Treaty of Riga

[by Jenna Brightwell]

The Treaty of Riga, signed on March 18, 1921, ended the Polish-Soviet War and set the eastern border of Poland that remained constant throughout the interwar period. The Treaty distributed ethnic Ukrainians and Belorussians between Poland and Soviet Russia, creating tensions among national minorities on both sides of the border.

Polish-Soviet War 

Because Russia did not participate in peace negotiations after World War I, the Supreme Council of the Treaty of Versailles did not decide Poland’s eastern frontier, stating they had “no power of enforcement in that area” (Karski, 24). Conflict in Poland’s eastern areas led to the Polish-Soviet War. The leader of the newly independent Polish state, Józef Piłsudski, wanted to create a federation of states that included Lithuania and Ukraine and would exist under Polish leadership (Snyder, 64). Poland proved successful in 1919, and during the early part of the war it took over most of the Lithuanian and Belorussian territory under Soviet control. However, the war started to turn in favor of the Soviets by July 1920, forcing Poland to look toward Western Europe for support (Snyder, 62).

European Intervention, Re-igniting the War 

Desperate not to lose its new territory, Poland, in the “Spa Agreement,” petitioned the Entente Powers for help mediating peace with the Soviets. The Entente responded by issuing the “Curzon Note”, which required Poland to give up many of its territorial gains (including giving Wilno to Lithuania), established Great Britain as peace mediator, and offered full support to Poland if the Soviets did not agree (Kukiel, 57). The “Curzon Note” angered the Soviets, who refused mediation by Great Britain, and both Poland and the Soviets refused to give up their hold on the borderlands. The Soviet rejection of the Note allowed Poland to restart the war, with the support of the Entente. However, attempts to send war material from Western Europe turned out ineffective, because pro-Soviet workers’ unions in Poland blockaded and sabotaged transportation lines (Kukiel, 59). After the Soviets defeated the final pro-Polish Ukrainian and Belorussian troops, peace negotiations between Poland and the Soviets officially began on October 20, 1920, without help from the West.

Peace Negotiations

Abram Ioffe, representing the Soviets, worked with the Ukrainian SSR to come to an agreement with Poland, represented by Jan Dąbski. Notably, the Byelorussian SSR did not attend the negotiations and instead were represented by the Soviets. Peace negotiations proved complex and tensions continued especially as minority groups tried to work against Poland’s success. Belorussian nationalists used guerrilla warfare in the established neutral zone, which both the Polish and the Lithuanians blamed the other for supporting (Borzecki, 187). Negotiations hit a stalemate when financial negotiations began. Both parties agreed that Poland should receive the portion of Russia’s gold reserves extracted from Congress Poland under tsarist rule, but the Soviets only agreed to 30 million rubles and Poland wanted over double that amount. Poland also hoped for compensation for the railroad cars evacuated out of Poland and the borderlands during the war, but the parties could not agree on the value and number of the cars (Borzecki, 200-201). Poland realized the gravity of the stalemate when the Soviets started to discuss an anti-Polish allegiance with Germany in February 1921 and finally accepted a Soviet payment proposal. On March 18, 1921, Ukrainian, Soviet, and Polish representatives signed the Treaty of Riga.

Treaty of Riga Details

The Treaty determined the borders between Poland and Russia, carefully using the Ukrainian SSR and the Belorussian SSR as buffering zones between the two states. The Treaty purposefully ignored the Polish-Lithuanian border and tasked the two states to negotiate it between themselves. The Soviets were to make payments from their gold reserves over the course of one year and payments in precious stone for the railroad cars over eighteen months. They were required to settle all current accounts with Polish citizens and Polish institutions and Poland did not have to pay off any debts from their time as part of the Russian Empire. Poland also received “most-favored-nation” status and the Soviets sent back Poland’s cultural treasures evacuated to Russia during the war. People who lived in the borderlands could choose their citizenship and both sides promised to uphold the rights of the minorities and grant autonomy to minority churches (Borzecki, 216, 221-223).

National Implications

Poland – The Polish state established by the Treaty of Riga included 27 million people and 150,000 sq¬uare miles, making it the sixth largest state in Europe (Karski, 75-76). Not only did the new state have to govern minority groups, it also had to merge the three unique and distinct regions of previously partitioned Poland (Kozińska-Witt, 556). The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the new state made national unity and political stability difficult during the interwar period.

Lithuania – During the Polish-Soviet war, an independent Lithuania was established and included the important Wilno (Vilnius) region. However, in 1922, Poland held a vote in Wilno to decide whether or not the region wanted annexation by Poland. Minority groups protested and “boycotted [it]…as an illegal and Polish-controlled affair” (Karski, 73), so of the men that actually voted, a majority voted in favor of Polish rule. Losing Wilno crippled the already small Lithuanian state and ignited a new ethnic-based nationalism (Snyder, 69-72).

Ukraine – The Ukrainian ethnic group, around 10 million people spread across the Polish and Soviet lands, made up one of the largest minorities in this region. The Treaty of Riga left the Ukrainian nationalists dissatisfied and without their own nation. In the Galacian region of Poland, the Orhanizatsiia Ukrains’kykh Natsionalistiv (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists or OUN) developed, an anti-Polish extremist group desiring Ukrainian independence. Poland wanted to assimilate the new generations by creating Polish schools in an attempt to encourage “‘state assimilation’ rather than ‘national assimilation’” where “citizens were to be judged by their loyalty to the state, and not by nationality” (Snyder, 144). However, new generations rejected assimilation and many private schools developed. In Volhynia, Ukrainians voted ethnic Ukrainians into parliament hoping to stop Poles from settling in their region. The Polish-dominated political and economic system allowed Communist Soviet propaganda to take root and the Polish Communist Party “became…dominated by Ukrainians and Belarusians” (Snyder, 146). Integration between the Polish and the Ukrainians proved difficult and “interwar Poland included hundreds of communities, barely touched by the state, whose residents knew who was Polish and who was Ukrainian” (Snyder, 153). In the Ukrainian SSR, the Ukrainian culture actually developed for a brief period under Lenin. This quickly ended under Stalin, however, when Sovietization led to a devastating famine that killed millions of Ukrainians and destroyed their previous cultural and national development.

Belarus – The Belorussians had only a very small minority in Poland and developed very little under Polish rule. The Treaty of Riga gave the predominantly Belorussian region of Minsk to the Soviets, crippling their intelligentsia. Polish leadership stifled Belorussian nationalism and political power by refusing them representation and replacing their schools with Polish schools. The development of the Byelorussian SSR mirrors that of the Ukrainian SSR; Lenin supported Belorussia by opening schools and academic institutions which Stalin did his best to destroy after coming to power (Snyder, 65).


Works Cited

  • Hanna Koziaska-Witt, “The Union of Polish Cities in the Second Polish Republic, 1918-1939: Discourses of Local Government in a Divided Land,” Contemporary European History 11, no. 4 (2002): 549-571, accessed 17 March 2011,
  • Jerzy BorzeÌcki, The Soviet-Polish Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
  • Jan Karski , The Great Powers & Poland, 1919-1945: From Versailles to Yalta, (Lanham, MD: University Press Of America, 1985).
  • Marjan Kukiel, “The Polish-Soviet Campaign of 1920,” The Slavonic and East European Review 8, no. 22 (1929): 48-65, Accessed 18 February 2012,
  • Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).