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30 August, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

In The Bloodlands

During the retreat of the Red Army in the summer of 1941, NKVD troops committed mass executions of prisoners not only in Western Ukraine, but also in Vinnytsia, Kharkiv, and Crimea

The retreat of the Red Army from Ukraine in the summer and fall of 1941 was accompanied by endless columns of prisoners of war, the disorderly evacuation of the local population, forced mobilization, the burning of bridges and the destruction of factories, plants, communications, and the poisoning of food and water. Besides this, mounds of dead and mutilated bodies of NKVD prisoners were left behind in the aftermath of the retreat. This was perhaps the worst way to reveal the true face of the Stalinist regime.

The Red Terror of the first days of the war, unleashed against detained “counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet elements,” swept through the vast territories, from the Karelian-Finnish Republic, the Baltics, Western Belarus and Ukraine to Bessarabia, Crimea, and certain regions of the RSFSR, and became one of the elements characterizing the “Bloodlands,” as the American historian Tymothy Snyder described this part of Europe at the time.

At the moment of Germany’s attack, the so-called inner prisons of the Ukrainian NKVD were overcrowded. In early June, 1941, they contained 72,768 inmates, at maximum capacity of 30,753.The inmates included politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals, former government officials, army officers, individuals of “bourgeois” origin, kulaks, activists of national liberation movements, criminals, and petty offenders.

On June 22, 1941, with regard to the onset of the Nazi aggression, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor General of the USSR issued an order to put prisons, camps, and prison colonies under martial law. The release of prisoners was forbidden. “The Polish contingent, Germans and foreign subjects” were declared a separate category of inmates and were to be placed under close guard. Orders were also given to detain all individuals suspected of anti-Soviet activities, who might pose a threat to the Bolshevik regime under German occupation.


At the beginning of the German – Soviet war there were many people in the prisons of Western Ukraine who were arrested by the Bolshevik punitive authorities in the course of the Soviet occupation of Galicia, Volhynia, and North Bukovyna as a result of the “liberation mission” of the Red Army in 1939-40. During the first week of the war, the prison population in Western Ukraine almost doubled. The secret police had special orders from the center to arrest anyone suspected of “anti-Soviet activities and spying.” In particular, in Lviv after June 22, the Cheka raided citizens, seeming to suspect every second man or woman of being a guerrilla or a spy.

In the early days of the war, the state security authorities of Soviet Ukraine tried to deport the inmates from the front-line area inland. On June 23, 1941, Director of the UkrSSR NKVD Prison Administration Filippov sent 13th NKVD Division Commander Colonel Zavialov a plan for evacuating inmates from the west. In particular, the plan envisioned the evacuation of 23,236 people, which required 778 railroad cars. But the rapid offensive of the German troops, transportation problems, and the activities of the nationalist underground, which sporadically attacked prisons in order to release inmates, frustrated the plan. After several appeals from the Ukrainian NKVD leadership to Moscow for instructions, a telegram arrived. It required, according to orders from Lavrentii Beria and a list approved by the Prosecutor, that “all individuals on remand and convicted for counter-revolutionary crimes stipulated by Art. 170 of the Criminal Code, and embezzlers be executed. Individuals on remand and convicted on other articles of the Criminal Code should be released.”

The extermination of political prisoners began from the very first days of the war in the prisons in the border zone, in Peremyshl and Dobromyl. Thenceforth, the full-scale execution of inmates without any trial was launched, by orders from local prison authorities. Inmates were killed in cells, in prison courtyards, in the woods outside towns and cities, at coal mines, and so on. Execution techniques varied from the use of firearms and armored vehicles to quartering to burying people alive, and sometimes even boiling them in cauldrons.

After June 23, the executions intensified. First, inmates were called out individually, then in groups. In the last days before the retreat of the Soviets, inmates were executed without any lists, sometimes right in their cells, with machine guns and grenades. To muffle the victims’ agonizing cries, the executions were performed to the accompaniment of the roaring automobile and tractor engines. Inmates attempted rebellions, but usually that resulted in shootings en masse. A few of the arrested were able to escape, due to the panic and confusion of the retreating Soviet troops. A few others were released by the OUN guerrillas during organized uprisings.

Witnesses left evidence about the scale of the Red Terror in the first days of the war, during the retreat of the Red Army from Western Ukrainian territory. “Bryhidky, a prison in Lviv. The gate is wide open, and the breeze carries a putrid smell. There are heaps of corpses in the courtyard, passages, and cells. All bodies bear evidences of torture. Crushed skulls, limbs chopped off, bodies tied with barbed wire, disfigured faces…” “Many corpses were found in the Sambir prison, with horrible mutilations. Some had gags and sand in their mouths, others had nails cut out, pieces of skin cut out of their faces, eyes picked out, noses cut off, teeth knocked out, and so on. Women had their breasts cut off and bellies ripped, their hair was plucked out, and they all were raped before execution.”

Overall during the first weeks of the war, in the prisons of Western Ukraine nearly 22,000 people were executed. In the prisons of Lviv Region (which at that time comprised only the northern part of its present territory. – Ed.), in Lviv, Busk, Horodok, Komarno-Rudky, Shchyrets, Bibrka, Zhovkva, Kamianka-Buska, Sudova Vyshnia, Yavoriv, and Lopatyn 4,591 persons were shot; in three prisons of Drohobych Region (Drohobych, Sambir, and Stryi) – 3,301 persons; in the prisons of Stanislav – 2,500; in Lutsk – 2,754; in Rivne – 150; in Dubno – 1,500; in Kovel – 195; in Ternopil – 1,000; in Peremyshl and Dobromyl – 2,000 inmates. Most of them were Ukrainian and a small percentage of Poles. About 10 percent were Zionist Jews.


Only in a few places was it possible to evacuate the inmates, yet most of them never reached their destination. Vehicles were mostly used to transport valuables, while the vast majority of inmates had to go on foot. Only 214 persons survived those “death marches.” The rest were either executed on their way, or killed in German air raids (they were taken for retreating regular army troops). In particular, 954 inmates were evacuated from Chortkiv, Ternopil Region, 123 of whom were shot on their way, and 767 inmates from Uman. 110 persons are known to have been transported from Western Ukraine and shot by the Cheka in Bykivnia near Kyiv. In a few rare cases, the commander of the escort would simply release their prisoners, due to the complicated situation, as was the case with the inmates evacuated from Khmelnytska Region.

Those evacuated by railroad were either blown up or exterminated in other cruel ways. This is what happened on July 7, 1941, to political prisoners from Kolomyia and Bukovyna, who where dumped off the explosion-wrecked railroad bridge into the Dniester at Zalishchyky, Ternopil Region.

Other categories of inmates were either removed to the prisons and camps in the rear, or released under the order of the USSR Supreme Council of July 12, 1941: in areas under martial law, individuals convicted to terms of up to three years for so-called petty offences were released. Criminal offenders were also given amnesty.

With the start of German occupation, when prisons were opened, Western Ukrainians were appalled at the horrendous scenes of Communist terror. Nazi propaganda was quite successful in taking advantage of the facts of mass shootings for instilling anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic sentiments in the local population. The evidence of witnesses and the names of the victims were regularly published in the Ukrainian, Polish, and German press during the occupation period, the sites of the crimes were photographed and filmed.


However, the tragedy of prisoners in the western regions was not the only cruel crime of the Communist regime before its panicked retreat across Ukraine. Mass extermination of inmates was conducted in Vinnytsia in the early weeks of the war, where the Bolsheviks killed a total of 9,439 persons, mostly those arrested during the Great Terror of 1937-38. In Piatykhatky near Kharkiv 8,000 inmates including Polish officers were killed before the retreat of the Soviet troops. During the evacuation from Crimea, the NKVD resorted to mass persecution and the arrest of the civilian Tatar population. On October 31, 1941, on the day of the surrender of Simferopol, the Cheka shot all political prisoners in their cells. After Nazi troops entered the city, they found the bodies of women and children killed together with men in the NKVD prison.

A similar scene of Red Terror could be seen in Yalta, where on November 3, 1941, before retreating, the NKVD killed all the inmates of the local prison. The NKVD in Crimea would also shoot the locals right in the streets, seeing them as potential enemies and allies of Hitler. This was what happened in Karasubazar, a little place between Alushta and Yalta.

The extermination of political prisoners en masse at the beginning of the German – Soviet war became an effective means of dealing with the opponents of the Stalinist regime, under the disguise of the disorderly retreat of Soviet troops and Bolshevik authorities further east. At the same time, extermination did not extend to criminals and inmates of mental hospitals, who were released in the early months of the war.

The atrocities of the Soviet punitive authorities against inmates fall under war crimes according to the contemporary legal norms, in particular, the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, compliance with which was repeatedly declared by the Soviet Union during World War II. Mass executions of prisoners in the early weeks of the German – Soviet armed conflict had a shocking impact on the Ukrainian population, especially in the western regions, which after the return of the Bolshevik regime in 1944 would not forgive its barbaric crimes and for a long time nourished the insurgent movement which fought for Ukraine’s independence.


Mass shootings of the NKVD political prisoners in 1941 outside Ukraine


TartuOn July 9, 1941, nearly 250 people were shot by the NKVD in the prison and in its courtyard

Kautla – On July 24, 1941, the Soviet fighter battalions executed 20 civilians and burned their homes for showing support to their Estonian “forest brothers”


Vilnius– Following the start of Nazi aggression, inmates were executed in Lukiškės prison (the exact number of victims is unknown).

Rainai – On the night of June 25, 1941, the NKVD authorities killed 79 political prisoners.

Praveniskes, near Kaunas – In the last week of June 1941, Cheka officers killed 260 political prisoners and Lithuanian personnel.


Litene – Even before the German – Soviet war, on June 14, 1941, 200 officers of the Latvian Army were executed by the Cheka in a forest near Litene, and eight were executed in Riga, and over 400 in Norilsk.


In the early weeks of the German – Soviet war, the NKVD authorities executed 9,817 Poles in various detention facilities along the western front line.


GrodnoOn June 22, 1941, NKVD authorities shot several dozen inmates from the local prison. The unexpected attack of the German troops and the hasty retreat of the Bolsheviks prevented them from killing the remaining 1,700 inmates.

Verezvech,near Vitebsk – On June 24, 1941, the Cheka executed 800 prisoners, most of whom were Polish. Several thousand inmates died during the “death march” towards Nikolaievo near Ula.

June 24-27, 1941, near Minsk – the NKVD killed several thousand people in prisons during the evacuation to the east.

Vileika– On June 24, 1941, several dozen political prisoners, mostly sick and wounded, were executed by the NKVD interior troops during the retreat.


OrelIn September 1941, more than 150 political prisoners (including renowned activists of the Communist movement such as Christian Rakovsky, Maria Spiridonova, and Olga Kameneva) were executed in Medvedevsky Forest near Orel.


Lithuanian experience. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania was the first post-communist country to start investigations against communist criminals involved in the mass execution of inmates in 1941. In 2001, the Šiauliai Territorial Court issued a writ on opening criminal proceedings against a former officer of the NKVD Petr Raslan for his crimes against the people of Lithuania, and passed a life sentence on him. However, the Russian Federation frustrated this ruling, taking the former Cheka man under its protection. This was one of the reasons why in 2004, Vytautas Landsbergis made the president of Lithuania boycott the celebration of Victory Day in Moscow.

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