Lost & Forgotten: allied prisoners of war in Stalin's Gulag

As Europe commemorates the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the continent - VE Day - on May 8th, EUtoday publisher Gary Cartwright revisits a dark and forgotten episode of the war.

Tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers, along with their American compatriots, following their "liberation" from Nazi prison camps by the Red Army disappeared into the Gulag, Josef Stalin's own labour camp network.

(This article, which contains minor edits, originally appeared in the Summer 2010 edition of The Quarterly Review under the title "Gulag revisited".)

Forced Labour Camps in Russia: The Allied Connection.

Immediately after the Bolshevik revolution of 1918, the Russian penal system went through a radical reformation. The traditional "hard-labour" sentences were replaced by a two-tier system: the Vechecka "special purpose" camps, and those that were openly used for "forced labour". Although not on the scale of those that appeared during the Stalin era, the purpose was the same; as well as criminals, enemies of the State such as aristocrats, businessmen, and political opponents were incarcerated, often summarily.

In July 1921, the Council of People's Commissars (SOVNARKOM) issued a secret decree defining the use, and the purpose, of "corrective forced labour". It had already been acknowledged by the state that the camps were of little use in terms of rehabilitation of prisoners, but were merely a means of obtaining very cheap labour. The decree of 1929 effectively institutionalised the concept of slave labour in the Soviet Union, and laid the ground for the subsequent Stalinist atrocities. By April 1930 the system was officially established, and in November that year the word Gulag was first used.

During the early 1930s the camp network grew rapidly, and the numbers of prisoners rose as new "offences" were dreamt up by Stalin and his cabal. Article 58 of the Soviet penal code (1927), intended to criminalise political opposition, was updated in 1934 to include a number of new crimes, including "contact with foreigners" (article 58-3).

After the Second World War, this article was used to imprison released Soviet PoWs, on the grounds that their failure to fight to the death was an "anti-Soviet" act. In July 1937, the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, issued special order No. 00447, under which tens of thousands of inmates of the Gulag were executed for "continued anti-Soviet activity". This category of offence included such treasonous acts as becoming ill, or failing to work hard enough.

A decline in the camp populations occurred during the Second World War due to high mortality rates - 25% of inmates died of starvation in 1941 alone - however numbers swelled to almost 2.5 million by the time Stalin died in 1953.

Many of the new inmates were from territories newly annexed by the Soviet Union, and many more were former citizens who were forcibly repatriated after fleeing in the pre-war years. A tightening of property ownership laws also created a whole new range of offences, and new categories of "enemies of the state".

An amnesty followed Stalin's death, and the camps went into numerical decline. In January 1960, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) issued an order officially liquidating the Gulag. The Soviet Union is now littered with mass graves.

At Kurapaty, near Minsk, as many as 30,000 citizens were executed by the NKVD between 1937-41. At Bykivnia, on the outskirts of Kiev, as many as 225,000 "enemies of the state" were buried in at least 210 mass graves. At Butovo, in the Moscow region, at least 20,000 political prisoners were shot, and buried near the village of Drozhino.

Although somewhat different to the Nazi concentration camp system- it's primary raison d'être was not extermination - the results were too often the same, and the penal system killed millions.

Allied PoWs in the Gulag.

Rarely, if ever, talked about however has been the fate of those tens of thousands of Allied servicemen who were to disappear into the system.

As many as 30,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, "liberated" by the Soviets from German POW camps ended their days in the Gulag.

Iron Cage

In his book The Iron Cage (1993) Nigel Cawthorn refers to a London Evening Standard investigation that revealed at least 1,400 British soldiers had been taken, printing the names of 132.

It is a matter of record that British, French, Dutch, Belgian and American servicemen were held at a camp at Tambov, 25 miles from Moscow, from May 1945 onwards. According to The Moscow News (10-17 Feb 1991) some were still alive after 45 years in captivity.

The British government has appeared to be unwilling to shine a light on this matter, possibly in order to hide the true nature of its wartime "ally". However, the unexpected homecoming of one Frank Kelly of Lewisham in South-East London in 1953 was to prove somewhat awkward.

Kelly had been held in a German PoW camp, Stalag Luft 4B, five miles to the north-east of the town of Mühlberg in the Prussian Province of Saxony, having been captured after the Battle of Arnhem, and following his liberation by the Soviets was to spend the better part of eight years in the Gulag.

169 Stalag Iv B

On his return home - his family had been told he was "missing, presumed dead" - he was quickly arrested and charged with being Absent Without Leave (AWOL); a charge that was quickly and quietly dropped.

Evidence suggests that Kelly served with the Highland Light Infantry, which provided several battalions to Operation Market Garden, the attempt to secure the bridge at Arnhem.

Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington's Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union by James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood (1992) claimed that 20,000 US servicemen were also taken by the Soviets, and that "Starting in 1945, the Soviet Union became the second-largest employer of American servicemen in the world."

It is interesting to note that a US Senate Select Committee found that whilst 76,854 Americans were estimated to be in German PoW camps as of March 15, 1945, the actual number of Americans recovered from German PoW camps was 91,252. This suggests that amongst the numbers of those who were missing in action (MIA) and were subsequently presumed killed, were many thousands who were in captivity, but whose status had not been reported by the Germans to the International Red Cross.

Vietnam and the Cold War: Yeltsin opens the files.

A US Department of Defence press release, dated 09 Dec 2003, revealed that Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Jerry Jennings had visited Moscow as part of the work of a joint U.S.-Russia commission set up in 1992 to explore the question of whether Americans were held in, or transported through, the former Soviet Union during WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The cases of more than 200 airmen who went missing during the Korean War were discussed. It is widely held that downed American fliers, especially electronic warfare officers, were routinely sent to Moscow for interrogation and execution. On November 4th 1991, the Moscow-based journal Kommersant carried an interview with KGB Maj. Gen Oleg Kalugin (Retd.), who confirmed that after preliminary interrogations in theatre by Russian and Chinese personnel, PoWs were flown to Russia. The article concluded that the eventual fate of the servicemen was "unknown".

It should be pointed out that during the period of the Yeltsin government, Moscow began to open its files, and US investigators were given access to these documents, and to Russian veterans. In fact, whilst the US Joint Staff stated that they "found no evidence that any previously unacknowledged Americans had been captured and imprisoned during the Cold War period by the Soviet Union, China or Korea", Yeltsin openly admitted in 1992 that a number of US airmen "lost" during the Cold War period had in fact been captured and imprisoned in the Soviet Union. In the same year, it was confirmed to investigators by officials in Kyiv that 10 files concerning US servicemen, including at least one who went missing on Ukrainian territory, were turned over to Moscow.

Although the Gulag was officially disbanded in the 1960s, so-called free-labour camps remained in operation in Siberia, as a part of the Russian penal system, accommodating up to one million inmates. The Russians have a word - etapirovanie - which means "transport in stages". In 2005, Valerii Abramkin, head of the Moscow Centre for Prison Reform, was quoted in the Moscow Times as saying the time during which prisoners are in transit is used to "shock them and break their spirit."

Unable to communicate with the outside world, with up to 20 prisoners in a six-berth compartment, they are at the mercy of their guards. Abramkin told the newspaper that during stops, prisoners are often pulled out and made to lie down or kneel in the snow or dirt for hours while being beaten.

A Labour camp in the far northern Siberian Yamal Peninsula, near the Arctic Circle, also remained in service, and possibly still does so: it was rumoured at the time that Mikhail Khordokovsky, the oligarch who fell out with the Kremlin after he sponsored pro-democratic political parties, had served at least part of his sentence there.

Relatives have the right to know where loved ones are incarcerated, but there is no time-frame laid down within which this information must be imparted, so in reality many prisoners simply disappear into the system.

Traditionally, NGOs would fight for the rights of such individuals, but Vladimir Putin has shut many of these down, of course....

Yamal, in the language of the indigenous Nenets people, means "end of the world".

Postscript: This article came about as a result of research into the fate of the British & Commonwealth servicemen mentioned above. More than a year after the initial publication, during Dmitry Medvedev's Presidency, Russia introduced a freedom of information act.

Using this I requested, electronically, that Moscow open the files on those men. I received a reply addressed to me by my job title and hand delivered to my internal mailbox in the European Parliament - I had not mentioned my employment at all in my request - which informed me that if Her Majesty's Government were to make a formal request the files would be opened. HMG did not respond to my pleas, and individual politicians who promised to help failed to deliver.

During the 1992 joint U.S.-Russia commission mentioned in the article, numerous witnesses came forward to testify to the presence of U.S. servicemen in the Soviet prison system. The evidence of Vladimir Trotseko is but one example: https://www.nytimes.com/1996/0...

I came across one witness statement which mentioned a sighting of U.S. servicemen in the 1950s who had been in the Gulag since the end of the First World War. This is highly plausible, as some allied troops did find themselves fighting alongside the Tsar's army during the 1917 revolution.

In January of this year, Paul A. Goble, writing for Euromaidan Press, drew attention to legislation signed off by Vladimir Putin that legalises the use of convicts as slave labourers: http://euromaidanpress.com/202...

Minutes of the 1st plenum of the commission, for those who are interested, can be found at: https://www.dpaa.mil/Portals/8...

Stalag Luft 4B image: By Dhr. J.H. Adam - This media file is part of the collection curated by Netwerk Oorlogsbronnen (external site) and donated in the context of a partnership program., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/...

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Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright

Gary Cartwright is publishing editor of EU Today.

An experienced journalist and published author, he specialises in environment, energy, and defence.

He also has more than 10 years experience of working as a staff member in the EU institutions, working with political groups and MEPs in various policy areas.

Gary's latest book WANTED MAN: THE STORY OF MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV: A Manual for Criminals on How to Avoid Punishment in the EU is currently available from Amazon


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