Polish-Latvian Border in the Years 19191939



In the interwar period, unlike after the World War II, Poland was one of Latvia’s neighborus. The sgared border streched for 104 km[1] and to a degree reflected the mutual relations of both states and their specific location. It was also a factor in the vivid development of these relations, in particular in the 1920s.

In 1919 during the fight for liberation of Latvia and Polish-Soviet war, when Poles and Latvians were closely collaborating, the provisional border, or demarcation line as it was referred to in Latvia, was formed along the Daugava River, from Daugavpils to Piedruja. It was August 1919 when the Polish army reached the river after a ferocious fight with the Bolsheviks. Subsequently, the Polish government declared that 6 communes and the town of Griva in the former Courland Province in the western bank of the Daugava River were incorporated into the Braslav Poviat and any claims of Latvia to this area were declined. There were even some unpleasant incidents (during joint Polish-Latvian struggle against the Bolsheviks in Latgalia in winter and spring 1920). Polish military police dispatched the Lativan Border Guards to the other bank of the Daugava. On 17 January a new chief of the police was sent off from Griva (small town near Daugavpils) to Daugavpils being expained that Griva was a Polish town. The conditions forced Latvians to accept this state of affairs, yet they were still concerned about the Lativans dwelling in this area.[2]

The problem of the status of this area was settled in an unexpected manner. On 4 July the Red Army launched an offensive in Belarus. A Polish Army Subgroup Dźwina, like other Polish troops, began to retreat. On 5 July the Polish forces stationed in Daugavpils abandoned the town in order to avoid being asunder from the main army units – in accordance with the Polish-Latvian agreement of 11 April 1920 on the withdrawal of the Polish Army from Latgalia. Poles also left the contentious area of the Illuksan Poviat. On the same day, Latvians entered this territory outstripping Lithuanians who had also intended to claim this area. Before the end of July, the province border and the later state border was entirely filled with Latvian troops.[3] It is worth stressing that in July Poland was prepared to acquiese to the assignment of the territory to Latvia in return for a military convention; yet, considering the new cicumstances, Latvians were no longer interested in this arrangement.[4]

Before, in the area in question, there had been the local authorities elected during the “Polish times”. Simultanously, Latvians intorduced their power: offices and paramilitary forces gathering the locals named “aizsargs”, etc.[5] In accordance to the Latvial electoral law, local elections were held. The old authorities still continued but with few Latvians occupying high positions and the Local Governance Department of the Latvian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that Belarusians, Poles and Russians were in the majority (the local commune elections were held in August and September).[6]

In autumn 1920, after the events in the Polish-Soviet front and Gen. Żeligowski’s action in Vilnius, the Polish Army approximated the Latvian border (demarcation line). Latvia was concerned about the 6 communes upon the Daugava that Poland attempted to annex. The troops along the demarcation line were reinforced in case of an attack. However, the 3rd Legion Division was ordered not to cross the line held by Latvians, even if it was beyond the border of the Courland Province.[7] This being primarily for political reasons – Poland intended to gain a Latvian ally in the system of Baltic states.[8]

For the lack of lucidity and agreement in the development of the future border of the northern part of Central Lithuania, the contentious territory was referred to arbitration by an in ternational commission headed by a Scotsman, D. Simpson as a Lithanian-Latvian dispute. Due to the strategic, economic and etnographic interests of Latvia in the region, in March 1921 the whole Illukstan Poviat was allotted to Latvia (the commission took account of the economic bonds between the 6 communes with Daugavpils and a military aspect – the need for the defence of the approaches to the town). At the same time, National Democracy party together with the Polish landowners in Latgalia continued the anti-Latvian campaign initiated back in 1919 with the featuring argument of Latvians incorporating the Polish “portion of the Braslav Poviat”.[9] The initiative was supported by the Borderland Protection Society. Upon the return of its representative from Latvia, a plan was drawn up to regain the 6 communes through pro-Polish propaganda realized by a number of surreptitiously selected former inhabitants of the region. It was planned to lead to a plebiscite.[10] The Polish diplomatic representative in Riga, W. Kamieniecki, few times submitted a statement to the chairman of the arbitration commission, D. Simpson, of the Polish (not Latvian or Lithuanian) national affiliation of the 6 communes. It was also subsequently to the dissappointing decision of the arbitration commission when the Polish government issued a protest note to Simpson and Latvian authorities emphesizing that Poland does not consider the decision binding and the problem of incorporation of the 6 communes remains open. In the years to follow, Polish diplomats brought forward the issue intermittently; yet, Latvians remained intransigent.[11] The activity of Polish diplomats consisted in broaching the possibility “every now and again”.[12] To illustrate the point, one of the Polish members of parliament before the 1922 parliamentary election in Latvia was instructed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to submit a protest note to the Latvian equivalent ministry stressing that due to the lack of transparency as for the borderline the voting in the 6 communes would not determine their national status. His gesture was received as respectful.[13]

This state of affairs continued until the end of the 1920s although in mid-1920s Poland somewhat altered its position. The incorporation proponents defended the idea that the Daugava River would facilitate the defence in the event of war and provide the opportunity to control the economic situation in the region by impeding the transit trade of Lithuania, Germany and Russia along the line Rokiskis–Daugavpils–Polotsk. The incorporation opponents claimed that the strategic location of the region was not convenient due to its northern protrusion and the distance from the Polish defence centres. They shared the opinion that Poland enjoying positive realtions with Latvia might secure its economic expansion in the area and the idea of hindering the trade among the above-mentioned states would be to no purpose after the construction of a railway line connecting Latvia and Lithuania (bypassing the contentious territory). In 1929 Riga was the setting for a Latvian-Polish trade and sailing agreement containing a confidential appendix. The appendix obliged Latvia to pay compensation to the Latgalia landowners who were Polish citizens (until 1937 Latvia paid Poland the whole sum – 5 million Lats)[14]. Poland, in turn, undertook to delimit the state border, which, in point of fact, was the act of consent to the current condition. The compensation was also paid to the former landowners form the 6 communes. In September 1932, after short, few months’ negotiation, a psecial delimitation commission began their work in the vicinity of Turmonty–Zemgale railway stations (both at the border crossing). The commission operated continually until 1938 when the border construction was concluded. On the Latvian side, the commission was supervised by the Chief of the Border Police (from 1936 the Commander of the Border Guards Brigade) L. Bolšteins; on the Polish side, it was the Councellor of the Transportation Minister, T. Gryglaszewski, later substituted by the Foreign Ministry Councellor, P. Kowalewski supported by other responsible officials. The talks were held in Riga, Warsaw, Daugavpils and on location. In spring 1933 the parties agreed on the local entry pass regime for the borderland dwellers (they were able to enter the neighbouring state’s territory of 50 km away form the border) and other issues, e.g. foodstuffs transportation.[15]

The delimitation and technical work were completed in 1937.[16] On 14 January 1938 in Riga, the Latvian Foreign Minister V. Munters and the Polish Envoy to Latvia F. Charwat signed the border convention.[17] This act brough the delimitation, previously hampered by the atnagonistic relations in the region with the Polish-Lithuanian and Polish-Latvian relations overlapping, to a conclusion. Polish-Latvian relations were relatively warm with sporadic frosty periods caused by the Latvia’s varied attitude to the liberties of the Polish minority. In the post-convention period, the border was few times closed and the cross-border traffic limited. For example, in summer 1938 and 1939, Latvia established a veterinary control in Zemgale railway station for fear of the spread of foot and mouth disease.[18]

The Latvian border protection was initially entrusted to a military division of Border Guards. It dissolved in spring 1922 and its duties were taken over by the Ministry of Internal Affairs which established Border Police. In 1928 was militarized but still came under the Ministry of Internal Affairs (remaned as Border Defence). The persons serving in Border Defence were promoted only to higher positions but not to higher military ranks. For obvious reasons, most attention was attached to the Latvian-Soviet border. The Latvian-Polish border, and Estonian and Lithuanian borders alike, were manned by fewer guards with individual officers partolling a few kilometers’ stretch of the border. In 1935 Border Brigade was established which, although in peacetime came under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, gahtered exclusively serving officers and was structured into batallions. The Latvian-Polish border was guarded by one company of 60 troops.[19] The customs and crossing points in Latvia operated in the Demen Commune (from 1931) and Borov Commune (Silene), and additionally in Zemgale railway station.

Cenrtainly, before the delimitation the border was not sealed. Seasonal entry passes were issued which enabled temporary stay in Latvia or in Poland (Polish seasonal farm workers). For example, in July 1930, 440 people arrived to Latvia with seasonal passes carrying salt, corn, patatoes, kerosene, sugar and 100 cows and 20 horses. At the same time, 380 people travelled from Latvia to Poland carrying the commodities worth 8,000 zlotys. In the 1920s, before the delimitation, the authorities of both states permitted the locals to cross the border on different occasions, e.g. religious festivals, celebrations, visits to relatives. In 1929 the border was opened for the ceremony of consecration of Tylża church in Poland. In January 1930, Latvians were allowed to take part in the celebration of railwaymen’s holiday in Turmonty station. In February 1931, the border opened for the celebration in honour of the Polish Border Police.[20]

The beginning of the 1920s saw a number of incidents of military character posiibly due to the unclear borderline and insecurity as for the future of the area. For exmaple, on 27 May 1922 on the Polish side, a Polish resident of the Demen Commune minding her cattle in the vicinity of the border was wounded by a gunshot. On 17 June in the same commune, seven armed Polish soldiers robbed a Polish farm stealing patatoes. A Latvian border guard reported that the borderland residents complain about Polish soldiers crossing the border in nighttime and stealing food.[21] Until mid-1920’s, when detained in the Polish territory, tresspassing foreigners were (e.g. former Russian citizens) convoyed to the Latvian border and – without Latvian authorization – directed through the border. This practice was usually possible as the Latvian border protection was normally insufficiently manned.[22]

From the very beginning, both national Border Guards struggleed with widespread smuggling. The contraband articles were: salt, chemicals, matches, sugar, ropes and harnass, etc. Large quantities of salt and matches arrived illegaly to Poland, and apples, onion, vodka, clothes travelled to Latvia. In 1936 Polish Border Protection Corps confiscated 8,000 kg of table salt, 6,194 kg of lighter flints, 80 kg of sugar, 74 kg of chemicals, 116 kg of ropes and harnass and other artciles attempted to take outside Latvia. Afterward, the contraband articles smuggled through the Vilnus Province were distributed all over the country.[23]

The smugglers were often the local peasants earning money on the side. In 1923 a commission from Riga found in the borderland villages a lot of goods of Polish origin and established that the local Russian and Polish farmers from both sides of the border assisted by Jews carried goods by night in wagons delivering them to Dyneburg; from the city, the smuggled commodity travelled by railway to other Latvian towns as far as the Russian border.[24]

The officers of Border Defence were forced to open fire at the smugglers at several occassions. For example, in March 1932 one smuggler did not halt when ordered, was wounded and later died from a Polish bullet. In September 1933, Latvians heavily wounded other smuggler – a Latvian citizen (few other managed to flee to Poland) – and confiscated 50 kg of different goods. Both countries also collaborated, within available resoruces, in the combating of smuggling. In April 1931 the area of Turmonty railwaz station was the setting for a skirmish between a smugglers’ gang (armed in pistols and firles) and Polish and Latvian Border Defence. The gang leader, Aljanov, was shot, two other members heavily wounded and the remaining ones surrendered. The value of the confiscated articles was assesed at several dozen thousands of zlotys. The Latvian press underlined that such a cooperation made the battle against smuggling particlarly effective.[25]

There were also cases of transferring the detainees to the other country. For example, in April 1927 Polish Military Police from Turmonty railway station transferred to Latvia a forester, G. Tyzengold. After a series of thefts in forests and frauds, he fled Poland in 1925 and lived in a village of Druja close to the border. In July 1930 Latvians transferred to Poland a thief, J. Drozdowski, hiding out at his relatives’ place on the Latvian side.[26]

A factor of key significance in the mutual relations of both states was the railway transportation. The Polish Army commenced the overhaul of a Daugavpils railway brigde in winter 1920. It was finished by Latvians in autumn 1921. The same year a regular railway connection between Warsaw and Riga via Vilnius was opened. In Daugavpils the railway gauge was adapted to the Latvian standard.[27] Customs clearance was done in Turmonty and Zemgale stations.

An interenting report on the border situation in the early 1920’s comes from the then Director of the Polish Telegraphic Agency in Riga, J. Cynarski. He wrote to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Polish customs officers are affiliated with Jewish smugglers and the incidents in Turmonty station is outrageous. He followed by reporting that the Latvian side controls the travellers “without prejudice” and the Latvian officers display “European standards”. The luggage of officials is not screened.[28] On the other hand, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs received reports on better conditions on the Polish side and some flaws on the Latvian. All this testifies to the good will of both sides to put the border problems in order. It is worth noting that all the efforts came to fruition and in mid-1920s the Polish-Latvian border and its crossings conformed to European standards. Everything changed with the outbreak of World War II.

On 7 September 1939, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered to reinforce Border Brigade in the Ilukstski Poviat (bordering with Poland) with the local members of the paramilitary organization, aizsargs.[29] After the invasion of Poland by the Red Army, in the evening of 17 September, first civil and military refugees crossed the Latvian border. On the same day, any railway traffic between Zemgale and Turmonty stations was sealed.[30] On 18 September the border protection in the area was taken over by infantry and cavalry from the Daugavpils garrison. Many cavarly and infantry detachments patrolled the area which was closed for civilians. At the railway, Poles were giving away their arms and ammunition. In the lounge of the railway station personal details of the Polish soldiers were collected. Next, they were transported by a passenger train to Daugavpils.[31] The number of interned Poles in Latvia totalled over 1,500 soldiers (among them a considerable number of Border Protection Corps troops) and 300400 civilians.[32]

The mass fleeing came to a close on 20 September. The Latvian Telegraphic Agency reported that no contact with the red Army units was made. Supposing that the Polish territory south of Latvia was occupied by the USSR, the border was entirely sealed.[33] It was an official communiqué but – according to the report from the military intelligence – at 6.30 AM on 21 September a Soviet plane flew over the village of Druja (Polish village at the border) and at 9.10 AM a Soviet military column of 38 vehicles entered the village. They received warm greeting from the residents (mostly non-Poles). In the area of Dubenave there was the noise of vehicle engines and male and female screams which died away after 15 minutes. Soviet units entered the border station of Turmonty at 7.40 PM on 22 September and hoisted the red Soviet flag over the buidling. Few days after, an issued communiqué informed that beginning with the afternoon 23 September Latvian troops along the entire border were meeting the Soviet units. On 6 October, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs introduced a new border traffic regulation for the former Polish border. As before, along the Soviet border, within a two-kilometre border zone, no traffic, photographying, etc. were allowed without special permits except for the place of residence.[34] Without any delay, the authorities organized the 5th Kraslava Batallion of Border Brigade which began to control the former Polish border as early as in October 1939.

This was the end of the period when two independent countries – Poland and Latvia – were sharing one broder. The history of that border is a remarkable and noteworthy historic phenomenon for the countries in question and the entire region.

[1] Descriptions and maps of the border in: Latvijas Valsts vēstures arhīvs (State Historical Archive, hereafter: LVVA), coll. 1313, descr. 2, files 782787.

[2] More in: Skład narodowościowy mieszkańców 6 gmin powiatu iłłuksztańskiego w XIX–XX w. jako główny powód sporu terytorialnego między Łotwą a Polską w okresie międzywojennym”, Liedke, M., Sadowska, J., Rynkowski, J., eds. Granice i pogranicza. Historia codzienności i doświadczeń, Vol. I, Białystok 1999, pp. 225233.

[3] Ibidem, p. 36, 39; coll. 6033, descr. 1, file 406, p. 26.; Central Military Archives, II Division of General Headquarters of the Polish Army, vol. 193, 194, not paginated.

[4] New Records Archives (hereafter: AAN), Collection of Record Copies, vol. 2, b. 242.

[5] LVVA, coll. 1640, descr. 1, file 830, p. 3.

[6] Ibidem, coll. 3723, descr. 1, file. 2774, not paginated.

[7] Łossowski, P. Łotwa nasz sąsiad, Warszawa 1990, p. 16.

[8] More in: Jēkabsons, E. “Problem Wilna a Łotwa: jesień 1920 roku”, Łotwa–Polska. Materiały z międzynarodowej konferencji naukowej, Ryga 1995, pp. 7475.

[9] More in: Jēkabsons, E. Zaangażowanie państwowo-polityczne szlachty polskiej z Łatgalii (dawnych Inflant Polskich) w pierwszej ćwierci XX wieku, “Przegląd Wschodni”, vol. IV, issue 3 (15), pp. 513522.

[10] AAN, Towarzystwo Straży Kresowej, vol. 105, b. 1720.

[11] Ibidem, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 4, b. 5763, 90; vol. 3, b. 354, 378, 407.

[12] Ibidem, vol. 3, c. 418.

[13] Ibidem, Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych, vol. 6201, c. 3.

[14] LVVA, coll. 2575, descr. 15, file 64, pp. 36.

[15] AAN, Sztab Główny, vol. 616/311, c. 12; “Nasz Głos”, 1 May, 17 July, 18 September 1932; 12 March, 12 and 14 May 1933.

[16] See: “Daugavas Vēstnesis”, 10 August 1939 (photos of the newly established border).

[17] LVVA, coll. 2574, descr. 3, file 3268, pp. 16222.

[18] Ibidem, 10 lp.; “Jaunākās Ziņas”, 1 July 1939.

[19] Andersons, E. Latvijas bruņotie spēki un to priekšvēsture, Toronto 1983, pp. 411415.

[20] “Dzwon”, 11 June 1929; 26 January, 13 August 1930; 13 February 1931.

[21] LVVA, coll. 2574, descr. 3, file 127, p. 6, 12.

[22] “Latvijas Kareivis”, 9 May 1923.

[23] Domińczak, H. Granica wschodnia Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej w latach 19191939, Warszawa 1992, p. 180.

[24] LVVA, coll. 2570, descr. 1, file 140, p. 1; “Dzwon”, 19 February; 9, 15, 21 March 1930.

[25] “Latvijas Kareivis”, 27 March 1932; “Dzwon”, 15 April 1931; “Nasz Głos”, 17 September 1933.

[26] “Meža Dzīve”, 1927, issues 20, p. 671; “Dzwon”, 25 July 1930.

[27] “Latvijas Kareivis”, 2 April, 22 August 1922.

[28] AAN, Kolekcja odpisów dokumentów, vol. 4, b. 279282.

[29] “Brīvā Zeme”, 8 September 1939.

[30] “Jaunākās Ziņas”, 18 September 1939.

[31] LVVA, coll. 1527, descr. 1, file 354, p. 92.

[32] More in: Jēkabsons, E. “Uchodźcy wojskowi i cywilni z Polski na Łotwie 1939–1940”, Łossowski, P., Znamierowska-Rakk, E., eds. Studia z dziejów Rosji i Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej, vol. XXX, Warszawa 1995, pp. 129148.

[33] “Jaunākās Ziņas”, 21 September 1939.

[34] LVVA, coll. 6455, descr. 1, file 31, p. 1; “Jaunākās Ziņas”, 7 October 1939.