People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.” It was not an SS officer speaking but a communist party leader, in the spirit of the national operations of Stalin’s Great Terror. In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds. … The most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s was not the four hundred thousand or so German Jews (the number declining because of emigration) but the six hundred thousand or so Soviet Poles (the number declining because of executions).
The background on how the Poles became the targets, based on a history of fake reports, reads like something a fantasist would reject as too fantastic:
In 1933, the NKVD chief for Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytskyi, had explained the mass starvation as a provocation of an espionage cabal that he called the “Polish Military Organization.” According to Balytskyi, this “Polish Military Organization” had infiltrated the Ukrainian branch of the communist party, and backed Ukrainian and Polish nationalists who sabotaged the harvest and then used the starving bodies of Ukrainian peasants as anti-Soviet propaganda. … This was a historically inspired invention. There was no Polish Military Organization during the 1930s, in Soviet Ukraine or anywhere else. It had once existed, back during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1920, as a reconnaissance group for the Polish Army. The Polish Military Organization had been overmastered by the Cheka, and was dissolved in 1921. Balytskyi knew the history, since he had taken part in the deconspiracy and the destruction of the Polish Military Organization back then. … Precisely because there was no real Polish threat in 1933, Balytskyi had been able to manipulate the symbols of Polish espionage as he wished. This was typical Stalinism: it was always easier to exploit the supposed actions of an “organization” that did not exist.
Beware exploiting fictional people at your own peril—others can use them as a trap. The NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov reconceptualized the fake organization for his own gain. In 1936 Balytskyi claimed
that the “Polish Military Organization” had been re-created in Soviet Ukraine. No doubt he simply wished to claim attention and resources for himself and his local apparatus at a time of security panic. Yet now, in a turn of events that must have surprised Balytskyi, Yezhov declared that the “Polish Military Organization” was an even greater danger than Balytskyi claimed. It was a matter not or the regional NKVD in Kiev but for the central NKVD in Moscow. Balytskyi, who had invented the plot of the “Polish Military Organization,” now lost control of the story. … Thanks to Yezhov’s initiative, the “Polish Military Organization” lost any residue of its historical and regional origins, and became simply a threat to the Soviet Union as such. … If the “Polish Military Organization” had been so important, asked Yezhov, why had Balytskyi not been more vigilant? Thus Balytskyi, who had summoned up the specter of the “Polish Military Organization” in the first place, became a victim of his own creation [and later executed]. … On 11 August 1937, Yezhov issued Order 00485, mandating that the NKVD carry out the “total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organization.” Though issued shortly after the beginning of the kulak operation, Order 00485 notably radicalized the Terror. Unlike Order 00447, which targeted familiar categories of enemies definable at least theoretically by class, Order 00485 seemed to treat a national group as an enemy of the state.