Entry of Soviet troops into Lviv: expectations and fears (concerns)

ID: 247
The beginning of war for Lviv, reactions of Lvivians to the entry of the Red Army. 

This story is a part of the theme about Soviet Occupation in 1939-1941, prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

For Lviv, World War II began on September 1, 1939, with the bombing of Central Railway Station by Luftwaffe planes. On September 12, the Scherner military motorized group (under the command of Frederick Scherner), created to capture Lviv, was ordered to occupy the city, and the assault on the city began at 2 p.m. Despite the Nazi command's hopes for a quick capture of Lviv, the city held its defense lines for almost ten days under the command of General Władysław Langner. On September 17, the Red Army entered the territory of Poland, and on September 22 General Langner was forced to sign the "Protocol on the transfer of Lviv to Soviet troops." 

It is worth noting that, despite the difficult interethnic relations that developed in the city in the interwar period, the majority of the city's citizens — Poles, Ukrainians and Jews — defended the city and the state from the Nazis. In the first days of September, Vasyl Mudry, head of the Ukrainian National Democratic Union (UNDO), the largest Ukrainian party in interwar Poland, appealed to Ukrainians in Lviv to defend Poland as a state, despite all the misunderstandings and conflicts. The Metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church, Andrey Sheptytsky, also called for the defense of the state and the city and the postponement of sorting out the Ukrainians’ relations with the Poles. According to various estimates, between 150 and 200 thousand Ukrainians fought against the Wehrmacht in the ranks of the Polish army, in particular during the defense of Lviv in September 1939.

The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) refrained from statements and support. Even more, the OUN caused several acts of sabotage and diversions, which led to arrests and further anti-Polish demonstrations by members of the organization. Such actions did not help to unite efforts in the fight against the common enemy, shattered the emerging fragile elements of trust between the Polish and Ukrainian communities, and also forced the leader of the Ukrainian faction in the Sejm, Vasyl Mudry, and Metropolitan Andrei to reassure that Ukrainians were "faithful to the appeals of their leadership and the factors of state power as well as a healthy instinct for self-preservation… Throughout the war and in the present days, people in Lviv have been behaving calmly and taking a worthy position regarding the historical events, whose solution is in the hands of the warring army." The subsequent occupations of the city and the course of the war intensified the confrontation both within the Ukrainian community and between the various national groups in Lviv.

On September 22, 1939, the Red Army entered Lviv via vul. Lychakivska.

Havryil Kostelnyk, a priest, recalls the general fear, how people were afraid of the soldiers entering Lviv:

A sunny day, noon. The "valiant" Red Army was coming into Lviv via Lychakivska street. We timidly looked through the windows of the houses of St. George’s on Horodotska street. Timidly, because the Red Army men were holding rifles with bayonets in their hands, aimed at the townhouses... Smaller tanks and cars with soldiers were coming. On some cars, the Red Army soldiers were accompanied by proud local teenagers with red cockades.

Describing this day, Soviet newspapers reported on the crowds of Lviv residents who came out to greet the Red Army; however, it is still unclear who greeted them. There are many memories of this day in the history of Lviv, but memoirists mention the ethnic composition of the crowd very differently: some Ukrainians and Poles accuse Jews of welcoming the occupiers too warmly, in most Polish memoirs Ukrainians are added to Jews as the main beneficiaries of the Soviet army's entry; moreover, in some memoirs the words "city scum" appear, which have no national characteristics.

Regardless of national origins, the Soviet rule was partially welcomed by the uneducated, the poor, and the workers who hoped to improve their financial situation, who had high hopes for the new government as the simple slogans of "equality" and "social justice", which the Soviet Union had used to attract people even before the war, were understandable and gave hope for a quick solution to their economic and social problems.

Jews and Ukrainians had more reason to welcome Soviet troops. For the Jews, the Soviet army was non-Nazi, and for some that was enough. The reaction of the Jewish poor was described by mathematician Hugo Steinhaus in his memoirs, based on the words of the former rector of Lviv University Stanisław Kulczyński:

... a huge mass of the poor, who lived behind the theater, rushed to meet the Bolsheviks, so dressed up in cockades and red stars, that even Russian officers laughed […] This was the joy caused by the almost miraculous rescue from Hitler, the consolation of having got rid of our regime, which had been irresistibly and quickly becoming more and more like fascism.

Some Ukrainians, who remembered the interwar period as a time of restrictions and discrimination, considered the arrival of the Soviet Army a "liberation" and saw this situation as a chance to form their own, albeit Soviet, Ukraine.

Although part of the intelligentsia sympathized with the Soviet Union, most of the intelligentsia was restrained in welcoming the Soviet army, as were bankers, industrialists, business owners, government officials, and representatives of political parties. Krystyna Chiger, the author of memoirs entitled The Girl in the Green Sweater, recalls the family's reaction to the arrival of Soviet soldiers:

My dad looked at the situation with humour, because he and my mother always had the same attitude to any trials. He called the Russians "uninvited guests" who ruined our whole holiday. "They call themselves liberators," he wrote, "because they liberated us from everything we used to have…"

The welcoming of the Soviet rule was interpreted after the war and is often interpreted now as a general national betrayal, especially that on the part of Ukrainians and Jews. In fact, we do not know who welcomed and rejoiced at the "liberation", and today it is impossible to determine either the ethnic composition of the crowd or its numbers. It is also difficult to say how many of those who met the Soviet soldiers greeted them rather than merely contemplated their entry as an action. In addition, during the war with Germany, the intentions of the Soviet offensive were not obvious. The war with the USSR was not officially declared, and in some places, such as Stanislaviv, Rivne, or Ternopil, local authorities called for a friendly welcoming. The attitude toward the Soviet army in those days cannot be generalized. Many of those who rejoiced at the Soviet troops suffered from the new regime soon. However, juggling with accusations of different ethnic groups shows how tense the relationship between communities was and how separate and closed they were to each other, which in a situation of war led to increased mistrust and stereotypes. Instead, such accusations today indicate a lack of discussion and a lack of proper analysis and reflection on the relationship between different national groups during both the Soviet and Nazi occupations.

What the residents of Lviv were unanimous about is the descriptions of the appearance of the army, which was very different from the appearance of soldiers and officers of the Polish army. Mykhailo Yavorsky, a professor of political theory at New York City University (he was a teenager at the time when the war erupted), recalled its arrival as follows:

They walked quickly in three rows, almost ran, as if trying to catch up with the setting sun. Unfamiliar dark brown and pale olive uniforms indicated that they were neither Germans nor Poles. But for their weapons, I would think they were some traveling monks. Their weathered faces were as red as pentagonal stars on their green helmets. They had narrow and slanted eyes. Muddy shoes, rifles behind their shoulders, belts with ammunition on their chests, and bayonets above their helmets — they seemed to have just come off the screens, from films about the First World War.

It was the lack of appropriate clothing and basic everyday life things as well as various everyday habits that caused a lot of emotions among the townspeople. All this led to the appearance of numerous anecdotes that are still accompanying stories about the beginning of Soviet history in Lviv. One of the most famous anecdotal stories was authored by Karolina Lanckorońska, a scientist, university lecturer, owner of the Lanckoroński estate in Novy Rozdil near Lviv. In her memoirs, she described how her story about a "tenant", a Soviet officer, and his inability to use the toilet very quickly "reached" as far as Krakow and became a favourite anecdote among the Polish community both during and after the war.

The origin of the anecdote about "nightgowns" worn by the wives of Soviet officers is attributed to Yulia Solntseva, the wife of Ukrainian Soviet film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Describing her stay in Lviv in 1940, she regretted that, despite good intentions, the lack of basic everyday culture nullified all efforts of the Soviet authorities to demonstrate the cultural and spiritual achievements of the USSR.

However, while in 1939-1941 these anecdotes and comic stories were a way to relieve psychological tension in a situation of fear and repression, the overemphasis on such moments today is rather an example of uncritical use of sources and a vivid illustration of the rejection and separation of modern Lviv residents from Soviet history, the denial of any participation of Ukrainians in the Soviet project. These anecdotes and legends hide very important and not yet properly analyzed and considered topics: if we use the term "occupation", how are we to call those Lviv residents who voluntarily or forcibly worked in schools and universities in 1939-1941, participated in artistic events, how are we to treat Ukrainians from Soviet Ukraine who took an active part in the "liberation", etc.? The issues of nationalization, restitution and compensation are still completely undiscussed.

Thus, the beginning of World War II and the Soviet occupation was quite traumatic for all the inhabitants of Lviv, without exception. However, the events, phenomena and biographies of the history of the Soviet occupation, which first of all draw attention to themselves in the public space of the city, need further reflection and discussion.

All stories



Show full description


1. Олександр Луцький, "Львів під радянською окупацією", Український визвольний рух (Львів: Mc, 2006), 89–119.
2. Tarik Cyril Amar, The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists (New York: Cornell University Press, 2015), 368.
3. Grzegorz Hryciuk, Polacy we Lwowie 1939–1944. Życie codzienne (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 2000), 432.
4. Оля Гнатюк, Відвага і Страх (Київ: Дух і Літера, 2015), 496.
5. Сергій Громенко, "Кілька людей, два диктатори, і одне місто: оборона Львова 1939", Дзеркало тижня, 2014, 5–12 вересня, випуск № 31.
6. Jan T. Gross, "A Tangled Web: Confronting Stereotypes Concerning Relations between Poles, Germans, Jews, and Communists", The Politics of Retribution in Europe. World War II and its aftermath, ред. Istvan Deák, Jan T. Gross, Tony Judt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 74–130.
7. Lanckorońska Karolina, Wspomnienia wojenne 22 IX 1939 — 5 IV 1945 (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 2002), 364.
8. Сергій Тримбач "Без жодних купюр!", День: щоденна газета, Без жодних купюр (режим доступу: від 05.02.2019).
Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Malsiukh