A memorial ceremony in Prague remembers the first victims of Stalinist tyranny in post-war Czechoslovakia

On Wednesday morning the Czech President Vaclav Klaus was among a small group of people who gathered at the Russian Orthodox memorial chapel in Prague's Olsany Cemetery. They were there to remember a tragic and long forgotten episode that began just days after the liberation of Prague sixty years ago in May 1945. David Vaughan reports.

The band of the Czech Army's Guard of Honour played as wreathes were laid in the rain. The ceremony was to remember the appalling fate of hundreds of Czechoslovak citizens of Russian, Ukrainian or Belarusian origin, who mysteriously disappeared in the days just after the Red Army had liberated the country from Nazi German occupation. These were among around 20,000 people who had found sanctuary in Prague over twenty-five years earlier, at the time of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed. They had been opponents of the new Bolshevik order, and the young democratic Czechoslovakia had granted many of them citizenship.

In May 1945 Czechs welcomed the Red Army with open arms, but with them came the Soviet secret police. Within days they started rounding these émigrés up. Regardless as to whether they had Czechoslovak citizenship, many were either shot or sent to the gulags, and few ever returned home.

Vladimir Bystrov Senior
For forty years their story was never allowed to be told, but since 1989, relatives have tried to draw attention to their tragedy. One of the descendants is Vladimir Bystrov, whose father, also Vladimir, is the main organizer of the annual commemoration. Standing in the pouring rain after the ceremony, I asked him whether in the light of his family's history, he could still see the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army at the end of World War II as a liberation.

"Well, for most of the people living in this country it really was a liberation, but for the immigrants from the Russian nations it was the end of freedom and the beginning of terrible times. The special forces of "Smerzh" which is an abbreviation of the Russian for "death to spies" - special agents of the Russian secret service NKVD - came to Prague together with Red Army troops, and the kidnapping of those people started on the second or third day after the liberation of Prague, which shows that the Russian secret service had been working on this action a long time in advance. And it's significant that during the last fifteen years of the activity of those of us who are trying to remember these events no Russian official has ever said sorry for that."

Do you think that will come with time?

"I think it won't come. It's not Russian style."

Red Square, photo: CTK
Does it make you angry to see the huge ceremonies on Red Square to celebrate the end of the Second World War in Russia?

"Each coin has two sides. It doesn't make me angry to celebrate the end of World War II, but it makes me angry that in the midst of these celebrations, these events which happened in the same year, in the same week, remain in the shade."

Can you tell me a little bit of your own family's story?

"My grandfather came between World War I and World War II to Czechoslovakia, a democratic country. He got married here, he had a son - my father - and in 1945 he was kidnapped and spent ten years in a Soviet gulag in Siberia. He was one of those lucky ones who came back and lived for a couple more years. But only about one fifth of all the people we know were kidnapped came back."