The Polish-Soviet War

The war between Poland and Soviet Russia is often overlooked or viewed as a component or sideshow to the Russian Civil War. It differed from the broader conflict, however, because it was primarily a nationalist struggle to secure Poland’s independence and to expand her borders. Poland had long suffered under the fist of neighbouring powers. There had not been a Polish nation since prior to 1795, when Poland was carved into three and the parts allocated to Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary. By late 1918 the confluence of European events, including the weakness of a defeated Germany and Russia busy with a civil war, gave Polish nationalists the opportunity to seize control of their own country. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) ratified the existence of an independent Poland.

The Bolsheviks might not have bothered with Poland but for one thing: it was the geographical bridge connecting Russia with Germany. Lenin viewed the unification of Russian and German socialism as vital to the success of the revolution. If socialist revolution was to spread west then Poland would have to succumb to Soviet rule as well. Meanwhile Polish statesman Jozef Pi?sudski also had ambitions to form a power bloc between Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and other smaller nations, as a way of offsetting any imperial plans held by Russia or Germany. Pi?sudski made a pact with the Ukranian leader, with whom he took control of Kiev, the first step in creating a ‘European federation. He also began expanding Poland’s borders eastward into what was now Soviet Russian territory. In February 1919 Pi?sudski ordered a pre-emptive assault on the Red Army’s border forces, believing the Civil War had weakened them enough to prevent a strong response.

Fighting began along a 200-mile long front, most of the 1919 battles resulting either in Polish victories or stalemates. By the following year, however, Bolshevik fortunes in the Civil War had improved and they were able to devote more men and resources to the Polish front. A string of Russian victories allowed Red Army units to break through the Polish line. In mid-1920 Lenin highlighted the importance of the conflict by exclaiming “…we must direct all our attention to preparing and strengthening the Western Front. A new slogan must be announced: ‘Prepare for war against Poland’.” The Red Army advanced as far as the Polish capital, where they were finally and unexpectedly repelled after the Battle of Warsaw. Polish troops pushed the Reds back to a point where they could, in September, request a formal settlement. The Bolsheviks agreed and the border of Poland was thus drawn, giving Poland some small increases in territory at the expense of Russia. More significantly it closed the door for Russian internationalists to link with socialist movements in Europe, though by late 1920 the prospect of socialist revolution in western Europe had been snuffed out anyway.