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25 November, 2011  ▪  Natalia Kliashtorna

Hostages to the System

The last mass deportation of Ukrainians was carried out 60 years ago to satisfy Moscow's interests

Soviet propaganda pictured settlers as a privileged caste – they were given financial aid, long-term loans and subsidies to cover part of their housing costs. However, the experience of the Boikos forcibly moved to southern Ukraine in 1951 shows that they had no fixed homes for extended periods of time and enjoyed fewer rights than the locals. Meanwhile, the government was slow in making payments to them.

NO RIGHT TO RETURN

In 1951, the USSR and Poland swapped 480 square kilometers of their territories in what is recognized as the biggest peaceful territorial exchange in Polish history and one of the biggest in postwar Europe. Poland received oil fields to the west of what was then the Drohobych region and the opportunity to build the Solina Hydroelectric Power Plant. The Soviet Union obtained areas to the west of the Lublin voivodeship with convenient train connections and the promising Lviv-Volynian coalfield. By October 26, 32,066 people (7,167 families) were moved from Soviet territories, which historically were the western part of the Boiko land. The settlers included 5,810 families of peasants (14,658 able persons) who were taken out of 43 villages and transported to southern parts of Soviet Ukraine.

By assigning former residents of one Boiko village to several different southern villages the government intended to turn settlers from western Ukraine, where the Soviet system and collectivization was met with fierce resistance, into ordinary collective farmers in southern Ukraine who would gradually lose their independent spirit and the memory of their struggles for liberation. The right to settle in western Ukraine was granted only to workers, officials and some members of village administrations – primarily those who were best at depicting the bright future awaiting the Boikos in southern Ukraine.

LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES

The last group of settlers left Ustrzyki Dolne on October 16. By winter 1951, only one-fourth of the settlers were given accommodation. The Boikos fared best in what used to be German colonies where they were largely left to their own devices to fix decrepit buildings and make them liveable. In other villages, what the settlers saw in the fall of 1951 was not housing – at best they found a foundation or even just a stake in the ground with their name on it and a promise from the authorities that construction materials would soon be delivered. The party and the government took care of the settlers on paper only. Until the summer of 1953, hundreds of families were forced to live in overcrowded buildings that were, in fact, unliveable. The haste with which houses were built translated into poor quality. Tar paper or even reeds were used instead of tile for roofing. Walls erected in haste later sunk. The old houses that were taken apart in western Ukraine and transported to the new regions could not be put back together. Damp buildings caused respiratory diseases. Moreover, the Boikos were not provided with enough material for heating. To make matters worse, they received debts along with their housing which was equal to the cost of the construction (nearly 5,000 rubles) and which took them 10 years to pay off.

A lack of food in the dry southern territories in the postwar years was also a chronic problem. It especially hurt those who arrived in early summer without being able to bring harvested produce. Those who came in the fall were not allowed to transport potatoes. The activity of agencies in charge of the resettlement, the MGB and NKVD officers often boiled down to preventing the Boikos from taking along their basic foodstuffs, which greatly aggravated their living conditions in their first year and was essentially the cause of chronic malnourishment. Non-paid labor in collective farms (they were only paid a small sum in cash once a year) and the need to pay off the housing loan turned them, at least in the first years, into beggars who were much more miserable than even the poor ordinary collective farmers.

A displaced person's status affected him subconsciously and made him feel inferior. To avoid unnecessary suspicion among the locals (“they would not have been resettled here without a reason”), they openly told people they did not know well that they were from Poland.

NOT TRUSTED

Officially, the government issued the documents needed to solve housing problems, secure foodstuffs and essential goods and receive compensation for the households the settlers left behind. However, effective aid never came on time. Ideological propaganda was perhaps the only thing delivered on schedule: 280 lectures on the “friendship between peoples,” Marxism and Leninism, “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and other topics deemed important by the authorities were delivered. The Boikos were closely watched by the security agencies. When their children stopped coming to school for various reasons, they were immediately suspected of “anti-Soviet sabotage.” Incidentally, the Boikos were not placed in border regions – more proof the government did not trust them. A settler in an administrative position was a rarity in the 1950s.

In the first decade after resettlement, the Boikos still cherished hopes of returning to their native land and of the USSR and Poland correcting the mistake they made in 1951. This was why some of them were not especially eager to actually settle in the new land. They put off labor-intensive and unnecessary tasks such as building porches and digging wells and beer cellars, arguing that they would soon go back home. The Boikos also avoided marrying the locals, fearing that they would be reluctant to move to the mountains later.

The construction of a cascade of hydroelectric power plants on the Dnipro generated increased demand for labor. People were brought from all over Ukraine and even from neighboring republics. But the Boikos were denied this opportunity even though they lived closer to the construction site. They would have been paid in cash, enabling them to pay off their debts faster. Though they grew up in the Carpathians and could have put their experience in construction to use, they were rejected. The Boikos initially found themselves in the worst collective farms and naturally wanted to move elsewhere. In January 1952, regional executive committees issued instructions: “to fire all settlers and send them back to the collective farms they came from” and “in the future, do not hire without references from village councils.” Archival documents also include special orders in which regional authorities threaten to put on trial any administrative official who dared to hire a settler.

The unusual climate, the absence of churches and the clergy, the constant lack of water and wood and the fact that the locals did not accept the Boikos’ religious rules and traditions all caused many Boikos who had relatives or acquaintances in western regions to want to move west to join them. On October 16, 1945, Khrushchev and Korotchenko signed an order banning settlers from returning to western Ukraine. This order continued to be enforced in the 1950s. Train stations near the settlers were patrolled, and their every movement was observed. Tickets for western-bound trains were not even sold in the vicinity. Those who were caught trying to escape to western Ukraine were sent back. Some Boikos did manage to sneak out by bribing officials or forging papers, but the authorities would track them down, deny them registration in their new abodes and return them to the collective farms.

BENEFITS FOR THE STATE

The economic and political interests of the state were placed above the settlers' interests. After regulations were issued, the authorities did not exert sufficient effort to meet their commitments and provide the Boikos with all they needed to settle in the new place. Nevertheless, they survived, and they, rather than Soviet officials, deserve recognition for this. Only after Ukraine regained its independence did regional leaders admit that the settlers turned backward collective farms into leaders. Thus, the state clearly benefited not only from gaining a coalmine near Chervonohrad, but also from settling the Boikos in the steppes near the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where these hard-working people made a significant contribution to the growth of the agricultural sector.

But did the settlers themselves benefit from it? The results of the forced settlement perpetrated by Moscow and Warsaw were heart-wrenching: separation from their native land; no opportunity to maintain their traditional culture; deprivation and split families; widespread chronic illnesses due to inhuman transportation conditions; a change of climate and malnutrition; unliveable housing and hundreds of premature deaths. The lives of 32,000 Boikos were affected.

SIDENOTE

The 14,000 Poles moved from territory left of the Buh River say that during the Soviet-Polish talks, the USSR insisted that Poland offer shelter in the Beskids to political refugees from Greece after the end of the Greek civil war. There is no direct published evidence to corroborate that the Kremlin pressured Poland during these negotiations to make it accept Greek communists, but after 1952, the Polish authorities did place Greeks in Ukrainian homes in the villages of Korostenko, Liskovate and Stebnyk where the new residents even remade churches into theaters. In contrast, the Boikos were not allowed to occupy the 7,500 houses left of the Buh River after the Poles were moved out of the area, and in the first years after the resettlement most of them stood empty.


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