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From Communism to Anti-Communism

Andre Liebich
Svetlana Yakimovich

From the Revolution to the Comintern

Polish-Soviet Prisoners of War, 1919-1920

Francesca Piana

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The back of the document reads in Russian and French: “Пленные с польского фронта” – “Prisonniers de guerre du front Polonais” – [“Prisoners of war from the Polish front”]. Black and white photograph; 11 x 15.5 cm.

1In the aftermath of World War I, Boris Souvarine was detained in a French prison when this picture portraying prisoners of war on the Polish-Soviet front was shot around 1919-1920. There is no information about the authorship, the setting, the technology, or the precise context in which the picture was taken.

2The picture portrays a group of nearly fifty men, a few women, and several children in the background standing and sitting on two wooden boats. It is not clear why young boys or women who are not combatants would be included. Among the subjects portrayed, some have a serious expression, others a tired look, while still others have more curious eyes. It is possible that the camera itself provoked curiosity in the people portrayed. A few men wear eye patches, with white bandages around their faces, necks, and arms. These elements, in conjunction with the caption, situate the picture in a wartime setting.

3The photo does not reveal whether these are Polish prisoners in Soviet captivity or Red Army soldiers held by the Poles. The white-bordered ‘czapka, a cap identified with Polish cavalry, worn by one of the prisoners would suggest that these are Poles. However, the ‘czapka could just as well have been taken by a Soviet soldier from a Pole, dead or alive. Other headgear, notably that of the bandaged soldier, would seem to bear a red star, as would another cap. The precise date is not indicated but the clothing of the prisoners speaks for an autumnal or springtime date, before or after the river has frozen over in winter and not during the hot summer.

4The Soviet-Polish war was one of the regional wars that broke out after World War I. The latter had caused huge destruction to the European continent at large – something that Souvarine experienced directly, being on the French front himself and losing his brother on the battlefield. The aftermath of World War I was no less violent: peace in Europe was still fragile and far from being achieved. Fought between 1919 and 1920, the Soviet-Polish War has to be understood against the territorial arrangements that were agreed or contested at the end of World War I. After initial success the Poles were pushed back to the shores of the Vistula, inspiring hopes among the Bolsheviks and their allies, notably at the Second Congress of the Comintern in July 1920, that they were soon going to reach Berlin, thus kindling the flames of world revolution. Soviet defeat at the decisive battle of Warsaw in August 1920 put an end to such expectations.


Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish Soviet war 1919–20, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1972.

Alon Rachamimov, POWs and the Great War: Captivity on the Eastern Front, Oxford: Berg, 2002.

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Légende The back of the document reads in Russian and French: “Пленные с польского фронта” – “Prisonniers de guerre du front Polonais” – [“Prisoners of war from the Polish front”]. Black and white photograph; 11 x 15.5 cm.
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