Polish-Soviet War of 1920

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Polish-Soviet War of 1920


a conflict that broke out as a result of the intervention of the Polish government of bourgeois landowners against the Soviet state between April and October 1920, during the period of the Civil War and Military Intervention (1918–20).

During the formation of the Polish state in 1918, the ruling circles of Polish bourgeois landowners launched a policy of military aggression against Soviet Russia in an attempt to expand Polish-controlled territory. In 1919, Polish forces occupied several areas in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, including Minsk. The Soviet government repeatedly proposed the conclusion of a peace treaty on conditions favorable for Poland and the establishment of friendly relations, but the Polish government rejected these proposals, considering them merely proof of Russia’s weakness.

At the instigation of the Entente powers, the Polish ruling circles attempted to expand Poland’s borders from Gdansk (Danzig) to Odessa (“from sea to sea”). In late 1919 and early 1920 they began preparations for a major offensive against Soviet Russia, with the help of American, French, and British imperialists. The Polish forces in the east were grouped into two fronts. The Northeastern Front, consisting of the First and Fourth armies, was commanded by General S. Szeptycki, while the Southeastern Front, consisting of the Third, Second, and Sixth armies, was commanded by Marshal J. Pilsudski. The Polish forces had more than 148,000 bayonets and sabers, 4,157 machine guns, 302 mortars, 894 guns, and 51 aircraft.

The Polish plan was to surround and destroy the Twelfth Army of the Soviet Southwestern Front, take Kiev, and then destroy the Fourteenth Army and occupy Odessa. Upon reaching the Dnieper River, the Poles planned to regroup northward and occupy all of Byelorussia. The Polish advance was to be supported in the south by the White Guard forces under General P. N. Wrangel, who was to lead an attack from the Crimea. In April 1920 the Polish government concluded an alliance with Petliura’s counterrevolutionary Directory. Poland recognized the “independence” of the Ukraine, while Petliura’s followers agreed to Poland’s annexation of Eastern Galicia, Western Volynia, and a part of the Poles’e Lowland. The Poles and Petliura’s forces were to launch a joint offensive against Ekaterinoslav and Kharkov.

The Soviet command prepared to repulse the enemy forces, but the destruction of transportation lines delayed the concentration of troops. By late April, the Western Front, consisting of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth armies, had 49,600 bayonets and sabers, 1,976 machine guns, and 430 guns. The Southwestern Front, consisting of the Twelfth and Fourteenth armies, had 15,600 bayonets and sabers, 1,232 machine guns, and 236 guns. The Polish forces, outnumbering the Russians 5 to 1 on the Southwestern Front, attacked on April 25 along a line extending from the Pripiat’ River to the Dnestr River. On April 26 they took Zhitomir and Korosten’ and, after taking Kiev on May 6, they reached the left bank of the Dnieper. However, the Polish forces did not succeed in destroying the Twelfth Army; they were scattered in two divergent directions, toward Kiev and Odessa, and their reserves were exhausted.

Emergency measures were adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Soviet government, and the High Command to reinforce the Southwestern Front. On April 28 a strategic plan was developed to defeat the Polish interventionists by means of a major offensive on the Western Front. On May 14 the forces of the Western Front, commanded by M. N. Tukha-chevskii, began their counterattack in order to reduce enemy pressure in the south and occupy initial positions for a general offensive. The offensive on the Western Front compelled the enemy to transfer some forces from the Ukraine to Byelorussia. This enabled the forces of the Southwestern Front, which were commanded by A. I. Egorov and had been reinforced by the First Horse Cavalry Army and other units, to pass to the counteroffensive on May 26 and defeat the Third Polish Army in the Kiev Operation of 1920. On July 4 the forces of the Western Front passed to the offensive. Soviet troops inflicted heavy losses on the enemy on both fronts and liberated Rovno on July 4, Minsk on July 11, and Wilno (Vilnius) on July 14.

The Soviet government rejected an ultimatum delivered by the Entente powers demanding that the Soviet Army halt at the Cur-zon Line. At the same time, it expressed its willingness to open peace talks with Poland. However, the Polish side used delaying tactics, expecting assistance from its Western allies. On July 16 the Plenum of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) decided to continue the offensive. However, the Soviet command committed various errors, and the revolutionary military councils of the Republic and of the various fronts overestimated their successes and underestimated the enemy’s strength. These mistakes resulted in the failure of the L’vov Operation of 1920 on the Southwestern Front and led to the defeat of the forces of the Western Front in the battle of Warsaw.

On April 25 the Soviet forces on the Western Front were compelled to withdraw to a line stretching from Augustów to Lipsk, Svisloch’, Belovezh, Zhabinka, Opalin, the Bug River, and Vladimir-Volynskii. The troops of the Southwestern Front also retreated while engaging in heavy combat against the superior enemy forces. On September 19 the Polish forces resumed their offensive in Byelorussia but did not succeed in advancing very far. Poland, exhausted by the war, was compelled to conclude a peace, the preliminary conditions of which were established by the Treaty of Riga, signed Oct. 12, 1920. The end of the Polish-Soviet War enabled the Soviet government to concentrate the necessary forces for the defeat of the White-Guard troops of General Wrangel and the victorious conclusion of the Civil War.

In his analysis of the causes of the Warsaw defeat, V. I. Lenin pointed out the overestimation of Soviet military capacity and of the degree to which Polish workers and the poorest Polish peasants had been prepared to carry out a revolution. At the same time, this defeat did not mean that the war had been entirely lost, as shown by the Polish government’s approval of borders 50 to 100 km farther west of the line proposed by the Soviet government in the spring of 1920.


Lenin, V. I. “Politicheskii otchet TsK RKP(b) 22 sentiabria. [IX Vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RKP(b) 1920 g.].” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 41.
Lenin, V. I. “Rech’ na s”ezde rabochikh i sluzhashchikh kozhevennogo proizvodstva 2 oktiabria 1920 g.” Ibid.
Istoriia KPSS, vol. 3, book 2. Moscow, 1968. Pages 473–514.
Istoriia Grazhdanskoi voiny v SSSR, vol. 5. Moscow, 1960.
Tukhachevskii, M. N. Izbr. proizv., vol. 1. Moscow, 1964.
Shaposhnikov, B. M. Na Visle. Moscow, 1924.
Egorov, A. I. L’vov-Varshava. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.
Kuz’min, N. F. Krushenie poslednego pokhoda Antanty. Moscow, 1958.
Direktivy Glavnogo komandovaniia Krasnoi Armii, 1917–1920: Sb. dokumentov. Moscow, 1969. Pages 629–722.
Direktivy komandovaniia frontov Krasnoi Armii, 1917–1922: Sb. dokumentov, vol. 3. Moscow, 1974. Pages 11–300.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
In the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, Cooper's men used their tiny air force successfully to break up attacks by the Konarmiya of General Semyon Budyonnyi (whose chief political commissar was Joseph Stalin).
The poet Wladyslaw Broniewski (1897-1962) had fought and been decorated for bravery in the Polish-Soviet war of 1920, but later went on to become a supporter of the Russian revolution and helped write a communist manifesto in verse in 1925.

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