“Golden September” – Ukrainians Welcomed the Arrival of Soviet Troops
Alexander Dovzhenko film, Liberation of Ukrainian and Belarusian Lands..., July 1940.
“Lviv anxiously awaited the cavalry of Oleksandr Parkhomenko! There were joyous shouts, bread and salt met the armoured steel of the Semyon Timosheko division in Lviv!…Lviv became Soviet!”
■ The Essence of the Myth
On 17 September 1939, the Red Army launched its “liberation” campaign or “give a helping hand to our Ukrainian brothers and Belarussians brothers, who are living in Poland.” The entry of the Red Army into the territory of Galicia and Volhynia was accompanied by massive and sincere enthusiasm which was later reflected in the decision of the People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine to united Ukrainians with the “great family of Soviet peoples”.
■ Fast Facts
The “Golden September” is the Soviet propaganda’s name for the September campaign of the Red Army against Poland. This propaganda painted a picture of mass enthusiasm and great expectations of western Ukrainians to establish a new order in these territories. In reality, the joy at the arrival of the Bolshevik regime was not complete and quickly changed to disappointment, fear and resistance.
■ Detailed Facts
The initial arrival of the Red Army was met with positive emotions from the residents of western Ukraine.
Society consisted of three ethnic groups: about 63% Ukrainians, a quarter Poles and a significant part of the rest were Jewish.
Access of Ukrainians and Jews to higher education and public administration in the Second Polish Republic was not equal to the Poles: minorities suffered from discrimination. This policy of the Polish state along with the ancient aspirations of Ukrainians of national independence, caused a lack of loyalty.
The Ukrainians welcomed the arrival of the Red Army as a way to get rid of the unpopular and at times repressive political regime. Some part of society had illusions that these changes will improve their socio-economic conditions. At the same time, Ukrainians in Galicia and Volhynia perceived Bolshevism as a threat. It would be an exaggeration to describe their attitude as overly enthusiastic – it varied greatly.
Quite often the ceremonial meetings of the Red Army satisfied…only the Red Army. Soviet political instructors arrived in some areas and tried to convince people of the necessity of organizing celebrations. In particular, they were to construct a triumphal gate decorated with branches of trees and welcome banners. “Why are you not meeting us? Maybe you’re not happy?” – these were conversations held between the newcomers and local farmers which was recorded in contemporary sources.
Delegates of the People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine (26 October 1939)
This did not occur without any incidents. In one of the local villages a gate was made of pine branches which was decorated with red flags along with the Ukrainian national blue-yellow banners. When the “liberators” appeared, one of them leaned over to the greeters and quietly whispered: “You who should be liberating us, not us you!” At that very moment, someone from the political department cut down the Ukrainian flag from the gate with one stroke of his saber. It was a cold shower for those present.
In addition to this, the alien appearance of the regime was disenchanting. Not only were they wearing the cheap and substandard fabric of the Soviet military uniforms but even the look of the Red Army and their behaviour was startling. For example, memoirs and diaries of eyewitnesses are fixated on the facial expression of the soldiers which often indicated their hard travels and stress. There were not happy faces on these people.
In those days, in order to win people’s sympathy for unpopular decisions, the government brought in their “stars”. Oleksandr Dovzhenko appearing at a pre-election rally in the Hutzul region (October 1939)
Very often when the army entered settlements they were often silent, with no conversation or songs. Put together this made quite a depressing scene. All of this showed that the everyday behaviour of ordinary members of Soviet society was imprinted by misery and poverty.
As an anecdote they told the story of a soldier who was accustomed to complete insufficiency in the USSR. He was shocked when at a Galician market he could buy as many loaves of bread as possible. Similarly, there were many jokes that “in the USSR there is everything”: “A lot of lemons? – Yes, an entire plant near Kharkiv produces lemons!”
The attitude of the people to the new government included another widely known joke: everyone was talking about the wives of Soviet officers who were buying up everything that they had never seen before. They wore negligées and nightgowns as evening dresses, and even walked down the streets in them.
Soviet propaganda election poster. The result of this vote was preordained. The election of “people’s representatives” was held on an unopposed basis. The poster reads: “Elect the Working People! Vote…”
One of the authors of these memoirs said of those days that if the first impression did not cause a disappointment then relations could have been better. After 20 years of economic Bolshevism in the USSR, the strangers looked miserable and showed everyone what kind of poverty – not only material but also spiritual – existed in Soviet society: “Out of their material misery came a horrible spiritual misery of the Bolshevik world.”
If these were the first impressions of the “golden” September – it was hard to expect more in the following days and months.
The Soviet authorities tried to quickly legitimize themselves in these territories. From the perspective of international law, the “Red Army liberation campaign” in September 1939 was a typical annexation and its result – the occupation of foreign lands. In order to legitimize itself, the communist regime organized elections to the People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine in a very manipulative way.
Elections took place under pressure from the new government; there were cases when candidates were imposed upon communities. Very often the candidates at the local meetings were not even from the locality but rather strangers from the USSR. A paradoxical situation occurred when the occupier’s citizens voted for joining the USSR and not the natives of the annexed territories. Also, the national composition of the delegates to the National Assembly did not correspond with reality: there were 25% of Poles within the population but there were only 3% in the Assembly, Jews – who came to close to 10% nationally made up 4.3% of delegate seats and Ukrainians – 92%.
There were already corresponding arrests in the first days of the Golden September. The pinwheel of repression spun and could not ignore the local people. This was how the true attitude to the new government formed in Galicia and Volhynia.