foreign governments partitioning territories which were not theirs.
In February 1919, a joint Lithuanian Belorussian Soviet Republic (Litbel) was established, and then a separate Belorussian SSR. Thus, the almost unsolicited national state, which arose during the First World War, owed its existence directly to the alternative German, Russian and Polish attempts to secure control over the area. — Tania Raffass 
In the Second Constituent Charter the Rada abolished the right to private ownership of land (paragraph 7) in line with the Communist Manifesto. Meanwhile, by 1919 the Bolsheviks took control over large parts of Belarus and forced the Belarusian Rada into exile in Germany. The Bolsheviks formed the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus during the war with Poland on roughly the same territory claimed by the Belarusian Republic.
The new Polish-Soviet border was internationally recognized as well as ratified by the League of Nations. The peace agreement remained in place throughout the interwar period. The borders established between the two countries remained in force until the outbreak of World War II, and the 17 September 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. They were later redrawn during the Yalta Conference and the Potsdam Conference on the insistence of Joseph Stalin.
Second Polish Republic
"Despite Soviet efforts at sealing the border [with Poland], peasants – refugees from the BSSR – crossed into Poland in the tens of thousands, wrote Per Anders Rudling. According to the first Polish national census of 1921, there were around 1 million Belarusians in the country. Some estimates put the number of Belarusians in Poland at that time to be perhaps 1.7 million, or even up to 2 million. In the years that followed the Peace of Riga thousands of Poles settled in the area, many of them (including veterans of armed struggle for Poland's independence) were given land by the government (see: Osadniks).
In his negotiations with the Belarusian leaders in Wilno Józef Piłsudski rejected the call for Western Belorussian independence. In December 1919 the Rada was dissolved by Poland and instead, by early January 1920 a new body was formed called Rada Najwyższa without aspirations for independence, but with proposed cultural, social and educational functions. Józef Piłsudski negotiated with the Western Belorussian leadership, but eventually abandoned the ideas of Intermarium, his own proposed federation of partially self-governing states on the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In the Polish legislative elections of November 1922, the Belarusian party in the Blok Mniejszości Narodowych coalition obtained 14 seats in the Polish parliament (11 of them in the Sejm). In the spring of 1923, Polish prime minister Władysław Sikorski ordered a report on the situation of the Belarusian minority in Poland. That summer, a new regulation was passed allowing for the Belarusian language to be used officially both in courts and in schools. Obligatory teaching of the Belarusian language was introduced in all Polish gymnasia in areas inhabited by Belarusians in 1927.
The Belarusian population of West Belarus faced active polonisation promoted by the central Polish authorities. The policy included pressure on Belarusian schooling, widespread cases of discrimination of the Belarusian language, imposition of Polish national identity on Belarusian Roman Catholics.
In January 1921, the starosta from Wilejka wrote of the popular mood as being one of resignation and apathy among the peasants in Western Belorussia, impoverished by requisitions of food by the Bolsheviks as well as the Polish military. He insisted that, although the new Belorussian schools were 'springing up everywhere' in his county, they harbored anti-Polish attitudes.
In 1928 there were 69 schools with Belarusian language in Western Belorussia; the attendance was minimal due in part to lower quality of instruction. The first-ever textbook of Belarusian grammar was written only around 1918. In 1939, over 90% of children in Poland attended school. As elsewhere, the educational systems promoted Polish language there also. Meanwhile, the Belarusian agitators deported to the USSR from Poland were put in prison by the Soviet NKVD as bourgeois nationalists.
Most Polish inhabitants of the region supported the policy of cultural assimilation of Belarusians as proposed by Dmowski. The polonization drive was inspired and influenced by the Polish National Democracy, led by Dmowski, who advocated refusing Belarusians and Ukrainians the right for a free national development. Władysław Studnicki, an influential Polish official at the administration of the Kresy region in 1919-1920 stated that Poland's engagement in the East amounts to a much needed economic colonization. Belarusian nationalist media in Poland faced increased pressure and censorship from the authorities.
Belarusians were divided along religious lines with roughly 70 percent being Orthodox and 30 percent Roman Catholic. According to Russian sources, discrimination was targeting assimilation of Eastern Orthodox Belarusians. The Polish church authorities were promoting Polish language in Orthodox services, and initiated the creation of the Polish Orthodox Societies in four cities including Słonim, Białystok, Wołkowysk, and Nowogródek. The Belarusian Roman Catholic priest Fr. Vincent Hadleŭski who promoted Belarusian in church, and Belarusian national awareness, was under pressure by his Polish counterparts. The Polish Catholic Church in Western Belorussia issued documents to priests about the usage of the Belarusian language rather than Polish language in Churches and Catholic Sunday Schools. The Warsaw-published instruction of the Polish Catholic Church from 1921 criticized priests preaching in Belarusian at the Catholic masses.
Compared to the (larger) Ukrainian minority living in Poland, Belarusians were much less politically aware and active. The largest Belarusian political organization was the Belarusian Peasants' and Workers' Union, also referred to as the Hramada. Hramada received logistical help from the Soviet Union and the Communist International and served as a cover for the radical and subversive Communist Party of Western Belorussia. It was therefore banned by the Polish authorities, its leaders were sentenced to various terms in prison and then handed out to the USSR, where they were killed by the Soviet regime.
Tensions between the increasingly nationalistic Polish government and various increasingly separatist ethnic minority groups continued to grow, and the Belarusian minority was no exception. Likewise, according to Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, the USSR considered Poland to be "enemy number one". During the Great Soviet Purge, the Polish Autonomous District at Dzyarzhynsk (Polish: Kojdanów) was disbanded and the Soviet NKVD undertook the so-called "Polish Operation" (from approximately August 25, 1937 to November 15, 1938) – a program of deportation and shootings that targeted Poles in East Belorussia, i.e. the BSSR. The operation caused the deaths of to 250,000 people – out of an official ethnic Polish population of 636,000 – as a result of political murder, disease or starvation. Amongst these, at least 111,091 members of the Polish minority were shot by NKVD troykas. Many were murdered in prison executions, according to Bogdan Musial. In addition, several hundred thousand ethnic Poles from Belarus and Ukraine were deported to other parts of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets also promoted the Soviet-controlled BSSR as formally autonomous, in order to attract Belarusians living in Poland. This image was attractive to many Western Belorussian national leaders and some of them, like Francišak Alachnovič or Uładzimir Žyłka emigrated from Poland to the BSSR, but very soon became victims of Soviet repression.
Soviet invasion of Poland, 1939
Soon after the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in accordance with the Nazi–Soviet Pact, the area of Western Belorussia was formally annexed into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). The Soviet secret police NKVD, aided by the Red Army, organized staged elections which were decided in the atmosphere of intimidation and state terror. The Soviet occupational administration held the elections on October 22, 1939, less than two weeks after the invasion. The citizens were threatened repeatedly that their deportations to Siberia were imminent. The ballot envelopes were numbered so as to remain traceable, and usually handed over already sealed. The referendum was rigged. By design, the candidates were unknown to their constituencies which were brought to the voting stations by armed guards. The so-called Elections to the People's Assemblies of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia were conducted in Russian.
On October 30, the People's Assembly session held in Belastok (Polish Białystok) affirmed the Soviet decision to join the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) with the USSR. The petition was officially accepted by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on November 2 and by the Supreme Soviet of the BSSR on November 12, 1939. From then on, all citizens of Poland but also born in Poland would find themselves living in the Byelorussian SSR as the Soviet subjects, without the recognition of their Polish citizenship.
The Soviet invasion of Poland was portrayed by the Soviet propaganda as the "liberation of Western Belorussia and Ukraine". Many ethnic Belarusians welcomed unification with the BSSR. They changed their attitude after experiencing firsthand the terror of the Soviet system.
Deportations, arrests, and the reign of terror
The Soviets quickly began confiscating, nationalizing, and redistributing all private and state-owned Polish property. During the two years following the annexation, the Soviets arrested approximately 100,000 Polish citizens across Kresy. Due to a lack of access to the secret Soviet and Belorussian archives, for many years after the war the estimates of the number of Polish citizens deported to Siberia from the areas of Western Belorussia, as well as the number who perished under Soviet rule, were only estimated. In August 2009, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, the authoritative Polish Institute of National Remembrance announced that its researchers reduced the estimate of the number of people deported to Siberia to 320,000 in total. Some 150,000 Polish citizens perished under the Soviet rule.
The Soviet–German War 1941–1945
The terms of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed earlier in Moscow were soon broken, when the German Army entered the Soviet occupation zone on June 22, 1941. After Operation Barbarossa, most of Western Belorussia became part of the German Reichskommissariat Ostland (RKO), as the so-called Generalbezirk Weißruthenien (General Region of White Ruthenia). Many ethnic Belarusians supported Nazi Germany. By the end of 1942, sworn Germanophile Ivan Yermachenka formed the pro-Nazi BNS organization with 30,000 members. The Belarusian Auxiliary Police was formed. Known to the Germans as the Schutzmannschaft, the ethnic Belarusian police played an indispensable role in the Holocaust in Belarus, notably during the second wave of the ghetto liquidations, starting in February–March 1942.
Two years later, during the Soviet counteroffensive, Joseph Stalin insisted at the Tehran Conference of 1943 – to which the Allies formally agreed again at Yalta – that most of Western Belorussia would remain part of the BSSR after the end of World War II in Europe. Only the region around Białystok (Belostok, Biełastok) was to be returned to Poland. The Polish population was soon expelled and forcibly resettled west. The Western Belorussia, in its entirety, was incorporated into the BSSR.
It was initially planned to move the capital of the BSSR to Vilna. However, the same year Joseph Stalin ordered that the city and surrounding region be transferred to Lithuania, which some months later was annexed by the Soviet Union and became a new Soviet Republic. Minsk therefore remained the capital of the enlarged BSSR. The borders of the BSSR were again altered somewhat after the war (notably the area around the city of Białystok (Belastok Voblast) was returned to Poland) but in general they coincide with the borders of the modern Republic of Belarus.
The Belarusian political parties and the society in Western Belorussia often lacked information about repressions in the Soviet Union and was under strong influence of Soviet propaganda. Because of bad economic conditions and national discrimination of Belarusian in Poland, much of the population of Western Belorussia welcomed the annexation by the USSR.
However, soon after the annexation of Western Belorussia by the Soviet Union, the Belarusian political activists had no illusions as to the friendliness of the Soviet regime. The population grew less loyal as the economic conditions became even worse and as the new regime carried out mass repressions and deportations that targeted Belarusians as well as ethnic Poles.
Immediately after the annexation, the Soviet authorities carried out the nationalization of agricultural land owned by large landowners in Western Belorussia. Collectivization and the creation of collective farms (kolkhoz) was planned to be carried out on a more slow pace than in Eastern Belorussia in the 1920s. By 1941, in the western regions of the BSSR the number of individual farms decreased only by 7%; 1115 collective farms were created. At the same time, pressure and even repressions against larger farmers (called by the Soviet propaganda, kulaki) began: the size of agricultural land for one individual farm was limited to 10ha, 12ha and 14ha depending on the quality of the land. It was forbidden to hire workers and to lease land.
Under the Soviet occupation, the Western Belorussian citizenry, particularly the Poles faced a "filtration" procedure by the NKVD apparatus, which resulted in over 100,000 people forcibly deported to eastern parts of the Soviet Union (e.g. Siberia) in the very first wave of expulsions. In total, during the next two years some 1.7 million Polish citizens were put on freight trains and sent from the Polish Kresy to labour camps in the Gulag.
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