The new Bolshevik government in Moscow merged Belarus and Lithuania on February 28, 1919 to become the Lit-Bel SSR (Borzecki, 16). The Soviets used this republic as a buffer state against Poland, who laid claim to a portion of its territory. Both Lithuania and Belarus had declared independence as autonomous Soviet republics in December 1918 and January 1919 respectively, so when Moscow suggested the merger of the two territories, both states protested (Blank, 121). Lenin created the Lit-Bel SSR by proclamation from Moscow and the communist leadership in both republics had to overtly support Lenin’s to gain public support (Blank, 122). Adolf Joffe carried out the merger on behalf of the Soviets and appointed the government leaders who were later approved by Lenin. The new state, under the leadership of Mitskevish-Kapsukas, actively avoided nation building and rid the government of nationalists, who wanted to create sovereign Lithuanian or Belorussian states. The communist party was directly linked to the communist party in Russia (Borzecki, 16).
The Soviets used the Lit-Bel SSR to avoid direct confrontation with Poland. They relegated the disputed territory to the Lit-Bel SSR so that Polish aggression was directed toward the sovereign republic instead of directly at Russia (Blank, 123). Directly after its formation, the Lit-Bel SSR sent a letter to Poland requesting that it relinquish its claims to their territory. Poland argued that the populace widely supported the republic and the Polish population in their borders was insignificant. However, the Polish government rejected the letter and refused to recognize the Lit-Bel SSR (Borzecki, 20). The creation of a Soviet republic that encompassed the disputed area angered the Poles because they felt that even with the support of the general public, any attempt to annex the territory would cause backlash from the workers parties (Blank, 123).
The Treaty of Versailles gave Russia and Poland the duty of setting Poland’s eastern border, so with the creation of the Lit-Bel SSR, Poland instead had to set its border with the new republic. However, “Lit-Bel, if anything, was a provocation to the Poles” (Blank, 123), and Poland invaded Lit-Bel in March 1919. Without an army and developed military organization, the Lit-Bel state was too weak to defend itself and relied on the Red army for support. Polish troops took Vilna in April 1919, and their early success provoked the Soviets to replace much of the Lit-Bel military leadership. However, continued military defeats led the dissolution of the Lit-Bel SSR in July 1919 only a few months after its creation (Borzecki, 25). Martial law was enacted throughout the republic and a temporary government was set up in Minsk (Blank, 124).
- Jerzy Borzecki, The Soviet-Polish Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
- Stephen Blank, “Soviet Nationality Policy and Soviet Foreign Policy: The Polish Case 1917-1921”, The International History Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, (London: Taylor and Francis Ltd, 1985), http://www.jstor.org/stable/40105451.