Soviet Occupation (1939-1941)

ID: 246
The theme elaborates on the issues of the beginning of World War II in Lviv, reaction of citizens on the Soviet occupation, issues of nationalization of property, Lviv intelligentsia attitude towards new political power and the Soviet propaganda tools.

In the (post-)Soviet narrative, the period from September 1939 to June 1941 is called the "defense" of Western Ukraine against "fascist invaders." In the non-Soviet Ukrainian and Polish narrative it is called an occupation, although for some it is Western Ukraine while for others — Eastern Borderlands (Kresy Wschodnie). Soviet propaganda did not say that the partition of the Polish state had taken place under a treaty with the Nazis, so in the propaganda of the offensive it tried to prove its interethnic altruism. Aleksander Wat points out that in the Soviet propaganda of the time the Soviet offensive was called mainly the "Polish War," perhaps as an attempt to wash away the shame of the lost war of 1920. The Soviet attack in September 1939 and the "defense" of Ukraine and Belarus took place not in the interests of the locals but in the current interests of the Soviet Union: to gain time before the war with Germany.

The use of the term "occupation" in the period 1939-1941 is associated with the non-recognition at the international level of the capture of the Polish state’s eastern part by the USSR, as well as the de facto non-recognition of the new regime by the majority of the population. In modern public and scientific discourse, this period is often referred to as the "first" occupation, implying that the Soviet offensive in 1944 was the beginning of the "second" occupation. In the postwar years, however, the use of this term was rather an expression of a moral assessment of this period than that of the political and social situation. At that time, the incorporation of Western Ukraine (southeastern Poland in the interwar period) into the USSR was already internationally recognized. In the following decades, a large number of Ukrainians deeply adapted themselves to the new reality and joined the project of creating Soviet Ukraine in the annexed territories, either by actively participating in new structures of government and society or by passively accepting the situation.

Nowadays in Ukraine two terms are used in academic and public discourses to define the Soviet period — radiansky (Soviet) and sovietsky (Russian for Soviet). The latter is used to emphasize the extraneous nature of Soviet policy and culture and to downplay the involvement of Ukrainian society in the Soviet Ukraine project.

On September 17, 1939, Soviet soldiers crossed the eastern borders of Poland. Five days later, Lviv capitulated, and the Soviet administration completely took over power in the city. The attack on Poland took place in accordance with a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Officially, Molotov, after consulting with the German ambassador, justified the attack by the collapse of the Polish state as a result of the Nazi offensive and the need to protect the Belarusian and Ukrainian populations. The occupation of about half of the territory of interwar Poland took place in violation of numerous previous agreements.The Soviet government immediately began to spread propaganda: on posters hung around the city, on the pages of (new) newspapers, at factories. The propaganda portrayed interwar Poland as a capitalist state of "lords" and praised the October Revolution. Soviet songs were heard from loudspeakers in the streets. Atheism was spreading as the celebration of the New Year was to replace the ridiculed Christmas. Soviet Ukrainian artists, including Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Pavlo Tychyna, and Oleksandr Korniychuk, were brought to Lviv. The Soviet government also involved in the propaganda Polish left-wing writers, partly communists, who had fled Warsaw. Among them were Wanda Wasilewska, Jerzy Borejsza, Anatol Stern. The basis for the spread of the new worldview were new schools. Their secularization and de-Polonization took place due to the introduction of Ukrainian and Russian as the languages ​​of instruction in most of them. Private schools were abolished and Hebrew was banned as the Zionist language. The content of teaching was controlled by encouraging students to squeal on their teachers. Although Ukrainian teachers gladly accepted the de-Polonization of the school, it was difficult for them to spread atheism.

Many people, especially the young and those who had had negative experiences with the Sanation regime of interwar Poland, initially perceived the Soviet offensive and the restructuring of institutions with hope. The new government provided greater opportunities for Ukrainians and Jews, as opposed to Poles, who were considered the greatest threat to the new regime as a group that had just lost its statehood and had a tradition of fighting for it. It was easier to get free professional and higher education in the Ukrainian language, the level of employment at factories increased. However, in order to control society, the regime tried to strengthen ethnic divisions and at the same time to maintain a balance between the individual groups so that each of them felt insecure about their status. Simultaneously with the persecution of the pre-war, mostly Polish, elite, the possibilities of social advance were equalized. The Soviet personnel policy promoted Ukrainians and Jews to public office. The new system opened up opportunities only to those who showed loyalty to the Soviet government. The intelligentsia, frustrated by the Polish government’s Sanation policy and sympathizing with the socialist movement or merely apolitical, could gain positions in the restructured institutions. Cooperation with the new government did not always mean support for its ideology, although it was mainly connected with the need to turn a blind eye to its brutality. The hopes associated with the new government eventually began to wane due to the real situation. However, in order to maintain total power, the regime did not set clear boundaries for this loyalty, repeatedly rejecting and accusing those loyal to it of nationalism. Thus, journalists of the newspaper Czerwony Sztandar and pre-war writers Aleksander Wat, Władysław Broniewski, and Anatol Stern were arrested.

The legalization of the rule took place as a result of the "election" to the People's Assembly of Western Ukraine on October 22, 1939, when it was possible to vote only for candidates previously approved by the provisional Soviet administration. The formation of the voter list was preceded by a mass collection of personal information about the population, which often resembled interrogations. Voting was not secret, it took place under the supervision of the NKVD. Deputies of the Assembly approved the accession of the newly occupied lands to the Soviet Union as well as voted for Moscow's decision to nationalize enterprises and housing.

From the mid-1940 the struggle against "nationalism" and collectivization began. It was no coincidence that it was only at that time that the doors of the CPSU were opened for the local population. From Moscow's point of view, the membership in the only permitted party was considered an honour and was open only to those with proven views. For many citizens, however, participating in the party was an attempt to defend themselves or improve their own situation. Their collaboration with the new government was supported by material motivations as well as an ideology reinforced by the pre-war Soviet propaganda that portrayed the Soviet Union as an ideal land of equality.

The standard of living in Lviv, as in other occupied lands, declined. The nationalized economy could not meet the current needs of the market. Shortly after the occupation began, there was a shortage of clothing, salt, and soap on the market. Queues appeared in the shops. The ruble exchange rate equaled the zloty, and arriving Soviet soldiers and officials could buy food cheaply. Due to problems with the supply of products, the level of hygiene significantly decreased. The fight against profiteering was to cover up the destructive effects of the new economic model.

Due to intensified propaganda and mass repressions in 1939–1941, organized opposition structures hardly developed. The Soviet authorities fought them by way of mass detentions and deportations. Their goal was to destroy any potential center of resistance: the intelligentsia, the leadership of the interwar police, members of nationalist movements, former government officials and medium-sized businesses. About 300,000 people were deported in two years. It is estimated that 20–30% of the deportees were Jews, 52–60% were Poles, and 10–18% were Ukrainians. The reasons for the persecution could be related to national origin as well as social and economic motives. After the capitulation of Lviv, despite the agreements, Polish army officers were deported to a camp in Starobilsk, where they were later executed. Lviv police officers were shot on the way to the town of Vynnyky. In June 1941, NKVD forces shot dead approximately 4,000 prisoners in Lviv. The Nazi offensive was so rapid that there was no time to evacuate them.

List of places:

  • Entry of Soviet troops into Lviv: expectations and fears (concerns), vul. Lychakivska
  • Political performance in the theater: People’s Assembly, prosp. Svobody 28
  • Between national liberation and class equality, Mickiewicz Monument
  • Raj Cinema, pl. Mariacki, now pl. Mitskevycha, 6/7
  • Nationalization or continuation of traditions? Former Branka chocolate factory. Vul. Sheptytskykh 26
  • New Neighbours: Jan and Fryderyka Lille’s House, ul. 3 Maja 9, now vul. Sichovykh Striltsiv 
  • (Not)owner: Hugo Steinhaus’ House. Ul. Kadecka 14, now vul. Heroiv Maydanu
  • House of Solomiya Krushelnytska, ul. Kraszewskiego 23, now vul. S. Krushelnytskoi
Who was lucky: intelligentsia under the new circumstances
  • Education and Culture: Who Was Lucky? Halyna Levytska. Lviv National Mykola Lysenko Music Academy, ul. Bourlarda 5, now vul. Ostapa Nyzhankivskoho
  • New opportunities? Ludwik Fleck. Pediatric Hospital, now Lviv Regional Clinical Hospital. Ul.
  • Głowińskiego 1/3, now vul. Chernihivska
  • Stefan Banach. Szkocka Café. pl. Akademicki 9, now prosp. Shevchenka 27

All stories



Entry of Soviet troops into Lviv: expectations and fears

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Political performance in the theater: People’s Assembly

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Between national liberation and class equality

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Raj Cinema

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Nationalization or continuation of traditions?
Former Branka chocolate factory

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New Neighbours: Jan and Fryderyka Lille’s House

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(Not)owner: Hugo Steinhaus’ House

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House of Solomiya Krushelnytska

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Education and Culture: Who Was Lucky? Halyna Levytska

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New opportunities? Ludwik Fleck

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Stefan Banach. Szkocka Café

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2. Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015), 480.
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5. Grzegorz Hryciuk, Polacy we Lwowie, 1939–1944. Życie codzienne (Warszawa: Książka i wiedza, 2000), 433.
6. Christoph Mick, “Incompatible Experiences: Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in Lviv under Soviet and German Occupation, 1939–44”, Journal of Contemporary History, 46, 2011, 336–363.
7. Jan Rogowski, “Kult A. Mickiewicza we Lwowie w latach 1939–1941 (notatka sprawozdawcza)”, Pamiętnik Literacki. Czasopismo kwartalne poświęcone historii i krytyce literatury polskiej, 38, 1948, 522–532.

Cover photo: Red Army soldiers are crossing the Soviet-Polish border on September 17, 1939. Courtesy by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.

Tomasz M. Jankowski
Translated by Andriy Masliukh