Website puts spotlight on waves of Czechoslovaks interned in notorious Soviet Gulag

Czechoslovaks interned in Soviet Gulag, photo: Archive of the Military History Institute

Thousands of Czechoslovak citizens were among those who passed through the vast network of brutal Soviet labour camps known as the Gulag. In recent years Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has carried out extensive research into this little-known historical chapter – and has just shared its findings via a brand new website. I spoke to the Institute’s Adam Hradilek, who said Czechoslovaks had ended up in the Gulag in several waves.

Czechoslovaks interned in Soviet Gulag, photo: Archive of the Military History Institute

Adam Hradilek, photo: Archive of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
“The first Czechs that were repressed in the Soviet Union were those that settled in Imperial Russia and were persecuted during the 1930s, as were other Soviet citizens.

“Then during World War II thousands of Czechoslovak citizens escaped the Nazis to the Soviet Union and then faced imprisonment there.

“This was the time when most Czechoslovak citizens were repressed – around 8,000 prewar refugees from Czechoslovakia were imprisoned in Gulag camps all over the Soviet Union.

“Also after the war, in the first days after the liberation of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet army arrested hundreds of interwar émigrés, mainly of Ukrainian, Russian or Belarusian origin.

“They were arrested, tried in Moscow, Kiev and other places, and sent to Gulag camps.”

So this concerns not just Czechs but various ethnicities who were taken off to the Gulag camps?

“Yes, that is correct.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0
“Our research is focused not just on Czechs but also other Czechoslovaks that lived on the territory of Czechoslovakia, which means Russians, Ukrainians and also Ruthenians, from the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia.

“But of course our research also focuses on Czechs that were not just abducted but Czechoslovakia but also lived on Soviet territory.”

Did many of the Czechoslovaks who were imprisoned in the Gulag system make it back to Czechoslovakia?

“Oh yes, I would say that most of them made it back.”

Was it also the case that during the war some Czechoslovaks were released from the Gulag and allowed to join a Czechoslovak unit in Russia?

Burial site for Czechoslovak victims of Gulag camps, photo: Štěpán Černoušek
“Yes, based on an amnesty agreed between the Czechoslovak government in exile in London and the Soviet leadership, Czechoslovaks imprisoned in the Gulag were released to join the Czechoslovak army unit established on Soviet territory to join the struggle against Nazi Germany.

“So many of them were released from the camps to join the army.”

Tell us about your research – how have you researched this subject?

“When the Institute started in 2008 we began to collect interviews with survivors.

Photo: Czech TV
“We have collected several dozen interviews, not just with direct survivors but also with family members or descendants of people imprisoned.

“We collected not just interviews but also manuscripts, memoirs they wrote of the Gulag for their children and grand-children, photographs, letters from the Gulag.

“So part of all these collected materials are present on the website that we just started yesterday.”

What is the purpose of the website? What are you hoping to achieve with it?

“Over the years we have done several exhibitions and we have collected many interviews.

Czechoslovaks in the Gulag website
“And in recent years we have managed to do research in newly opened archives, mainly in Ukraine, concerning the repression of Czechoslovaks and Czechs on Soviet territory.

“So we plan to provide all this information to the public through this website.”

Visit the Czechoslovaks in the Gulag website (in Czech) here: https://cechoslovacivgulagu.cz

The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes plans to launch English and Russian versions of the site in the coming weeks.