Repatriation of Cossacks after World War II

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Repatriation of Cossacks
Part of the Aftermath of World War II
Date28 May 1945
Lienz and elsewhere in Austria
Result 45,000–50,000 repatriated Cossacks
Don Cossacks Allies
Casualties and losses
45,000–50,000 repatriated

The Repatriation of Cossacks happened when Cossacks and ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who were against the Soviet Union were handed over by the British forces to the USSR after the Second World War.

The repatriations were agreed to in the Yalta Conference; Stalin claimed the repatriated people were Soviet citizens as of 1939, although many of them had left Russia before or soon after the end of the Russian Civil War or had been born abroad.[1][2] Most of those Cossacks and Russians fought the Allies, specifically the Soviets, in service to the Axis powers, specifically Germany, yet the repatriations included non-combatant civilians as well.[3][4]

Gen. Poliakov and Col. Chereshneff referred to it as the "Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz".[1][5]


During the Russian Civil War (1917–23), thousands of Russians integral to the Volunteer Army and the White Movement fought the Bolshevik Red Army.[1] Cossack Hosts (of which there were 11 at the start of the First World War, 1914–18) composed much of the White Movement, and so were the strongest counter-revolutionary force against the Bolshevik government. During the Civil War Leon Trotsky imposed decossackization on the Cossacks, leading to many, especially the Don Cossacks and the Kuban Cossacks, to escape Russia for the Balkans, where they established the Russian All-Military Union, the ROVS.[6]

The Cossacks who remained in Russia endured more than a decade of continual repression, e.g., the portioning of the lands of the Terek, Ural and Semirechye hosts, forced cultural assimilation and repression of the Russian Orthodox Church, deportation and, ultimately, the Soviet famine of 1932–33. The repressions ceased and some privileges were restored after publication of And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) by Mikhail Sholokhov.[7]

The Second World War[edit]

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the USSR. The Soviet Union had already been a part of World War II with its occupation of eastern Poland, its attack on Finland and its occupation of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. During the attack some ROVS, especially the Cossack émigré generals Pyotr Krasnov and Andrei Shkuro, asked Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' permission to fight alongside Nazi Germany against Communist Russia. Goebbels welcomed this idea, and by 1942 Gen. Krasnov and Gen. Shkuro had mustered a Cossack force--mostly from Red Army POWs captured by the Wehrmacht--who would be under the command of Gen. Helmuth von Pannwitz.[8]

The Wehrmacht recognized the Cossacks as military units with their own uniforms and insignia; the 1st Cossack Division was established the next year. Although Cossack units were formed to fight the Communists in Russia, by the time they formed, the Red Army had already recaptured most of the Nazi-occupied territory, so they were deployed to the Balkans to fight the Communist Yugoslav Partisans commanded by Josip Broz Tito[9] and into northern Italy, "where their brutality was notorious".[10] By the war's end, the Cossack units had come under the command of the Waffen-SS.

Yalta and Tehran Conferences[edit]

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta conference.

The agreements of the Yalta and Tehran Conferences, signed by American President Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Churchill, determined the fates of the Cossacks who did not fight for the USSR, because many were POWs of the Nazis. Stalin obtained Allied agreement to the repatriation of every so-called "Soviet" citizen held prisoner because the Allied leaders feared that the Soviets either might delay or refuse repatriation of the Allied POWs whom the Red Army had liberated from Nazi POW camps.[11]

Although the agreement for the deportation of all "Soviet" citizens did not include White Russian emigres who had fled during the Bolshevik Revolution before the establishment of the USSR, all Cossack prisoners of war were later demanded. After Yalta, Churchill questioned Stalin, asking, "Did the Cossacks and other minorities fight against us?" Stalin replied, "They fought with ferocity, not to say savagery, for the Germans".[11]

In 1944 Gen. Krasnov and other Cossack leaders had persuaded Hitler to allow Cossack troops, as well as civilians and non-combatant Cossacks, to permanently settle in the sparsely settled Carnia, in the Alps. The Cossacks moved there and established garrisons and settlements, requisitioning houses by evicting the inhabitants, with several stanitsas and posts, their administration, churches, schools and military units.[12] There, they fought the partisans and persecuted the local population, committing numerous atrocities.[13] Not a single war crime was ever attributed to Cossacks from these measures, which consisted of clearing the Italian inhabitants of the area from their homes and taking stern measures to not allow partisans from the hills to “pass through alive” in the area, which did lead the Italians to the use of the epithet “Barbarian Cossacks.” [14]

When the Allies progressed from central Italy to the Italian Alps, Italian partisans under Gen. Contini ordered the Cossacks to leave Carnia and go north to Austria. There, near Lienz, the British army interned the Cossacks in a hastily established camp. For a few days the British fed them; meanwhile, the Red Army's advance units approached to within a few miles east, rapidly advancing to meet the Allies. On 28 May 1945 the British transported 2,046 disarmed Cossack officers and generals--including the cavalry Generals Pyotr Krasnov and Andrei Shkuro--to a nearby Red Army-held town and handed them over to the Red Army commanding general, who ordered them tried for treason. Many Cossack leaders had never been citizens of the Soviet Union, having fled revolutionary Russia in 1920[15]; hence they believed they could not be guilty of treason. Some were executed immediately. High-ranking officers were tried in Moscow, and then executed. On 17 January 1947 Krasnov and Shkuro were hanged in a public square. Gen. Helmuth von Pannwitz of the Wehrmacht, who was instrumental in the formation and leadership of the Cossacks taken from Nazi POW camps to fight the USSR, decided to share the Cossacks' Soviet repatriation and was executed for war crimes, along with five Cossack generals and atamans in Moscow in 1947.[16]

On 1 June 1945 the British placed 32,000 Cossacks (with their women and children) into trains and trucks and delivered them to the Red Army for repatriation to the USSR;[17] similar repatriations occurred that year in the American occupation zones in Austria and Germany. Most Cossacks were sent to the gulags in far northern Russia and Siberia, and many died; some, however, escaped, and others lived until Nikita Khrushchev's amnesty in the course of his de-Stalinization policies (see below). In total, some two million people were repatriated to the USSR at the end of the Second World War.[18]


On 28 May 1945 the British army arrived at Camp Peggetz, in Lienz, where there were 2,479 Cossacks, including 2,201 officers and soldiers.[18] They went to invite the Cossacks to an important conference with British officials, informing them that they would return to Lienz by 6:00 that evening; some Cossacks were worried, but the British reassured them that everything was in order. One British officer told the Cossacks, "I assure you, on my word of honour as a British officer, that you are just going to a conference".[18] By then British–Cossack relationships were friendly to the extent that many on both sides had developed feelings for the other. The Lienz Cossack repatriation was exceptional, because the Cossacks forcefully resisted their British repatriation to the USSR; one Cossack noted, "The NKVD or the Gestapo would have slain us with truncheons, the British did it with their word of honour."[18] Julius Epstein describes the scene thus:

The first to commit suicide, by hanging, was the Cossack editor Evgenij Tarruski. The second was General Silkin, who shot himself...The Cossacks refused to board the trucks. British soldiers [armed] with pistols and clubs began using their clubs, aiming at the heads of the prisoners. They first dragged the men out of the crowd, and threw them into the trucks. The men jumped out. They beat them again, and threw them onto the floor of the trucks. Again, they jumped out. The British then hit them with rifle butts until they lay unconscious, and threw them, like sacks of potatoes, in the trucks.[19]

The British transported the Cossacks to a prison where the Soviets assumed their custody. In the town of Tristach, Austria, there is a memorial commemorating Gen. von Pannwitz and the soldiers of the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps who were killed in action or died as POWs.[citation needed]

Other repatriations[edit]

Judenburg, Austria[edit]

On 1–2 June 18,000 Cossacks were handed over to the Soviets near the town of Judenburg, Austria; of those in custody, some ten officers and 50–60 Cossacks escaped the guards' cordon with hand grenades, and hid in a nearby wood.[5]

Near Graz, Austria[edit]

The Russian Cossacks of XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, stationed in Yugoslavia since 1943, were part of the column headed for Austria that would take part in the Bleiburg repatriations, and they are estimated to have numbered in the thousands.[20] Nikolai Tolstoy quotes a Gen. Alexander telegram, sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, noting "50,000 Cossacks including 11,000 women, children and old men".[21] At a location near Graz, British forces repatriated around 40,000 Cossacks to SMERSH.[22]

Fort Dix, New Jersey, United States[edit]

Although repatriations mainly occurred in Europe, 154 people were repatriated to the USSR from Fort Dix, New Jersey, in the United States; three committed suicide in the US and seven were injured.[23][24] Epstein states that the prisoners put up considerable resistance:

First, they refused to leave their barracks when ordered to do so. The military police then used tear gas, and, half-dazed, the prisoners were driven under heavy guard to the harbor where they were forced to board a Soviet vessel. Here the two hundred immediately started to fight. They fought with their bare hands. They started – with considerable success – to destroy the ship's engines. ... A sergeant ... mixed barbiturates into their coffee. Soon, all of the prisoners fell into a deep, coma-like sleep. It was in this condition that the prisoners were brought to another Soviet boat for a speedy return to Stalin's hangmen.[18]

Marseilles, France[edit]

Cossacks were included in the hundreds who were repatriated to the Soviet Union from Marseilles in 1946.[25]

Rimini and Bologna, Italy[edit]

Several hundred Cossacks were repatriated to the Soviet Union from camps close to Venice in 1947. Some 100 Cossacks perished in resistance to forcible repatriations at Rimini and Bologna.[26]

Liverpool, England[edit]

Thousands of Russians, many of them Cossacks, were transported at the height of armed hostilities in 1944 to Murmansk in an operation that also led to the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz.[27]


The Cossack officers, more politically aware than the enlisted men, expected that repatriation to the USSR would be their ultimate fate. They believed that the British would have sympathised with their anti-Communism, but were unaware that their fates had been decided at the Yalta Conference. Upon discovering that they would be repatriated, many escaped, some probably aided by their Allied captors;[11] some passively resisted, and others killed themselves.

Of those Cossacks who escaped repatriation, many hid in forests and mountainsides, some were hidden by the local German populace, but most hid in different identities as Ukrainians, Latvians, Poles, Yugoslavians, Turks, Armenians and Ethiopians. Eventually they were admitted to displaced persons camps under assumed names and nationalities; many emigrated to the US per the Displaced Persons Act. Others went to any country that would admit them (e.g., Germany, Austria, France and Italy). Most Cossacks hid their true national identity until the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991.[citation needed]


After the death of Stalin in 1953, partial amnesty was granted for some labor camp inmates on 27 March 1953 with the end of the Gulag system, then extended it on 17 September 1955. Some specific political crimes were omitted from amnesty: people convicted under Section 58.1(c) of the Criminal Code, stipulating that in the event of a military man escaping Russia, every adult member of his family who abetted the escape or who knew of it would be subject to five to ten years' imprisonment; every dependent who did not know of the escape would be subject to five years' Siberian exile.[28]


In literature[edit]

The event was documented in publications such as Nicholas Bethell's The Last Secret: The Delivery to Stalin of Over Two Million Russians by Britain and the United States (1974).[29]

Nikolai Tolstoy describes this and other events resulting from the Yalta Conference as the "Secret Betrayal" (cf. Western betrayal), for going unpublished in the West.[30]

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn describes the forced repatriation of the Cossacks by Winston Churchill as follows: "He turned over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. Along with them, he also handed over many wagonloads of old people, women and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers. This great hero, monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths."[31]

William Dritschilo described the events at Lienz in Lienz Cossacks, his novelization of the Cossack experience of the 20th century.


In Lienz, Austria, there is an 18-gravestone cemetery commemorating the "Tragedy of the Drau". Many of the gravestones mark mass graves holding unknown numbers.[32]


Reference in GoldenEye film[edit]

The plot of the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) involves the resentment of villain Alec Trevelyan (played by Sean Bean), known as "Janus", the son of "Lienz Cossacks". Janus plots the destruction of the UK economy because of "the British betrayal and Stalin's execution squads", the latter of which he and his family had survived, but, tormented by survivor's guilt, his father ultimately killed his wife, then himself, leaving Janus orphaned. Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) says of the repatriation, "Not exactly our finest hour", though the Russian mafia boss, Valentin Zukovsky (played by Robbie Coltrane), replies that the "ruthless" Cossacks "got what they deserved".[33][34]


These events provide the historical context for the Foyle's War episode, "The Russian House".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Chereshneff, Colonel W.V. (1952), The History of Cossacks, Rodina Society Archives
  2. ^ Roberts, Andrew (4 June 2005). "Blood on our hands; They Surrendered in Good Faith Only to Be Sent to Certain Torture and Death; the Betrayal of the Cossacks 60 Years Ago Was Not the Work of the Nazis or the Red Army, but of British Politicians". The Daily Mail.
  3. ^ Naumenko, Gen. V. G. (2011). Great Betrayal. (Translation by William Dritschilo of (1962) Великое Предательство, All Slavic Publishing House, New York) ISBN 978-1511524179
  4. ^ Naumenko, Gen. V. G. (2018). Great Betrayal. Volume 2. (Translation by William Dritschilo of (1970) Великое Предательство, Том ІІ, All Slavic Publishing House, New York) ISBN 978-1986932356
  5. ^ a b Major General of the General Staff Poliakov (September 1949). "Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz". Russia. VI (84). Archived from the original on 2007-09-28.
  6. ^ Luckett, R. ( 1971) The White Generals: An Account of the White Movement and the Russian Civil War. New York, Viking, ISBN 0-670-76265-2, p. 389.
  7. ^ Shambarov, Valery (2007). Kazachestvo Istoriya Volnoy Rusi. Algorithm Expo, Moscow. ISBN 978-5-699-20121-1.
  8. ^ François de Lannoy: Les Cosaques de Pannwitz: 1942–1945. Bayeux: Heimdal, 2000; ISBN 2-84048-131-6
  9. ^ "The 1st Cossack Division". WW2 German Cavalry. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008.
  10. ^ Hastings, Max Churchill As Warlord p. 46, ISBN 978-0-00-7263684, Harper Press 20009
  11. ^ a b c Ure, John (2002). The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. London, UK: Gerald Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-3253-1.
  12. ^ "Occupation of Friuli". Archived from the original on 2009-02-06.
  13. ^ "I Cosacchi in Italia, 1944–'45 Atti dei Convegni di Verzegnis" (in Italian). I libri di Cjargne Online.
  14. ^ Naumenko, Volume 2, p. 23.
  15. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal and Great Betrayal, Vol. 2.
  16. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Volume 2, pp. 314-5.
  17. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Volume 2, reports various estimates, of which this number is among the highest.
  18. ^ a b c d e Hornberger, Jacob G. (April 1995). "Repatriation – The Dark Side of World War II". Freedom Daily. Retrieved 2016-12-31.
  19. ^ Operation Keelhaul (1973)
  20. ^ Dizdar, 2005, p. 134
  21. ^ Tolstoy, 1986, pp. 124-125: "In a second telegram sent to Combined Chiefs of Staff, Alexander asked for guidelines regarding the final disposition of '50,000 Cossacks including 11,000 women, children and old men; present estimate of total 35,000 Chetniks – 11,000 of them already evacuated to Italy – and 25,000 German and Croat units.' In each of above cases 'return them to their country of origin immediately might be fatal to their health'."
  22. ^ Vuletić, 2007, p. 144
  23. ^ "Russian Repatriation". World War II Timeline. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.
  24. ^ Ledeen, Michael A (1 June 2000). "It Didn't Start with Elian". AEI Online. Archived from the original on 17 April 2009.
  25. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Vol 2, pp.197-205.
  26. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Vol 2, pp. 205-19.
  27. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Vol 2, pp. 220-8.
  28. ^ Cliff, Tony (1956). "Russia From Stalin To Khrushchev".
  29. ^ Bethell, Nicholas (1974) The Last Secret, Basic Books, New York.
  30. ^ Tolstoy's (1977) book Victims of Yalta, Hodder and Stoughton, London, was reprinted in the US in 1978 as The Secret Betrayal by Charles Scribner, New York, and has been reissued in a Kindle edition under the title, Victims of Yalta: The Secret Betrayal of the Allies, 1944-1947.
  31. ^ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts I–II. Harper & Row, 1974. pp. 259–260; ISBN 0-06-080332-0
  32. ^ Naumenko, Great Betrayal, Volume 2, p. 119.
  33. ^
  34. ^


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Return to the scene of the crime Gordon Dritschilo,, 30 June 2005
  • A footnote to Yalta Jeremy Murray-Brown, Documentary at Boston University (Describes the extradition event in great detail, focusing on a 7-minute film-clip of the event.)