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12 November, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

An Alien Invasion

The sovietization of Western Ukraine in 1939-41 was a triumph of Bolshevik barbarity over the more cultured “liberated” population

The invasion of the Red Army into Western Ukraine in September 1939 under a secret treaty between Nazi Germany and the Stalin-ruled USSR was followed by a wave of repressive measures. Industries, banks, transport and land were nationalized; property was expropriated; the local population became the target of repressions and deportations. The level of everyday behaviour of the Soviets caused a true shock among the local population. In 1939-41, ordinary life in Western Ukraine saw drastic changes under the Soviets who imposed their more primitive culture on everyone.


The appearance of Red Army soldiers and officers alone made an unforgettable impression. “The first Soviet units that occupied Lviv looked more miserable than you could imagine: Red Army men were hungry, threadbare, dirty, skinny, poorly equipped and wearing shabby uniforms,” a Lviv resident remembered. The impossible-to-believe stories of communist propagandists who met with locals to tell them about the advantages of living in the Soviet Union and the inadequacy of agitation in general became an object of derision among local peasants and town dwellers in some places. The outward appearance and behaviour of the Soviets stood in stark contrast to the slogans of communist propaganda about the happy and joyful way of life in the USSR.

Following the Soviet army, a host of bureaucrats and NKVD officers entered the newly annexed territory. Western Ukrainian lands, which were among the least developed regions in the Second Polish Republic, appeared to be a true Eldorado to the Bolsheviks. They looted local stores in the cities of Galician and Volhynian to quickly add to their stock of possessions.

In order to facilitate this task, the new authorities quickly set the rouble exchange rate on par with the Polish zloty, four times the pre-war level. This opened the way to “legalized robbery”: clothing, footwear, other manufactured goods, paper, watches, coffee, chocolate, sweets and a number of other mass consumption products which were in short supply in the “socialist paradise” were the first items to be purchased at throwaway prices. Piles of goods from captured, confiscated and nationalized enterprises, warehouses and trade points were shipped east. Oil, matches and salt were all transported in the other direction. After a few weeks, the stores in Western Ukraine stood empty. There was a shortage of everything, from clothes and footwear to paper and shaving equipment.

The invaders had an insatiable appetite, so the Soviet authorities tried to somehow control the process. In 1940, a network of government consignment stores covered Galicia and Volhynia. These bought clothes, footwear and everyday appliances (typewriters, sewing machines, furniture, gramophones, records and even old rubber overshoes) at low prices from the population.


The Ukrainians and Poles were shocked by the extremely low level of education and cultural primitiveness of not only ordinary Soviet soldiers and lower-level bureaucrats but also higher-ranking officers and officials. The cultural backwardness of the “liberators” often led to ridiculous situations which were quickly repeated in numerous jokes. For example, the Soviet nomenklatura commonly used toilets pans as wash basins and ate toothpaste, while the wives of Soviet officers wore confiscated night gowns as evening dresses.

The sense of alienation was aggravated by the peculiar Soviet etiquette. It was normal to enter indoor areas in overcoats and headgear, not to give up seats to women on public transport or let ladies go first. The Bolsheviks did not know what handkerchiefs, shaving equipment, toothpaste, chamber pots and other “bourgeois extravaganza” hygienic items were for.

The Soviet military men, called komandiry (commanders) by the locals, looked utterly unattractive in comparison with neat and elegant Polish officers. Locals would have a hard time imagining a Polish officer with a rough, unintelligent face carrying a sack of possessions over his shoulder or a child in his arms, looking wrinkled and untidy, often swearing and using “Come on, come on” as part of his commands.

The Sovietization led to a planned centralized economy, ideology-ruled social and cultural spheres and an atmosphere of fear and terror. It was also a triumph of Bolshevik barbarity and boorishness over the more cultured masses of the “liberated” population, which had a much higher level of culture in its bourgeois society than the invaders did in terms of their “all-conquering socialism”.

A change in fashion was a telling example. It became dangerous to go out into the street wearing expensive clothes that were a status symbol. Red Army men were actively hunting good footwear (boots were looked upon as a sign of wealth in the Soviet Union), so city dwellers did without watches and used old, worn-down shoes. Workers quickly adopted the Soviet working clothing – fufaikas (quilted jackets), quilted trousers, boots and characteristic peaked caps. Elements of military uniform – service jackets, riding breeches, etc. – became fashionable. Lviv, Ternopil, Stanislav, Drohobych, Chernivtsi, Lutsk and Rivne began to look like other Soviet cities whose streets were filled with grey, poorly dressed people that tried as hard as they could to mix in with the faceless crowd.


An aggravating food crisis in the first months of Bolshevik occupation was a serious test for Western Ukrainians. Military action and large numbers of refugees from the Wehrmacht-occupied part of Poland caused food prices to jump 8-12 times by December 1940. At the same time, the hasty nationalization of large-scale and medium-sized trade destroyed the established supply system, mainly in cities. For example, the local authorities nationalized 343 out of 466 small private stores and kiosks in Lviv in December 1939. In the winter of 1939-1940, market prices of butter, milk and eggs rose 5-10 times, bread 4-5 times and meat (beef and pork) 5-7 times from pre-war levels. After a ban was placed on the sale of flour and grain in the countryside, collective farmers took to cities en masse.

In late 1939, the situation was aggravated further, and urban residents in Western Ukraine faced a mandatory attribute of Soviet commerce – a severe shortage of essential foodstuffs, above all bread, sugar, meat, milk and butter. Everyday urban life in Galicia and Volhynia now included such attractions of the “socialist paradise” as queues, which at times reached several hundred meters and involved up to 1,500 people. Urban dwellers had to spend three to four hours daily, standing in queues to buy food for themselves and their families. The authorities introduced ration norms for essential foodstuffs and at times people were forced to buy food after its sell-by date. Products were not packaged in stores because of a shortage of paper, so sometimes customers had to carry flour or sugar home in their pockets or hats. The decorations of Soviet times were empty shop windows with the portraits of Stalin, Lenin and Molotov.

In the second half of January 1940, Lviv, considered to be an exemplary Soviet city in Galicia, was struck by famine. Urban residents began to buy products from peasants. In conditions of spiralling inflation, “in-kind” food transactions were resumed in some areas; crime and profiteering increased; and the black market emerged despite counteracting measures taken by the authorities. Urban residents were forced to exchange their personal belongings and furniture for food in order to feed themselves. The food market in Cracow Square in Lviv which had people from all walks of life who had nothing to support themselves with became a symbol of mass pauperization. “Sellers stood in two fairly long lines and included representatives of the best and most cultured strata of Lviv, representatives of the old Polish aristocracy. It was the entire old and elegant Lviv world... Buyers walked along the street in two files, and these were more often than not Russians – Soviet officers, soldiers, government officials and their wives, who turned into European ladies here,” Jan Rogowski, a Polish resident of Lviv, recollected.

Food shortages were largely overcome by spring 1940, and the increased supply put an end to the famine. In April 1940, various kinds of fish, sugar, oil, flour, butter, eggs, canned vegetables, Crimean and Caucasian wines, matches, cigarettes, etc. arrived on store shelves in Lviv, which semi-official propaganda called “Comrade Stalin’s favourite city”. In peripheral regions of Galicia, however, food shortages were an invariable characteristic of “the first Soviets”.


An influx of refugees and the later arrival of several thousand members of the Bolshevik administration, Red Army and the NKVD, all with their families, created an acute housing problem in Western Ukrainian cities. The needs of the military and the police were satisfied in a totally brazen fashion – flats and houses were confiscated from their owners, largely members of the Polish elite. By 27 November 1939, 1,004 real estate objects were put at the disposal of the NKVD and the Red Army in Lviv alone. With or without authorization, the Soviets seized flats with furniture and drove their owners into cellars or out into the streets. In the best-case scenario, locals were forced to share their flat with the family of a Soviet ranking official.

In late December 1939, flats and houses in large cities began to be nationalized, and families were stripped of their possessions and, above all, valuable items, in the process. Those who were fortunate to avoid confiscations were forced to pay excessively high taxes. A failure to pay these exposed them to repressions, so they voluntarily abandoned their flats and houses which were immediately occupied by the Soviets.

At the same time, to give some substance to socialist slogans, a housing policy for workers was implemented. For example, workers were given 11,869 flats in Lviv. However, this did not solve the housing problem in the city, so the authorities resorted to the traditional Soviet methods of “compacting” (accommodating several families in one flat and splitting large flats into several smaller ones) and setting up communal flats. This caused inconveniences in everyday activities for the tenants and a gradual decline of urban culture, as well as constant tension in society, all sources of future conflicts.

At the same time, nationalized buildings in many Western Ukrainian cities and regional centres were not properly maintained, water and gas pipes, sewage and internal electrical equipment all went to ruin. Gas supply to citizens was intermittent, and surviving the cold and prolonged winter of 1939-40 became a special challenge. People had to use firewood, old newspaper and unnecessary furniture to heat rooms. The situation with the electricity supply was no better. In autumn 1940, electricity was cut off after noon in some districts in Lviv, so oil lamps made a come back.

To add insult to injury, the sanitary and epidemiological conditions deteriorated as tens of thousands of refugees lived in barracks, cellars, or rooms which often lacked elementary sanitary conditions. There were also many dumps left over from battle action and a shortage of the most essential items of personal hygiene. Soap, a symbol of wealth under the “first Soviets”, was expensive, looked terrible and had the colour of charcoal, according to eyewitness reports.

Horribly overcrowded trams became an ugly element of the city’s landscape. Some passengers stood on steps or bumpers, and a Bolshevik policeman was the master of the situation – he decided where transport could stop and let passengers off. Trains operated on a highly irregular schedule and were often several hours late. Train carriages were unlit and unheated; window panes were missing; passengers were packed like sardines in corridors and WCs or even hung on the outside holding onto windows. And let us not forget that a ticket for such a “happy ride” required several hours of standing in a queue. The Bolsheviks cancelled many trains due to a shortage of coal and because a lot of railroad equipment had been shipped out from Western Ukraine to the east.

In general, the two-year rule of the “liberators” adversely affected the welfare of virtually every family, lowering the standard of living and causing pauperization and social degradation. In terms of civilization, society was thrown back several decades. The arrival of the Red Army and the subsequent Sovietization measures were perceived by the local population as a barbarian invasion which destroyed everything in its way and imposed its own model of development.

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