Film of Russian prisoners being sent to Russia against their will
Image of Russian prisoners in Plattling, Germany, 1946
Demonstration held by Ukrainians against repatriation
Video: Russian prisoners are taken to train from camp in Plattling Germany for their return to Russia soon after World War II
Location: Plattling Germany
Date: 1946, February 24
Duration: 3 min 2 sec
Sound: NO SOUND
Camp for Russian prisoners in Plattling, Germany soon after World War II. Russian prisoners being placed in line by a U.S. soldiers. Prisoners walk along a field and being lined up. Prisoners carry their meager possessions. Line of U.S. trucks. Russian and U.S. soldiers on guard. Line of Russian prisoners being marched to trucks for return to Russia. Prisoners getting into a truck guarded by rifle carrying U.S. soldiers. Truck pulls off. Trucks drive up to a train. Prisoners being searched for knives or weapons of any kind. Historical record accompanying the footage indicates that these Russian prisoners were former Russian soldiers, captured by the Germans, and that some of them then joined and fought for Germany.
This historic stock footage available in HD and SD video.
Betrayal by the allies at Yalta
The following article refers to the film above and is reproduced from Documentary at Boston University
A footnote to Yalta
In the National Archives in Washington there exists a short clip of film which would appear to be the only one of its kind ever made. It is the unedited footage taken by an American army camera unit at a prisoner of war camp in southern Germany in February 1946. A card, headed “Return of Russian Prisoners to Russia,” identifies the subject matter of the film and the location where it was taken.
For many years this unique piece of film was not available for public inspection. What it recorded was a small part of a vast operation that was one of the most sensitive of the Second World War, the handing over to Stalin of large numbers of Russians who in varying circumstances found themselves under German control by the war’s end. Some of these Russians had been organized into military units to fight alongside German forces against the Red Army; in addition to them were well-known Cossack regiments who had left their homeland in the period 1917 – 1921 after the defeat of the White Russian armies by the Bolsheviks. In all, several hundred thousand Russians – a staggering number – took up arms against the Soviet Union in the years following the German invasion in June 1941.
The fate of these Russians was one of the best kept secrets of the war. As many as could surrendered to American and British forces, trusting that they would eventually be able to settle somewhere outside the Soviet Union. But in February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to Stalin’s demand that they be handed over to him. The anti-Soviet Russians in the hands of the western allies would therefore be betrayed. To carry out the repatriation order, American and British servicemen often had to resort to deception and brute force. No one doubted what was in store for the Russians once they were in Soviet hands. Many were executed on the spot. In some instances, Allied guards responsible for turning over their prisoners could see their bodies hanging in the forests where the exchange took place. Some were transferred on the same boat that had brought the British delegation to Yalta a few months previously. They were shot behind warehouses on the quay side with low flying Soviet planes circling overhead to help drown the noise of the rifle fire. Many returned prisoners were tortured before being shot. The remainder disappeared into prison camps for long sentences, receiving the worst treatment of all the Gulag’s inmates. Needless to say all were immediately stripped of the new winter clothing and personal equipment that had been generously issued to them by the British in response to the cynical demands of Soviet liasion officers. American and British officers were the appalled eyewitnesses to many desperate acts of suicide by Russian men and women who preferred their own death and that of their wives and children to falling into the hands of the Cheka/NKVD/GPU/KGB. The Cossack General, Pyotr Krasnov, had fought against the Bolsheviks back in 1918 and hoped that the British would sympathize with his situation, remembering their own intervention at that time on the side of the White Russians. Churchill, British Secretary for War in 1919, had then been the most ardent supporter of their cause; while the Allied Commander-in-Chief in Italy, Field Marshal Alexander, still wore a Russian Imperial order awarded to him for his services against the Bolsheviks in Courland. Krasnov in turn had then been decorated with the British Military Cross. He like other White Russians had never been a Soviet citizen. But his appeals were unavailing. Under the Yalta agreement, he too was sent back to the Soviet Union to certain death. He was for Stalin a prize captive. Another bonus came Stalin’s way when zealous administrators for good measure threw in individuals and groups from the Baltic republics and Yugoslavia who found themselves on the wrong side when hostilities ended and whose repatriation had never been part of the Yalta negotiations.
Of all this, the public in the democracies knew nothing. For three decades the subject remained a closely guarded secret. Western eyewitnesses were obliged by official policy to keep silent. A few journalists knew that some handing over was taking place, but not its scale. But Alexander Solzhenitsyn had met some of the surviving Russians in Soviet prison camps and learned about their history. His account of their fate and that of their leader, General Vlasov, which appeared in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1973 – itself a sensation – was the first the general public in the west heard of the subject and the phenomenon, as Solzhenitsyn put it, of so many young Russians joining in a war against their own Fatherland. “Perhaps there is something to ponder here,” he wrote. When Western archives were at last available to historians, two remarkable books quickly appeared: The Last Secret, 1974, by Nicholas Bethel, and Victims of Yalta, 1977, by Nikolai Tolstoy, both shocking in their detailed accounts of what had happened. The BBC joined in with a television documentary by a Hungarian film maker, Robert Vas, based on interviews with servicemen and civilians who had been involved in the tragedy or knew about it. Some of them confessed to still feeling traumatized by what they had been ordered to do. Solzhenitsyn had written harshly about the moral weakness of Western leaders in kowtowing to Stalin, about the duplicity and short-sightedness of their repatriation policy; and though others defended the decisions taken as a necessity of war, pointed questions continued to be raised over the reputation of prominent individuals who once had a hand in determining the policy. In 1989, a bitter libel action was fought in British courts between a senior establishment figure and his detractors who accused him of being one of the military officers responsible for repatriating Cossack and Yugoslav prisoners knowing what their fate would be. Tolstoy, the author of Victims of Yalta, was one of his accusers, arguing that senior British officers were in this matter just as guilty as German officers executed for war crimes.
The film in the National Archives is thus a unique visual document, an extraordinary witness to a dark episode in this century’s history. To historians of documentary films it offers an absorbing text on the elusive correspondence between visual records and historical reality, between pictorial and literary descriptions of events, a subject that requires increasing attention in our image-conscious age. For me the discovery of this film clip came at the same time as I learned with a shock that none of the students I was lecturing to, and who were about to graduate from a leading mass communications institute, was aware of “the Gulag”, or indeed had heard of the term. How can one explain the significance of visual records if there is no historical imagination to give them meaning?
Unedited footage constitutes the raw material of documentary film. It contains everything the cameraman shot, usable or not, and in the order in which he shot it. Thus it is a visual document in its primary state, providing the historian with evidence not only of the subject matter displayed in front of the camera lens but also of the attitudes and intentions of the cameraman. In the National Archive, as in most newsreel archives, cards identify the source and content of each item and provide a brief list of the scenes in it. The card in this case is no exception. It classifies it as Signal Corps material. In addition to its file number and title, it gives the sequence of shots in a professional, noncommittal manner, and ends: “Note: Most of the prisoners are former Russian soldiers captured by the Germans near Stalingrad. After, many of them joined the German Army and fought against the Russians.” The film itself lasts for about seven minutes and would seem to be all that the cameraman recorded during the time in which what is shown in the film took place. If the material had ever been cut together to make a story, it would have run for barely half that time. What we see is this:
Lines of men wrapped in heavy coats are moving across a muddy square in front of a row of single story huts. In the background, buildings reveal the outskirts of a small town with what might be a church steeple and a factory chimney providing the chief landmarks. Some of the men are carrying their packs, others are still loading them with their belongings. It’s cold; men stamp their feet and rub their hands together. A quantity of discarded or unclaimed personal items are scattered about on the ground. American military police stand by, armed and carrying white night sticks, with which they briskly encourage the men to move along. On the hood of a jeep parked in the vicinity a loudspeaker is set up and a Russian officer with a handset can be presumed to be calling out names. (He’s identified as such on the card – the film is silent.) Individuals come forward to have their names checked by a young American officer who is without a hat. The Russian prisoners make their way to a column of trucks. They check their names with another American officer against another list. The hull of an American tank can be seen behind them, a white star displayed prominently on its gun-turret. There are piles of kitbags, cases, personal belongings. The prisoners mount the trucks. A wintry sun casts pale shadows. The trucks move down a mud filled road with American guards sitting at the rear and pull into a railyard. The prisoners are searched again as they climb into freight cars in the railyard. Others wait their turn behind barbed wire, and the shadow of a truck passes across them. The guards are chewing gum. An ancient steam engine slowly pulls the freight cars away from the scene.
From the conventional film-maker’s point of view, the film is rather dull. It looks like routine coverage of routine military life. But the Archives’ card identifies the scene as taking place in February 1946 at Platting – a spelling or typing mistake for Plattling. And what happened on February 24, 1946, at Plattling is described by both Bethel and Tolstoy. Some 1500 Russians from a unit commanded by a General Meandrov were due to be repatriated that day. As Tolstoy tells it, in the early hours American troops, equipped with riot clubs and rubber soled shoes, crept into the sleeping Russians’ dormitory huts.
Abruptly the stillness of the camp was broken by the shrieking blast of a whistle. Startled, Meandrov’s men woke and looked about them. At once a ghastly cacophony of yells burst from all around. Without any warning, and with accompanying shrieks and curses, the Americans began to lash with the bludgeons at each recumbent figure. “Mak snell! Mak snell!” they shouted in pidgin German, driving the bewildered figures out of their beds, through the doorways and across to the camp gates. Anyone slow in scrambling from his bed was beaten ferociously until he too fled in his underclothes out into the night. At the gates stood a row of trucks, their engines humming, into which the prisoners were driven by their screaming guards. Off along darkened roads the speeding convoy clattered and swayed. There followed a hasty transfer to a train, and the journey was continued some hours later. The train rattled on towards the east, where already a pale cold light was failing in the darkening sky. Near the Czech frontier, beyond Zwiesel, the train halted in the dripping stillness of the Bavarian forest. Blue-capped troops were waiting; officers exchanged brief words through an interpreter, and the bruised and terrified men of Meandrov’s Division were shepherded down beside the railway track. Dazed, they stood in little groups amongst the puddles. The American guards, silent and awkward, jumped back into their carriages and prepared to make off. There was a brief hissing and clanking of pistons, and then the blank gaze of the Vlasov men watched swaying lights disappear back along the line.
The Americans returned to Plattling visibly shamefaced. Before their departure from the rendezvous in the forest, many had seen rows of bodies already hanging from the branches of nearby trees. On their return, even the SS men in a neighbouring compound lined the wire fence and railed at them for their behaviour. The Americans were too ashamed to reply.
The contrast between the scene portrayed in the film clip and the one described by Tolstoy is startling. One might well wonder if Tolstoy’s incident took place on the same day as the filming. Apart from the personal items strewn on the ground in the film, there is nothing to suggest the violence, the noise, and the terror, or the speed with which, in Tolstoy’s account, the operation was conducted. That the pictures were taken on the same day as the operation, however, is confirmed by one shot in the film, not yet mentioned. It appears toward the end of the roll, at a point where the cameraman was in the railyard filming the prisoners, who, having been brought to the train in trucks, are being searched before boarding the freight cars. The shot is rather puzzling: a man is brought up to the camera by American soldiers, accompanied by one or two officers. He opens his coat cheerfully to reveal a bare chest with what seem to be lines or scars drawn on it. The man and his guards appear to be smiling at each other. They are all glad to pose for the camera. This shot is described in the Archives’ card as: “Russian soldier who slashed himself on chest with hope that he would not be returned to Russian [sic], poses with guards.”
As it happened, an army stills photographer was also present at Plattling that day – perhaps the same man as took the film. A few days later, on March 6, a photograph was published in the American forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, showing this same Russian. It’s an identical pose to a frame in the film. The caption to the photograph reads:
HURT: Russian repatriate Constantine Gustonon grimaces with pain after he slashed himself on the chest some 17 times in a suicide attempt to avoid being returned to Russia. He is held by Capt. Kenny Gardner, of the 66th Inf. Regt.. Gustonon’s was the first case of attempted suicide among the deportees from Platting [sic] to Russia as PWs.
The photograph is reproduced in Bethel’s book, described as “rare.” It is rare indeed, carried in only one edition of Stars and Stripes and with no accompanying story, but it’s enough to corroborate that the film clip was taken on the same occasion.
As evidence, then, for what actually took place at Plattling on February 24, 1946, the visual document is clearly of dubious value. To tell the story of the repatriation of the Russians, Bethel and Tolstoy needed written documents and eyewitnesses, just as Solzhenitsyn drew on what he heard from survivors he met in Soviet camps and his own documentary research. These written and oral sources have provided the primary evidence of what happened as a result of the secret Yalta accords. No doubt Tolstoy was highlighting the extraordinary nature of the operation in the extract given above; Bethel quoted “a Russian witness” who said that “Many of us had to stand in six degrees of frost from 6 am until four o’clock that evening,” which implies that the clearing of the camp went on for most of the day.
Even so, the disparity between the pictorial and the verbal depictions of this event is striking. At this level of historical reality, the level that concerns primary evidence for what actually happened, the visual record preserved in seven minutes of Signal Corps film is ambiguous, to say the least.
At another level of reality, however, the very existence of the film must claim attention. What is its meaning? We can’t exactly disbelieve what we see in its frames, but can we rely on what we see? It depends, of course, on what we bring to our viewing of it, what an art historian has called the beholder’s share. Here the cameraman’s laconic written report is an important aid to interpretation, though not in the sense that he may have intended. His words like his pictures give no hint of the drama that had taken place earlier that day or of the fate that lay ahead for these men at the end of the train journey they are shown taking. In this respect, the card’s reference to the “Russian soldier who slashed himself on chest with hope that he would not be returned to Russia” is also ambiguous. If we did not know of the many other actual and attempted suicides that accompanied the policy of forcible repatriation, we might understand from this scene that the Russian was a malingerer, a type known to sergeant majors in armies all over the world. Five men did in fact succeed in killing themselves in the railroad freight cars on their journey from Plattling. There’s no way we can tell from the card or the film of the plight of these Russians captured near Stalingrad – if this was where they were taken prisoner. The card is deadpan in informing us that many of them joined the German Army to fight against the Russians, but it provides no indication of why they did so.
At this second level of reality, then, the Signal Corps film illustrates that visual records are rarely as transparent as they seem; they are not windows giving access to reality, but mirrors reflecting the mental landscape of the persons who made them. What they document is an intention, a moral reality that lies behind the camera, rather than a physical reality that happens to be in front of it. Looking again more closely at the film, one picks up clues to this other reality. Take Captain Kenny Gardner, the officer who holds poor Constantine Gustonon’s arm as he bares his chest to show us his self-inflicted wounds. Captain Gardner wears dark glasses on this cold, February day. He carries an officer’s forage cap on his head. His down topcoat is warmly buttoned, the hood pulled back which in its turn pulls back part of the front collar.
The inside of the captain’s collar is of a lighter texture than the rest and this makes it possible to identify him in other shots even if we don’t see his face clearly in close up. We now realize that he has played an indeterminate, but official role in the film making. In one scene, as the trucks carrying prisoners move down the muddy road toward the railyard, a jeep drives up on the edge of the frame and an officer gets out of the passenger seat just as the cameraman stops the camera. But there’s enough on the film to recognize Captain Gardner’s collar, although we don’t yet know this as we haven’t seen the shot of Gardner holding Gustonon’s arm. Gardner has stopped his jeep to talk to the cameraman. To tell him he has a good story? That he has a Russian prisoner who slashed his chest and wouldn’t that make a good picture? We can’t tell, of course, but very soon after this appears the shot of Gardner with Gustonon. He’s the one who holds Gustonon’s arm to show that he’s in charge (there’s another officer in this picture, but he stands behind Gustonon and he’s not named.) After patching up his chest, they’re putting him on the train anyway, and Gardner makes sure that he, Gardner, is the one closest to the camera.
And Captain Gardner appears a last time before the train pulls out with the Russians. The cameraman has already shown us a scene of Russians being searched at the entrance to the freight cars. He then gives us a shot (a “cutaway”) of another group waiting with their bags behind a wire fence, the one with the shadow of a truck passing across it. The next scene logically for the cameraman to shoot would be the train pulling out of the siding. But no, we go back for another two shots of Russians being searched prior to entering the freight cars. And who is doing the searching this time? Captain Kenny Gardner. He certainly wanted to be in the picture, and as far as Stars and Stripes was concerned he succeeded.
There’s another shot that gives one cause for reflection. It occurs in the first portion of the film in which we are shown columns of men moving across the muddy expanse in front of their barracks. The activity seems confusing at first. One line is moving in one direction, another in the opposite direction, and a large group in the middle are not moving at all. Near them are what appear to be two trestle tables, their centers covered with white cloths. Could these possibly be makeshift altars, erected for a final service for men who expect the worst to happen to them before the end of this day? And could the figures standing motionless at these tables be praying? Perhaps this is overdramatizing the scene. If they are altars in the shot, no doubt they have been erected for a regular church parade. But that would mean this day was Sunday and surely the Americans would not have planned their drastic operation for a Sunday? It seems it was so, however, for February 24, 1946 was indeed a Sunday.
Thus the images in the Plattling film offer us their own kind of evidence after all, while the film’s existence in the Signal Corps archive itself raises interesting questions about the use of the film medium by the American army in war. Why was this particularly episode filmed? And filmed like this? Who authorized the filming? On whose orders? If the order to return all Russian prisoners to the Soviet Union – forcibly if need be – was so secret, why have a camera there that day? Tolstoy, who was denied sight of the film, speculated that it was intended as a guide for future operations. But the sequences hardly support this. It might of course have been a mistake; a snarl up in duties by Signal Corps operatives. But if this were so, why was the Stars and Stripes photographer also present?
The more we think about these seven minutes of official film the more disturbing the questions become. Five weeks earlier, Russians interned at Dachau, site of the notorious Nazi concentration camp and not far from Plattling, had resisted their repatriation with a ferocity that stunned American military police, resulting in at least ten suicides. Did someone have the idea of using a film clip to quell rumors about the difficulties the American army encountered in the forcible repatriation program? Did they think they might show the clip in other camps whose inmates were also scheduled for deportation? The film material strongly suggests that it was intended to give the impression that the repatriation policy was being conducted without incident. Further research would no doubt teach us more about the use of visual images for propaganda purposes by all the participants in World War Two, use that on one reading of this film could be compared with the Nazi film, The F?hrer Gives A City To The Jews, made at the bogus Theresienstadt concentration camp to fool the Red Cross and neutrals. In the Nazi film, Jews are seen living in reasonable, if cramped, conditions, enjoying their own cultural activities and limited opportunities for work. They smile in some shots, tend their own gardens, watch their own games of soccer, and they even have the luxury of hot water showers (to quell rumors that signs to the showers led to gas chambers?) All who participated, including the cameraman, were sent on to Auschwitz. For the Signal Corps cameraman at Plattling, the assignment, it appears, was undemanding. He has distanced himself from his subjects and displays little sympathy for them.
There remains a third level of interest in this film, however; its value as an aesthetic object, not something we would normally associate with an officially sponsored film. Yet this is often what gives newsreel material its permanent appeal, especially black and white footage. It testifies not to historical facts, but to the fact of history. It reminds us of our own mortality.
Aesthetic considerations were certainly far from the minds of those who ordered the film to be taken and the results in this case do not show any special filmic quality. But once we know more about the context in which the filming took place, and once it dawns on us what the material really signifies, the images are transformed and the whole piece acquires an emotional charge unrelated to formal aspects of the recording medium. They have the power to move us in the same way that graffiti in Christian catacombs do. Yes, that probably was a church service the camera caught a glimpse of as it came to an end. We can imagine the heart-wrenching melodies of the Russian Orthodox liturgy in that desolate setting. Was it by chance or design that the camera caught the shadow of a truck passing across the wire behind which prisoners wait their turn to board the railcars? Details that are included in documentaries as “filler” material or “cutaways” (“B-Roll” in modern video terms), always with a deadening effect, now come to life. They affect us through their artlessness, their truth to life. The packs and belongings abandoned on the ground bear witness to an earlier scene not recorded on camera, the one, no doubt, described by Tolstoy. We suddenly become alert to the mud, the cold, the awful process of selection by those with power over those without it. One man slowly limps across the frame, as if dragging out his remaining hours on earth; another comes trotting up when his name is called, and then trots on into the truck that is going to take him back to Stalin, a response that suggests a man who has survived many other camps. Will he also survive this journey? The young American without a hat present at the first roll call does not seem part of the military. But he appears to speak Russian. He catches a prisoner who is trying to slip quickly by when his turn comes, holding him by his coat as he checks on his list. Then he puts away the paper that he’s been holding in his hand. What, one wonders, was his role in the events of that day? And what became of him?
We can’t exactly blame Stalin for wanting to get his hands on these men. The Cossacks were implacable enemies of the Soviet state, and most of the others who had joined Russian divisions under German control had no reason to feel loyalty toward the Stalinist system. Nor can we blame ordinary Russians who had suffered terribly defending their country if they felt outraged at fellow countrymen who donned German uniforms. In the Soviet Union, wrote Solzhenitsyn, to call someone a Vlasovite, a follower of General Vlasov, was a term of abuse comparable with calling him “sewage”. In Britain, the word “Quisling”, the name of the Norwegian Nazi, had a similar connotation for traitors of all kinds. And whatever we may think of their leaders in acquiescing in the policy of repatriation, surely most American and British soldiers who had seen German concentration camps must have felt that any Russian who allied himself with the Nazis deserved all that was coming to him.
Nearly half a century has passed since these events took place. In those extraordinary months before they lost control of the center of power, Soviet officials were themselves driven to admit to the crimes of the Stalin era, internal and external, including the Nazi-Soviet pact and the atrocity of Katyn committed against the Poles during the existence of the pact. Since then we have seen a Romanov brought back to what is now again called St Petersburg to be buried with a traditional Orthodox mass in a Cathedral that until recently had been treated as a museum, and we have heard questions openly raised about the future of Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. The Soviet Union is no more, the names have all changed, and the archives have been opened. In this topsy-turvy Russian world, it would not be surprising if the fate of the Cossacks and even of the Vlasovites came to be seen in a new light, just as terrorists in the old colonial regimes were reborn as freedom fighters when independence came to their countries. It was, after all, these anti-Soviet Russians who saved Prague from destruction by SS units in the last days of the war. Who knows what else lies hidden in the Soviet archives? Some Russians who did survive the repatriation policy lie buried in a graveyard in the Hudson Valley, not far out of New York City, where prayers are said regularly for their souls and for their country. Memorials proudly display their battle honors – 1917-1921; 1941-1945. Is it beyond belief that a similar memorial will one day be erected inside Russia?
Meanwhile, the seven minutes of unedited Signal Corps film rests in the archives in Washington, a reminder that a shadow still lies over actions committed by the victors in this war. Now that Russians are facing up to their own past, some gesture of reconciliation from the west on behalf of these forgotten men would not be inappropriate. The gray human figures that have been captured on celluloid are like the shards of an archeological dig, to be handled with the utmost tenderness as we reconstruct their world, relive their experiences. With the exception of Constantine Gustonon, the man who stabbed himself in the chest, we know no one’s name; but here are individual human beings whose images have been saved from the turmoil of a terrible century. A few lined and weary faces are recognizable, they speak for all of humanity, and who cannot single out among them a son, a brother, a husband?
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Reproduced from: Documentary at Boston University (link)
Video: 800,000 Russians were fighting on the German side during WWII
“The Secret Betrayal”
“The Secret Betrayal” is a book by Nikolai Tolstoy
Victims of Yalta is the British and The Secret Betrayal the American title of a 1977 book by Nikolai Tolstoy that chronicles the fate of Soviet people who had been under German control during World War II and at its end fallen into the hands of the Western Allies. According to the secret Moscow agreement from 1944 that was confirmed at the 1945 Yalta conference, all Soviet citizens were to be repatriated without choice—a death sentence for many by execution or work in a forced-labor camp.
Tolstoy describes the various groups of over five million Russians who had fallen into German hands.
While Tolstoy primarily discusses the reaction of the British and Americans to the Soviet requests for repatriation, he also describes the action of other governments. Thus repatriation programs were enacted in France, Belgium, Holland, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway. The only country known to have resisted requests to force unwilling Russians to become repatriated was Liechtenstein.
The following review is reproduced from: Institute for Historical Review (link)
Review: “The Secret Betrayal”
INSTITUTE FOR HISTORICAL REVIEW
The Secret Betrayal
The Secret Betrayal, Nikolai Tolstoy, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978. 503 pages. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-684-15635-0.
Reviewed by Charles Lutton
From 1943 until early 1947 Western countries, led by Britain and the United States, returned nearly two and a half million prisoners of war and refugees to the Soviet Union, regardless of their individual wishes. Additional thousands of old émigrés (people who had fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War) were also forcibly sent to the USSR, along with other people of Russian descent who had never lived within the borders of Russia.
The forced repatriation of Russians at the end of World War II has been dealt with in several books that appeared before Count Tolstoy’s book was published in Britain in 1977 under the title of Victims of Yalta. One of the first studies of this grim episode was Peter Huxley-Blythe’s The East Came West (The Caxton Printers, 1964). The late Julius Epstein, of the Hoover Institution, twice went to court in an effort to dislodge records relating to this topic. His findings appeared in 1973 with the publication of Operation Keelhaul: The Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present (Devin-Adair). A year later Nicholas Bethell’s The Last Secret: Forcible Repatriation to Russia 1944–7 (Basic Books, 1974) was published in Britain and the United States.
The Secret Betrayal is the most complete account of forced repatriation to appear thus far. Between 1971 and 1978 pertinent government records were declassified and the book has a firm foundation in British archival records, as well as a wealth of information gained by interviews and correspondence with policy-makers, military officers who conducted repatriation operations, and a few of the victims who managed to survive the ordeal. This is a thoroughly documented account of the British role in repatriation.
With the invasion of Western Europe in June 1944, thousands of Russian prisoners fell into the hands of the Allies. Many were forced laborers who had been working on the Atlantic Wall for the Todt Organization. Others were simply refugees. However, the Western Allies were surprised to discover that thousands had willingly joined the Wehrmacht. Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov asserted in May 1944 that the number of Russians serving in the German armed forces was “insignificant.” Actually, approximately one million of Stalin’s subjects had joined the other side.
By late June the British Foreign Office decided to repatriate all Russian POWs, callously disregarding the consequences of such a policy (early in the war Stalin had made it clear that any Soviet citizens who were even temporarily out of Communist control would be regarded as traitors. Official Orders threatened “deserters” and POWs with draconian measures). On June 24, 1944, Patrick Dean, the Assistant Legal Adviser of the Foreign Office, declared: “In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal must … be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt with than they might be under English law.”
The War Office held a different view. Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive, an organization created in November 1940 to encourage, direct, and supply resistance groups in countries occupied by the Axis) had distributed leaflets to Russians in the German armed forces promising that Russians surrendering to the Allies could receive political asylum if they wished. Despite stiff protests, the military was unable to prevail upon the Foreign Office to reverse its unilateral decision to return all Russians to Soviet authorities.
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, who, Tolstoy reports, “was responsible for initiating the whole policy,” first reached agreement with the Soviets on repatriation at the Moscow Conference in October 1944. The United States joined with Britain and the Soviet Union in reaffirming the program of repatriating Russians at the Yalta Conference. However, nothing in the agreement on POWs referred to the return of Soviet citizens who were unwilling to go back to the USSR. Nor did it provide that those who had never been citizens of the USSR should be delivered to Stalin.
During the summer of 1944 the British began to ship thousands of Russians from POW and refugee camps to the USSR. When informed of their destination, many of the prisoners committed suicide. The Foreign Office did what it could to suppress news of the suicides because, warned Patrick Dean, “these suicides might possibly cause political trouble [in Britain].”
British officers who delivered prisoners to Soviet ports, such as Murmansk and Odessa, witnessed NKVD execution squads murder Russians as they left ship. Responding to a plea that mercy be shown to those who did not wish to return to the Soviet Union, Eden wrote that the “provisions of the Crimean [Yalta] Agreement” had to be upheld, for “we cannot afford to be sentimental.”
By the time the war in Europe ended in May 1945, over two million Russians had surrendered to British and American forces. Soviet Repatriation Commissions were established throughout Western Europe, staffed by agents of the NKVD and SMERSH. In some instances, the Soviet officials intimated that Stalin had proclaimed a total amnesty. Large numbers of Russians who had been POWs or slave laborers welcomed the opportunity to return to their homes and loved ones and they willfully went back to the Soviet Union. Thousands of others, however, had an idea of what the consequences would be if they fell into the hands of Stalin’s agents. Some claimed the protection of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war. Others hoped to be resettled in a non-Communist part of the world.
The British resorted to various ruses in an effort to repatriate anti-Communist elements as easily as possible. For example, at the close of the war, around 50,000 Cossacks were in British-controlled parts of Austria. Along with about 100,000 Georgians, various Cossack tribes had fought with the Germans against the Soviets and, with their families, retreated westward as the Third Reich collapsed. When repatriating the members of the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps, the British deceived them by telling them that they would first be sent to Italy and ultimately to Canada. In other instances it was necessary to set troops upon the unarmed men, women, children, forcing them into trucks or railroad cars. As they were being rounded up, many displayed documents proving that they were citizens of France, Italy, Yugoslavia, or registered stateless with Nanssen passports issued by the League of Nations.
Chapter eleven, entitled “An Unsolved Mystery,” attempts to unravel one of the most appalling incidents in the repatriation story, the handing over to Stalin of long-time opponents of the Soviet regime who technically were exempt from repatriation because of the fact that they had never been Soviet citizens. The agreed upon definition of a “Soviet citizen” was “a person born or resident within the pre-September 1, 1939, boundaries of Russia (who had not acquired another nationality – or a Nanssen passport, which would render the subject Stateless) …” By this definition thousands who had fled Russia during the Civil War and who found themselves under British control at the end of the Second World War should not have been sent to the USSR. Among the thousands delivered to Stalin was 76-year-old Czarist General Peter Krasnov; Andrei Shkuro, a cavalry leader who had fought for the Czar and had been decorated by the British in the First World War and who fought with the German 1st Cossack Cavalry Division in the Second World War: and Sultan Kelech Ghirey, leader of the Caucasians.
British officers informed these men that they were requested to attend a meeting with Field Marshal Alexander. They boarded trucks and were then turned over to Soviet authorities in Austria. As Tolstoy relates: “Even the Soviet authorities who received them were astonished that the British should have included these people in the consignment. At Judenberg (the delivery point in Austria) the Red Army General Dolmatov asked in surprise why the old émigrés had been handed over: to his knowledge the Soviet authorities had never demanded them. NKVD interrogators were frankly incredulous.”
Most of the older émigrés had fought as Allies of the British in the First World War. On January 12, 1947, Generals Krasnov and Shkuro, along with the German commander of the 15th Cossack Cavalry Division, General Helmuth von Pannwitz, were executed, after having spent 19 months in the infamous Lubianka Prison. Most of the other Cossack and German officers of the Cossack units were also executed. “In this way,” the author explains, “the British Government had in essence sentenced to death without trial German officers who had been received by them as prisoners of war.”
Brigadier Geoffrey Musson, who delivered these Cossacks to the Soviets, told the author that he received oral orders from his superiors compelling him to return all the Cossacks under his control, regardless of their actual nationality. Some documents relating to this particular incident remain classified and other have “mysteriously disappeared.” Tolstoy is confident that “the handover of Krasnov and Shkuro in particular, and the officers at Lienz in general, was no blunder committed by some hard-pressed staff officer in a moment of stress, but a carefully planned operation … The motive presumably was to co-operate with Soviet forces in Austria.”
Military officers ordered to enforce repatriation were often surprised at the alarm expressed by the refugees when they learned that they were to be shipped eastward. Lt. Michael Bayley related how Russian peasants who had been working as slave laborers on German farms begged to be allowed to stay in Germany. The perplexed British officer was told by members of the Polish Armored Division that “of course the Russian peasants were better off in Germany – why couldn’t we let well enough alone.”
Another officer explained that he and his fellow officers believed the Cossacks’ fears to be groundless. British wartime propaganda had portrayed the USSR as being “a kind of utopian socialist state … and that they would behave compassionately towards these people whom we were deputed to send back.” Throughout the war there had been a blackout of news unfavorable to the Soviet system, thus it was hardly surprising that the military men detailed to enforce repatriation felt that the USSR was governed by the “Four Freedoms,” and that Russian refugees consequently had little to fear from their own government.
Protests against the repatriation policy were being raised by the summer of 1945. The Commander of the 2nd Polish Corps, General Anders, complained that the Soviets were trying to kidnap Polish citizens. On July 5, 1945, the Vatican sent a plea to the British Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department that thousands of Ukrainians in the West should not be sent back. John Galsworthy of the Foreign Office minuted: “We do not wish to attract attention to this aspect of the Agreement which is, of course, in opposition to our traditional attitude towards political refugees …”
Other objections were raised by Allied occupation commanders. In Italy, Field Marshal Alexander finally told a Soviet Repatriation Mission under General Basilov that he would not be allowed to bully unwilling Ukrainians into returning to Russia. General Eisenhower likewise viewed with distaste the use of force against helpless Russian refugees and POWs. He placed a temporary freeze on repatriation operations and asked his superiors in Washington for a definite ruling on the issue. Field Marshal Montgomery followed suit and in the Fall of 1945 ordered that force no longer be used for the repatriation of Soviet nationals. The American and British governments thus assumed the onus for continuing the repatriation policy. Galsworthy of the Foreign Office wrote, “We made up our minds long ago that we could not try to save Russians from their Government, however much we might wish to do so on purely humanitarian grounds.”
Apologists for the forced repatriation policy have claimed, without evidence, that “Stalin might have contemplated holding liberated British prisoners hostage.” Why then were hundreds of thousands of Russians forcibly repatriated after all the British and American prisoners liberated by the Red Army in eastern Germany were returned to the West? Tolstoy believed that the Allied diplomats wanted to continue to co-operate with the Soviets in building a new post-war world order. “Suggestions that the Soviet Union could represent a potential threat, however ably presented, were ridiculed … Foreign Office officials held that Stalin’s intentions towards the West were beneficent, and that to work in cooperation with him was … essential to British interests. The fate of the Russians whose return they enforced was an unfortunate but unavoidable sacrifice to the greater aim.”
Nikolai Tolstoy has proven that the British were guilty of flouting the principles of British law and the Geneva Convention. The one shortcoming of the book is Tolstoy’s lack of emphasis on the role played by the United States government in the repatriation policy. Despite this flaw, Tolstoy has written a book which sheds considerable new light on one of the most tragic episodes of the twentieth century.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1980 (Vol. 1, No. 4), pages 371-376.
Reproduced from: Institute for Historical Review (link)