Soviet Territorial Annexations

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

When the Red Army crossed the Soviet frontier into eastern Poland on September 17, 1939 it was to unify historically Ukrainian and Belorussian lands. Such, at least, was the Soviet explanation for its participation in the partitioning of Poland which had been agreed upon in a secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 23, 1939. Made up largely of ethnic Ukrainians and commanded by a Ukrainian, Semen Timoshenko, the Red Army units were told by their political commissars that they were entering Poland not as conquerors but as liberators. To the local peasants the Red Army distributed leaflets explaining that it had come to rid them of their oppressive Polish rulers. Easily overwhelming Polish military forces, who were already fighting the Germans in the west, the Red Army proceeded to set up militia units and local revolutionary councils. On October 24 a People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine requested to become part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and a Belorussian equivalent soon followed suit. Decrees nationalizing industry and collectivizing the land were issued, although by the time the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union a year and a half later only some 13 percent of peasants had been enrolled in collective farms. In the meantime, these regions were cleansed of thousands of Poles, particularly landowners, officers and officials, as many as twenty thousand of whom were eventually executed by the NKVD under orders from Lavrentii Beria.

The Non-Aggression Pact gave the Soviet Union a free hand in the Baltic and it was not long before Stalin put pressure on Finland to grant a Soviet base on Finnish soil and move the Finnish-Soviet border westward to protect Leningrad. The Finnish government’s refusal to cede any territory, inspired in part by its hope of receiving allied support, precipitated a Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939. Finnish resistance was stiff, and Red Army casualties were embarrassingly high, but the so-called Winter War ended in March 1940 with a treaty ceding to the USSR the territories it originally had demanded plus Finnish Karelia. Nearly half a million Finns fled to what remained of independent Finland. The price that the USSR paid, aside from troop losses numbering in excess of 100,000, was international respectability. On December 14, 1939 the League of Nations voted to expel the Soviet Union.

Soviet pressure on Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the three Baltic republics that had achieved their independence during the Russian civil war of 1918-20, was a graduated process. In the fall of 1939 Estonia conceded bases to the Soviets and both Latvia and Lithuania were compelled to admit and house Red Army troops. Claiming that Lithuania had violated its treaty, Stalin eventually dropped any pretense of respecting its sovereignty. On June 15, 1940 Soviet troops entered the country ostensibly in response to appeals from Lithuanian workers to assist them in their “revolution.” Similar “revolutions” occurred in Estonia and Latvia, and on August 3 all three Baltic states were officially proclaimed Soviet Socialist Republics. Sovietization was a brutal affair, involving the rounding up, deportation and/or execution of thousands of former officials, landowners, clergy, and intellectuals. Further to the south, Soviet troops invaded the Romanian provinces of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina and incorporated them into the Soviet republic of Moldavia. Thus, by September 1940, the Soviet Union had extended its western borders to include many of the territories and peoples formerly under tsarist rule. This westward thrust was reversed by the Nazi invasion of June 1941, but repeated again as the Red Army drove the Wehrmacht out of Soviet territory and proceeded on the road to Berlin.

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