Czechs remember Russians abducted by Soviet secret police

Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

In Prague last week there was a brief ceremony to commemorate the thousands of Russian émigrés illegally abducted by the Soviet secret police at the close of World War Two. The abductions began as soon as the Red Army began to liberate Czechoslovakia in 1944, and continued long after the Soviets arrived in Prague in May 1945. It's one of the most mysterious chapters in Czechoslovakia's 20th century history, but the fate of those abducted has not been forgotten.

Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
A military band played and the wind blew through the trees at the Russian section of Prague's sprawling Olsany Cemetery on Friday, as around a hundred people gathered to pay tribute to the thousands of Russian émigrés - Czechoslovak citizens - who were kidnapped by the Soviet secret police and taken to the Soviet Union. Most of them disappeared without trace into Stalin's gulags. Among the Czech dignitaries attending the service was President Vaclav Klaus:

"For us it's important because it was immediately after the Second World War, after the victory over German Nazism, and I think it was the first moment that Stalinist and communist methods and procedures started to function here in this country, at a moment when most people here were not aware what was going on. So this is a special event. We discuss quite often our gulags, our concentration camps in the communist era here, people know a lot about it, but this is something which is even now not part of the standard knowledge in this country."

Vladimir Bystrov and Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
What is known is largely due to the efforts of one man - journalist and writer Vladimir Bystrov senior, founder of an organisation called "They Were The First". His father was one of the thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians, often intellectuals, often democrats opposed to the Soviet system, who emigrated to Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 30s. In 1945 he was kidnapped by a special division of the NKVD - the precursor to the KGB - called SMERS.

SMERS stood for "Smert Spionam" or "Death to Spies". Part of its mission was to follow the Red Army as it advanced into Europe at the close of World War Two, liquidating and kidnapping potential enemies of the Soviet Union. These included Soviet citizens who had emigrated and started new lives abroad. Only a handful of the thousands of Russian émigrés illegally abducted in Czechoslovakia ever returned.

Vladimir Bystrov's father was one of the lucky ones, returning after ten years in Siberia. For years his son, now an elderly man, has investigated the kidnappings, and has just written a new book, a copy of which he presented to President Klaus at Friday's ceremony. The subject was of course taboo during the Communist period, but Vladimir Bystrov says there is now increasing awareness about the fate of Czechoslovakia's Russian émigrés.

Exactly how many Russian émigrés were abducted is still not known. Research into the subject continues, in an attempt to shed light on a dark chapter of Czechoslovakia's history. As Vladimir Bystrov stresses, these people - most of them fully-fledged Czechoslovak citizens - were illegally abducted from their homes, as the authorities looked on.

The abductions began in the fog of war but continued even after Czechoslovakia had regained full sovereignty in 1945. And most crucially, thousands of Czechoslovaks were being abducted by the Soviet secret police long before 1948, when the communists took power.