The NKVD Internal Troop Archive: What Is Interesting Inside?

The most complete and truthful picture of past events can be reconstructed having sources of various origin at hand. For a scholar, when it comes to warfare studies it is the best to have sources from both belligerents. Otherwise, one may find himself captured by one-sided covering of events and presenting them through the lens of only one participant with all prejudices and subjective opinions of the adversary. It is said that there are no more lies at war, after hunting, and before elections.

In February—March 1944, the Soviet troops clashed with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army units in Volhynia (Rivne Province, Northern Ternopil and Zhytomyr lands). The pivotal, anti-Soviet, phase of the national liberation struggle began lasting for over 10 years in all West-Ukrainian regions and even in adjacent areas of Zhytomyr, contemporary Khmelnytsky, Vinnytsia, and Kyiv provinces.

Researchers have got a substantial corpus of sources to study this period. These are, primarily, documents of the UPA and nationalistic underground structures themselves and memoirs and interviews of the liberation movement veterans as well. This category of sources seized as trophies by the Soviet regime has been stored in the central and regional state archives of Ukraine, Branch State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the SBU regional units’ archives.

Sources from the other side of the front, the Communist regime, are also available for studies in Ukraine’s archives. These are, in particular, records (proclamations, resolutions, ordinances, memoranda etc) of the Communist Party’s (Bolshevik) of Ukraine bodies, Soviet authorities from the Council of People’s Commissars (Ministers) and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Ukrainian SSR downwards to low-level Soviets and executive committees.

Beside these, after the legislation on the access to the Soviet repressive organs’ archives was passed in 2015, records of the Soviet State Security which purpose, actually, was the suppression of any anti-Soviet liberation movements have become accessible: the NKVD-MVD Directorate for the Struggle Against Banditry, NKGB bodies, Directorate 2-N of the MGB-KGB. Criminal archive files of the insurgents taken captive worth specific attention.

Cover of a file from the VV NKVD Archive

So records from the Soviet side are by no means scarce. There was, in the words of well-known student of UPA history, Candidate of Historical Sciences Volodymyr Kovalchuk, a “paper cult” in the Soviet Union — bureaucracy of all levels produced countless documents on every occasion.

Notwithstanding such variety, there cannot be too many sources for a scholar. And now thanks to the project “Making the Past Accessible: Digital Return of the Taken Archives About the USSR Struggle with the Liberation Movement” a 3,5-thousand collection of the Ukrainian District NKVD Internal Troops’ records for 1944—1945 has become free accessible on the Ukrainian Liberation Movement Electronic Archive. 

It was the two last years of the Second World War that were remarkable for large-scale warfare of the Communist regime with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

The objective of waging military operations (“fighting banditry”) was entrusted directly to the NKVD of the USSR Internal Troops (VV NKVD). Furthermore, these troops provided deportations of native peoples (Chechens, Ingushs, Crimean Tatars etc) during 1943—1944 and members’ of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement families in 1944—1950s, guarded objects of government importance, executed mahunts in search for deserters and those who tried to escape mobilization to the Red Army, served as garrisons in areas liberated from the German forces.

VV units’ inside documentation contributes substantially to the panorama of the military dimension of the Ukrainian insurgents’ confrontation with the totalitarian regime as far it contains information that comes directly from the “front line” and has not been filtered by numerous bureaucratic channels.

What the Internal Troops Archive Consists of

The VV NKVD Archive as such was composed of the documents of the 1st (Operational) Division of the VV Command of the Ukrainian District (UO), staffs of rifle brigades, divisions and independent rifle and cavalry regiments that were located in Western Ukraine and neighbouring regions during various periods of 1944—1945. The 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 24th, 25th rifle brigades, the 9th and 10th rifle divisions, and 18th Cavalry Regiment were known to fight the Ukrainian insurgents in 1944. In October 1945, the counter-insurgency forces included: the 62nd, 81st, and 82nd divisions, 18th Cavalry, and 290th Motorized Regiments.

In the original archive, the VV records were arranged in several ways.

A number of files (No. 7, 10 etc) contain VV UD Headquarters’ orders, service correspondence with staffs of units and reports on combat deployment of troops. Files titled “District Headquarters Operation Summaries” cover concise chronicles of warfare, casualties, and trophies in terms of every military unit for 1944 —1944.

File “Operations Summaries and Record Cards With Results of District Units and Formations’ Operational-Service Activities”, Volume 7, dated July 22 – August 16, 1944

Files No. 11 and No. 13 with the same titles: “Operations Summaries and Record Cards With Results of District Units and Formations’ Operational-Service Activities” are composed of 13 volumes each and contain reports about counter-insurgency results for January to December 1944 and that of 1945 respectively. While some files cover 2-3 month periods, others do 2-3 weeks.

They are supplemented with the 10-volume file No. 001 “Orders, Operational Summaries and Other Materials On the Operational-Service Activities of the District Units and Formations”.

Records of the VV units’ combat deployment against guerillas in 1945 are filed in a multivolume file “Plans, Accounts, Memoranda, and Other Materials On the Executed Chekist-Military Operations” without number. A fleeting glance at its papers allows us to conclude that documentation is systematized better and more precisely here. Operation plans are accompanied by sketches drawn on topographic maps that make the mentioned in text more clear, contribute to operation accounts and conclusions. Such organisation of record-keeping makes research much easier.

There are some files devoted exclusively to certain formations, for instance “Account of Combat Operations of Units and Elements of the 21st Rifle Brigade for 1944-1945” and the same for other brigades.

Apart from operation summaries, Chekist-Military operation plans, reports of executed operations and warfare accounts, orders of the VV Chief and his staff as well as other documents reflecting combat and garrison service of the VV NKVD can be found on the regular basis in the archive files. Including those about accidents, disciplinary infractions, criminal displays among servicemen, cases of moral degradation—the so-called “unhealthy symptoms”.

In the Electronic Archive, these files are published as separate documents, each accompanied by the title, date, highlights, and key words. This makes orienting oneself and searching for the needed documents within the whole corpus much easier.

How to Use the Archive’s Documents Properly

Some advice for those who are going to work with the Archive. Soviet documents of that time use names of settlements in Polish variant: Tembovlia (Ukr: Terebovlia), Radzekhuv (Radekhiv), Stsheliska-Nove (Novi Strilyshcha), Yablonuv (Yabluniv), Svynazhyn (Svynaryn) etc. This is due to fact that the topographical service of the Red Army General Staff made their maps basing on the pre-war Polish ones. Thus, toponyms (Trembowla, Radziechów, Strzeliska Nowe etc) were borrowed just in Cyrillic spelling. Therefore, researchers have to pay attention and use Ukrainian place-names without recopying them carelessly from documents or maps.

Numbers are one more category of information that need to be accepted critically. Magnification of numbers is a feature inherent to reports of many armies (the UPA among them), and within the Soviet Army this issue was aggravated by traditions of eye wash and facile optimism. So the Internal Troops’ reports leave an impression as if Communists were prevailing, almost always killing hundreds of insurgents at once with several or less than ten or more men of their own casualties. That is, the enemy’s losses are often put as 5-10-20 times more than that of their own side.

Such incredible victories can obviously be only in myths about Hercules. Moreover, one cannot understand why given such combat efficiency, Soviet troops messed about the nationalist insurgency as long as a decade.

That is why numbers of enemy’s casualties should always be doubted and verified through alternative data. The best is to check with documents of the very UPA unit that took part in the corresponding engagement with the VV NKVD. When there is no such an opportunity, one may build on the data about trophy weapons: the number of guns must correspond to the number of killed and captured, give or take. Because nobody fights rifles and machine-guns with only his bare hands.

At all events, unreal figures of killed guerillas mean either forgery or killed civilians who had been attached to combatants.

The easiest scheme of work with the VV NKVD UO Archive is the following: when studying the UPA or OUN fighting groups’ activities in a certain raion or province one should look for the documents of the VV units stationed in the appropriate area and compare both sources along the needed period. The search for necessary documents may be accelerated if home stations of the VV units are known—they could be found out while looking either through the VV Archive files (they contain periodical information about the District troops distribution) or the scholarly articles. A faster way is to search at the Ukrainian Liberation Movement Electronic Archive by key words.

Information about the Ukrainian District VV NKVD distribution in Rivne Province as for 25.11.1944

Let us observe it with an example of one of the successful battles with the Internal Troops conducted by a UPA-North detachment “Dorosh” (commander Nykon Semeniuk-“Stalny”) and “Kantovy’s” Company from Prylutsky Detachment on November 11, 1944 on the north of Rivne Province. The UPA source—an order by Group Formation (GF) No. 44 Commander Fedir Vorobets-“Denys Shygunych” on honouring participants of the fight—reads:

“On 11.11.1944 an UPA detachment led by Stalny engaged an NKVD garrison from Rokytne, from which the garrison departed that day to rob villagers of Zaslavya, Rokytne Raion. The fight resulted in destruction of the whole hostile garrison. The enemy left 117 men including 11 officers at the battlefield. Weapons and ammunition were captured.”

In total, we learn from different reports that insurgents declared killing 117 (almost all) of the NKVD unit of 130 soldiers and their own losses comprised 4 perished and 12 injured.

We search for information on the combat among the VV Archive papers. And we find an order of Major General Marchenkov, the VV NKVD UO Chief, containing an analysis of the battle of Rokytne dated November 16, 1944 and a special report by State Security Major Shamayev, the Chief of the SMERSH counterintelligence department of the VV 16th Brigade.

Special report to the Chief of the Task Force of the SMERSH NKVD Counterintelligence Department of the Ukrainian District Sydorenko.

It comes from the documents that the defeated NKVD unit was a troop (98 fighters) of the 205th Independent Rifle Battalion of the 16th Brigade under command of the battalion deputy commander Captain Stulov. The Soviet unit lost 26 men killed, 10 more wounded and one missing during 3,5 hours of the firefight. There were four officers among the perished NKVDists including the battalion deputy commander himself.

Notice how the losses of the UPA were reported: in his order, Marchenkov admitted that “the gang lost up to 70 men killed”. But the SMERSH officer, based on intelligence, reported that they had counted only 12.

So what we may conclude from the analysis of these documents?

Sources from both sides affirm the defeat of the 205th Battalion. But their true casualties could not have made 117 troopers as far as the whole team consisted of 98 men. The VV NKVD records attest that 26 Chekists including 4 officers (but not 11, as in the UPA documents) were killed in action. But nevertheless such damage is a significant defeat for a unit as big as the company. Those who had arranged the ambush could not have lost 70 riflemen because the operation report of the GF-44 documented only 4 killed and 12 injured.

Thus, when defining the most plausible results of a fight one has to keep in mind that both sides submitted their losses accurately and that of the enemy inflated shamelessly.

VV NKVD Documents’ Potential 

The documents of the Internal Troops of the NKVD are literally the Klondike for numerous new research works and dissertations in the history of the UPA struggle for the independence of Ukraine. With their help one may make information from reports of guerillas more clear and supplemented: Soviet reports are characterized by accuracy in dates, names and numerical strength of units and names of their commanding officers. It can be possible to trace the warfare chronology in the regional or time light with the most reliable assessment of its results.

Sketches added to the chekist-military operation reports can become the grounds for studying architecture of dugouts and bunkers of the nationalist underground.

And last but not least: the VV records collection provides an exhaustive idea about the “face of the enemy” of the Ukrainian National Liberation Movement. Documents fix rigorously the NKVD Troops day-to-day activity: their structure, organisation  of routine and garrison duty, planning of operations, liaison management, status of discipline and other details up to the quantity of detailings and guards.

Thus there is a need for big human resources to realize the potential of the VV NKVD Archive. All the more so that 3,5 thousand documents is not the limit. The Archive covers the VV activities for the period until 1951, so we may expect that thousands more materials will be accessible online as time goes by.