Czechoslovak citizens and the Gulag

Repression of Czechoslovak citizens in the USSR

A rough estimate puts the total number of Czechoslovak citizens persecuted in the Soviet Union at 25,000. That is more than 10,000 fewer than was believed until quite recently (the reduced figure is the result of detailed research carried out in the Ukrainian archives of the NKVD, according to which the number of persecuted citizens of Carpathian Ruthenia was significantly lower than original estimates suggested). The overwhelming majority of these persons passed through Gulag camps, though the overall estimate also includes those who were executed or displaced. The number of people persecuted with a direct connection to today’s Czech Republic stands at 4,150, of whom around 2,150 died as a result of their persecution.

The Inter-War Period (1917–1938)

From as early as the second half of the 19th century, Czechs and Slovaks in search of better living conditions settled in tsarist Russia. The beginning of the first repressive measures against Czechs and Slovaks in the USSR can be dated to the start of the Bolshevik regime in 1917. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet security agencies carried out a wave of repression, with varying degrees of intensity, against the entire population; several thousand Czechoslovak citizens were also accused of every possible and impossible misdeed – most frequently counter-revolutionary activities and espionage. These were not only early inhabitants and settlers, but also legionnaires, WWI prisoners of war or pre-1939 emigrants to the USSR, including political and economic exiles. Dozens of Czechs (including victims of trials of Czech teachers in Ukraine) ended up in the Solovetsky Islands, where the first ever Soviet labour camps were established.

The most tragic periods included the start of the 1920s, when the Bolshevik regime was consolidating its power, the turn of the 1920s and the 1930s, when farmers and intellectuals were persecuted, and in particular the Great Terror (end of 1936–August 1938), when the number of Czechoslovak victims of persecution reached a peak. At that time, the great majority of persecuted Czechoslovaks were executed. The number of Czechoslovaks persecuted in the inter-war period is put at around 1,000, of whom 700 died.

The WWII Period (1938–1945)

The largest increase in the number of victims of the Soviet forces of repression occurred in the WWII period. As a result of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, the Hungarian occupation of Carpathian Ruthenia and the outbreak of WWII a a growing number of Czechoslovak citizens threatened by Nazism, by the new Slovakian puppet-regime, or by the result of Hungarian annexions opted to move to the Soviet Union, while some found themselves on its territory due to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland.

Among the refugees were several hundred Czechs and Slovaks, though the largest group consisted of Czechoslovak Ruthenians (estimated today to have numbered 5,000–8,000), who in the main were fleeing compulsory service in the Hungarian army, and Jews (4,000–5,000) seeking protection from racial persecution. Those, who fled to the East because of Nazi persecutions in the Protectorate or in Slovakia, and those who left Subcarpathia because of re-installation of Hungarian rule, they soon became victimes of the USSR's repressive regime. The majority were arrested and charged with illegally crossing the border, being in the Soviet Union illegally or espionage, either immediately after setting foot on Soviet territory or during NKVD raids on “unreliable elements” in the course of 1940–1941. They subsequently faced being sentenced to most frequently three to five years of forced labour and being sent to Gulag labour camps (in the Pechora, Kolyma, Norilsk, Karaganda oblasts and elsewhere).

The fates of prisoners from the very first, Nazi-organised deportation transports of European Jews in the history of the Holocaust – the transports to Nisko – were particularly bitter. The majority of Jews deported at the end of October 1939 from Ostrava, Katowice and Vienna to Nisko (over 4,000) were expelled by the Nazis to Lublin in the north or to the nearby German-Soviet border, which they were forced to cross. Almost without exception they were, with other refugees from Czechoslovakia and other European countries, arrested on Soviet territory sooner or later and sent to Gulag camps, or in some cases to work on kolkhozes.

Thousands of Czechoslovaks in NKVD prisons and camps were only released after an amnesty for Czechoslovak citizens declared by the Soviet leadership at the start of 1942. However, the amnesty did not concern “persons suspected of espionage against the USSR”, so many imprisoned Czechoslovaks were not freed. The majority of the prisoners released (at first this chiefly concerned Czechoslovak Jews, though following certain complications many Ruthenians were also granted liberty) signed up as volunteers to a Czechoslovak military unit formed in the city of Buzuluk. In the remainder of the war they took part in battles on the Eastern Front, therefore contributing significantly to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Czechoslovakia. However, many who had survived the hardships of the Gulag died on the field of battle.

The Post-War Period (1945–1956)

The third period of repression of Czechoslovak citizens began almost immediately after the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army in May 1945. From then until the start of the 1950s, hundreds of innocent people of interest to the Soviet regime were conveyed to Soviet territory by members of special units of the SMERSH military counter-intelligence and the NKVD. Alongside collaborators, they mainly comprised members of the pre-war Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian exile communities, who had found a new home in Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. A number of Czechs, who had in the past “allegedly” committed offences against the Soviet regime were also subject to rendition. The majority were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment (10–25 years). Estimates put the number of persons subject to rendition from the territory of today’s Czech Republic at around 500 (of which 300 met their deaths), while the figure for Slovakia was 6,000 (2,500 Slovaks) with at least 2,000 dying.

Prisoners of war represent a separate chapter. After the war, POW camps on the territory of the USSR contained several thousand persons of Czech nationality and pre-war Czechoslovak citizens who had fought during the war either voluntary or under coercion on the side of the opposing armies. Of an estimated 70,000 Czechoslovak POWs, around 4,500 did not survive Soviet prisons.

In addition, following the end of WWII Carpathian Ruthenia, which had been part of Czechoslovak territory before the war, was surrendered to the USSR. As a consequence of sovietisation, the section of the population that represented a threat to the smooth transformation of Carpathian Ruthenia into a Soviet republic was subject to arrests and persecution. The wave of repression particularly impacted the Greek Catholic Church, the local non-communist intelligentsia and those accused of Ukrainian nationalism. They met a similar fate to approximately 25,000 ethnic Hungarians and Germans deported from Carpathian Ruthenia to GUPVI and Gulag camps in the course of 1945.

Jan Dvořák, Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, (Prague, Czech Republic)

Sources

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