A FOOTNOTE TO YALTA
Documentary At Boston University
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?