The major preoccupations of Paderewski’s new government in January 1919 were in the east where chaos enveloped many areas which the Poles regarded as rightfully theirs. Lwów, threatened by Ukrainians, was the first objective. This was soon secured and by April Piłsudski’s men had taken Vilnius, a town redolent with meaning for Polish nationalists and in which, one day, Piłsudski’s own heart was to be buried. In the meantime, Poland’s Drang nach Osten had brought it into conflict with Lenin’s Soviet régime. The Russo-Polish war of 1919-21 was to be decisive for Poland and for the rest of the continent; it stopped that westward expansion of bolshevism which the statesmen of Europe feared so much.
The war began fitfully as Polish and bolshevik forces moved into the vacuum left by the collapse of German military power. By August 1919 Minsk was in Polish hands. In the following year Piłsudski joined with Petliura, a Ukrainian ex-socialist romantic nationalist and military leader, to advance into the Ukraine but although Kiev was taken the offensive collapsed and by July 1920 the bolsheviks were racing into Poland; soon the Red Army was threatening Warsaw itself. Piłsudski then carried out a brilliant regrouping operation which enabled him to defeat the invaders in the battle of Warsaw in August. In the autumn the Poles chased the bolsheviks eastwards through Belorussia and the Ukraine until an armistice was agreed in October. The definitive peace was signed at Riga on 18 March 1921. Poland was left in possession of large areas of Belorussia and eastern Galicia, her border with Russia thus running far to the east of that originally suggested by Lord Curzon during the peace negotiations in Paris.
In October 1920, after the victory at Warsaw, Polish troops under the command of general Lucjan Żeligowski reoccupied Vilnius and the surrounding district. The Lithuanians, who regarded the city as their natural capital, brought the matter before the League of Nations, but to little avail. Polish troops refused to budge and on 1 February 1922 an assembly elected in the city declared the area ‘without reserve or condition an integral part of the Polish republic’. The city and its surrounding district were to remain a bone of contention between