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Soviet Conduct toward Prisoners during Wars of Territorial Conquest

After Tsarist Russia's defeat and collapse during the First World War, large portions of the former Russian Empire either broke away to gain independence or were taken over by other states. Throughout the interwar period, the new Soviet regime harbored revisionist aims to regain lost tracts of land in eastern Europe as part of its larger grand strategy. The lands of eastern Poland became only one of a series of territorial annexations by the Soviet Union around this time. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania came to realize they stood little chance of defeating their larger Soviet foe and offered little resistance to the eventual Russian advance. Romania similarly acquiesced to Soviet demands over Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in an effort to forestall the loss of their entire country. Incidentally, Soviet incursions into the lands of its Balkan neighbor eventually created a revisionist Romania of its own that later allied with Nazi Germany in part to regain lost territory.

Although these additional cases of conquest did not strictly take place during separate interstate wars (though they did unfold in the context of the wider Second World War), the treatment of captured combatants in these conflicts is still relevant for assessing the role of territorial motives. Each represents an additional episode of Soviet annexation and provides an opportunity to examine whether territorial motives had a similar effect on Soviet conduct toward enemy combatants. Stalin and the Soviet leadership perceived their aims in all of these territories in a similar manner to the Polish question.148 All were also explicitly included in the secret German-Soviet protocol from August 1939, outlining each side's spheres of interest in eastern Europe.149

In the case of the Baltic states, Soviet policy was initially more restrained compared to what was happening in Poland. At the same time as Soviet forces were occupying eastern Poland in the fall of 1939, governments from the Baltic countries were instead forced into signing trade agreements and mutual assistance pacts with the Soviet Union. The agreements included provisions for the stationing of Soviet garrisons within each country. The expressed purpose of the troop presence was to protect Baltic lands from outside threats, but they also proved beneficial from the Soviet perspective in facilitating full occupation at a later date.150

This precarious arrangement lasted less than a year. The Soviet Union took advantage of the diversion of the world's attention on Nazi Germany's victories in western Europe to invade the Baltic states in June 1940. Soviet actions indicated “Moscow's principal aim was now the reinforcement of the Soviet 'security system' following the pattern of territorial annexation."151 The administrative and coercive apparatuses of each of the Baltic states were replaced with Soviet officials. Elections were held later the next month, but voters were only allowed to choose from a list of candidates from each country's Communist Party and

handpicked by Soviet authorities.152 Without much surprise, the new “People's Parliaments" then voted unanimously to incorporate their countries into the Soviet Union, thereby ending each country's brief spell of independence gained near the end of the First World War.

Soviet annexation in the Baltic states took place with little armed resistance compared to Poland, but patterns in the treatment of combatants and civilians were remarkably similar. From June through July 1940 alone, around twenty-five thousand “undesirables" were sent from the three countries to labor camps in the Soviet Union.153 All told, approximately thirty-five thousand Latvians, sixty thousand Estonians, and seventy-five thousand Lithuanians were executed or deported during the Soviet annexations of the three countries.154 Many of the most targeted victims were members of the various Baltic national armed forces, who were viewed as particularly undesirable given their potential threat to Soviet rule.

The officer corps in the Baltic states suffered a brutal fate similar to their Polish counterparts even if the killings did not garner the same level of subsequent attention. After the full incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, each of the national armed forces was subsumed under the Red Army. Command of the new Soviet constituent forces, however, was taken over by Soviet commissars to ensure that most Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian military officers retained no significant leadership role. Native officers were then shipped off to the Soviet Union under the pretense that they were to receive “additional training." The vast majority received no such instruction, but were rather summarily executed or sent to labor camps for eventual liquidation.155 The Baltic deportations paralleled closely the Katyn massacre as both pointed to a common policy of removing potential future leaders of resistance within the indigenous population of conquered countries.156 Just as in Poland, Baltic officers were viewed as a particularly salient threat to Soviet control over the newly gained territories and consequently targeted using equally brutal tactics.

Less evidence is available regarding Soviet treatment of enemy combatants in the Romanian lands of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. The Soviet Union launched similar allegations that Bessarabia had been “stolen" by Romania in the aftermath of Russia's defeat during the First World War. Demands for Northern Bukovina were more of a surprise, since comparable claims were not evident from previous Russian regimes.157 Nevertheless, both were absorbed by the Soviet Union starting in late June 1940 in a sequence of events resembling what took place in the Baltic countries.158 Soviet policies toward all segments of society in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, including the armed forces, showed corresponding brutalities to those enacted in Polish territories.159 Furthermore, while supportive for the overall territorial argument, the outcome of the Bessarabian and Northern Bukovinian cases is more problematic from a cultural perspective. Unlike the Baltic states, which were culturally distinct from the Soviet Union, the annexed Romanian lands shared many similarities with their Soviet conquerors. The fact that combatants in both areas were likewise abused suggests that cultural affinities did not play a determining role in these episodes.

Instead, when the Soviet Union possessed territorial aims in other countries during this period, prisoners in these lands more often than not suffered greatly. As with Poland and the Katyn massacre, the reasons for this abuse appear to have been rooted in eliminating potential future threats to the Soviet Union's continued hold on newly incorporated territories.

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