Camps For Russian Prisoners and Internees in Poland (1919–1924) - The Controversy

The Controversy

Until the source documents were published in Moscow in 2004, some Russian historians had estimated the number of prisoners and the death toll to be much higher, estimating that the death toll was between 40,000 to over 100,000. For example, Irina Mikhutina in her 1995 publications estimated the number of prisoners to be 165,000 and the death toll to be 70,000. In 1998 Russian popular press reported that Polish internment camp in Tuchola was particularly notorious for the large number of Soviet POW's deaths and was dubbed a "death camp" by the Russian Emigrant press from within Poland.> There have also been accusations from the Russian side that the death toll was influenced by the indifference of the camp authorities. F.e. «From the moment of opening an infirmary in February, 1921 till May 11, 1921 there was registered epidemic diseases 6491, not epidemic 12294, 2561 deaths.» Western sources also claim that Russian historians used those numbers to justify the Katyn massacre.

The Russian historians arrived at this number by first estimating the number of POWs, then subtracting the number that has been repatriated to the Soviet Union after the hostilities ended, and then assuming that most of the remainder died in POW camps. Polish historians always countered this by arguing that: (a) the number of POWs was very difficult to estimate accurately, due to the chaotic situation prevailing for most of the war, and (b) many Soviet POWs lost that status after they switched sides and entered units fighting alongside Polish forces against the Red Army, or were transferred to the Whites rather than the Bolsheviks. There was also the problem that significant number of Russian POWs were left in the territory of Poland since World War I (about 3.9 million soldiers of the Russian Empire were taken captive by the Central Powers) and obviously when the Polish-Soviet conflict deteriorated, these POWs were not released to Russia.

The issue was finally settled in 2004, where a joint team of Polish and Russian historians (prof. Waldemar Rezmer and prof. Zbigniew Karpus from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and prof. Gennady Matveyev from Moscow State University), after reexamining documents from Polish and Russian archives published their results (printed in Russia by Federal Agency for Russian Archives). Their findings show that the number of Russian POWs can be estimated at between 80,000 and 85,000, and that the number of deaths in the camps can be estimated from 16,000 (Karpus, Rezmer) to 20,000 (Matveyev). Existing documents and proofs does not also confirm thesis made by many Russian historians that Russian POWs were specially exterminated in Polish camps because of their nationality, religion or other issues. They also show that the main cause of death were various illnesses and epidemics (influenza, typhus, cholera and dysentery), noting that these diseases also took a heavy toll among fighting soldiers and the civilian population..

A similar number of Polish POWs - about 20,000 out of about 51,000 - died in Soviet and Lithuanian camps.

After 1922 the Polish and Russian prisoners were also exchanged among two sides. Ekaterina Peshkova the chairwoman of organization Assistance to Political Prisoners (Pompolit, Помощь политическим заключенным, Помполит). was awarded by an order of Polish Red Cross for her participation in the exchange of POWs after the Polish-Soviet War.

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