Identification. The Poles are a Western Slavic people who, for hundreds of years, have inhabited territory in what is now the western part of the former Soviet Union. The Poles became incorporated into Russia, and later into the former USSR, by the annexation of territory from neighboring Poland. The Soviet Poles include persons of ethnic Polish descent and Polonized Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Lithuanians.
Location and Demography. The exact number of Poles in the former USSR is a matter of controversy. According to the official 1979 census, there were 1,151,000 Poles in the USSR; however, even government sources agree that this figure is too low, and they suggest that 1.5 million is more accurate. Most Soviet Poles live in the western republics of the former USSR, in areas that were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Second Polish Republic. According to the 1979 census, 247,000 lived in Lithuania, 403,000 in Byelorussia, 247,000 in the Ukraine, 63,000 in Latvia, and 99,800 in Russia. Although the Polish population in these areas was locally concentrated (especially in Byelorussia and the Ukraine), Poles constituted only small proportions of the republics' populations (7.3 percent in Lithuania, 4-2 percent in Byelorussia, and 5 percent in the Ukraine).
There is also a sizable Polish community in Kazakhstan, estimated at 61,000. This community is descended from Poles who were deported from the western republics in the 1930s. The Poles in Kazakhstan live among a number of other ethnic groups, including Germans and Russians. Additionally, Poles remain in Siberia, where many were deported in the 1930s, but the exact number is not available. Many of the deportees to Siberia were repatriated to Poland immediately after the end of World War II.
Linguistic Affiliation. The two most important markers of Polish identity among Soviet Poles are the Polish language and Roman Catholicism. Polish belongs to the Western Branch of the Slavic Language Family and thus is more closely related to Czech and Slovak than to Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarussian. Written Polish uses the Latin alphabet. Under the encouragement of the Leninist nationalities policy in the 1920s, Polish-language publishing flourished in the western republics, but virtually all publishing in the Polish language in the Soviet Union was halted in the 1930s. At this time elementary and secondary education in Polish was suspended, and the Polish language was subject to severe repression. Children, for example, were completely prohibited from using Polish in school. The Soviet Polish population has become largely bilingual since 1945. Polish is spoken within the community, but Russian is generally used in situations of contact with other ethnic groups and for official purposes, except in Lithuania, where Lithuanian is used. As Russian has displaced Polish as the contact and administrative language in these areas over the past two centuries, Polish has become an ethnic marker of a minority community. Today there are only a few small-circulation Polish newspapers, based in Vilnius.