Letter From Crimea: Victims of Yalta in Today’s Ukraine

This is the ninth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


A photograph of a painting in Novocherkassk, southern Russia, showing the ancestral lands on the Don Cossacks, many of whom were executed at the end of World War II. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

While biking around Novocherkassk, it’s near Rostov and was once the capital of the Don Cossacks, I thought about the destiny of many Cossacks at the end of World War II.

I first became aware of their fate in the 1970s. In those years my father made business trips to London, and often he would bring back books that were not published in the United States.

One was Lord Nicholas Bethell’s The Last Secret: Forcible repatriation to Russia 1944-7, which sat for a long time on our coffee table so that (I suspect) guests to our house would prompt my father to riff on Russian history and the evils of Stalinism.

It was not well known then that after World War II the Allies forcibly repatriated millions of former Russian soldiers (many of them Cossacks) to the Soviet Union, which either killed them or marched them off to the Gulag.

The revelations not only confirmed everyone’s worst impressions of Soviet repression but they reflected poorly, as well, on Yalta, where the deal was cut, and on Allied leaders such as former British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who turned cynical, blind eyes to the fate of the Cossacks.

Nor did Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt escape criticism for their deliverance of so many anti-communists to the brutal hands of the Soviet dictatorship.

Lord Nicholas Bethell and the Cossacks

Bethell’s book came out just as bootlegged copies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago were turning up on Western publishing lists, and the two men were acquaintances, if not friends.

Much later (around 1999) he and Bethell feuded, as Solzhenitsyn claimed Bethell had no right to translate an early edition of his book Cancer Ward. In response, Bethell pointed out that Solzhenitsyn had cashed royalty checks on the translated book for eighteen years before making his claims.

Bethell wrote a number of books, mostly modern histories about Poland and Russia, although his Palestine Triangle: The Struggle between the British, the Jews & the Arabs 1935-48 (it came out in 1979) was the first book I read that explained to me in clear, accessible language the early divides in Palestine and the Middle East.

In the late 1970s, when I began working as a magazine editor in New York, I wrote a letter to Lord Bethell and subsequently met him on a trip to London. From those exchanges, we remained friends for more than thirty years, until he died in 2007. His passion was the defense of human rights, especially in Eastern Europe.

Nicholas today would be under no illusions about the threat that Putin poses to European unity. For his day job, besides the House of Lords, Bethell won election to the European parliament and served there as a member for many years. He would have despised Brexit and been among the first to denounce Boris Johnson as a fraud and an imposter.

I suspect that Nicholas would have seen in today’s Russia-Ukraine war many of the issues that have for so long divided Russia from the West: disagreement on the meaning of Yalta; Russian oppression of so many countries in Eastern Europe; and a Russian preference for autocracy over democracy and contempt for the idea of self-determination.

The Last Secret

When I came home from Novocherkassk, I decided to reread The Last Secret, which I can recommend if you want a primer on why so many issues between Russia and the West—especially in the context of Ukraine—defy diplomatic resolution.

Let’s start with Soviet oppression in the years after World War I and the Russian Revolution, in which Moscow ran the Soviet Union (of which Ukraine was a constituent part) with an iron fist.

In Ukraine, for example, that meant liquidating the kulaks (rich peasants and small landowners) and sending into exile thousands of Cossacks, even those that had served in the Red Army in the Civil War.

Come the 1941 German invasion of what historian Timothy Snyder calls “The Bloodlands”, many Ukraine residents (for a while anyway) welcomed the advancing German columns as liberators, only later to discover that the Nazis were as ruthless as the Communists. Bethell writes:

So it was that millions of Soviet citizens—Russians, Ukrainians, Kalmyks, Cossacks and others—came to believe that no man could be worse than the devil who governed them. To them Hitler was an unknown quantity. They were glad to help him and incautiously they threw themselves into battle on his side. Too late did they realise that by doing this they had placed themselves beyond the pale, not only with Stalin—this they accepted as natural and desirable—but also with the Americans and British, for whom they felt no ill-will. But to the decisionmakers in Washington and London these were men in enemy uniform, traitors to the glorious Russian ally. There were many in the West who saw the matter in terms as simple as this.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin wanted the return all those Soviet citizens who had served in the German army (even prisoners who worked as laborers) or who had taken up arms against the Soviet Union.

It was not a request that the Allies at Yalta found unreasonable. “At the end of the war,” Bethell writes, “there were a little more than two million Soviet citizens in western Germany, and so quickly did repatriation proceed that within two months 1,393,902 of these had been delivered to Soviet forces.”

Immediately most of these prisoners vanished in the Gulag, but that was an “internal matter” for many Western politicians who were otherwise grateful that the Soviet Union had sacrificed so much to defeat Hitler’s Germany.

Trying to Understand Yalta

President Franklin Roosevelt had two overriding goals at the Yalta conference: to enlist the Soviet Union in the war against Japan, and to gain Moscow’s endorsement for the United Nations.

If, to achieve those goals, Roosevelt and his British allies had to overlook the fate of repatriated Soviet prisoners-of-war, it was a small concession to an important wartime ally. Bethell writes:

As Harold Nicolson noted in his diary two months later, ‘He [Eden] has a real liking for Stalin.’ He told Nicolson over a drink, ‘Stalin has never broken his word once given.’ This belief in the Soviet dictator’s honesty was to lead Eden and other Allied leaders into error many times in the next few months.

In Ukraine today, some in the West supporting Russia take the view that good global relations with Moscow should take precedence over the fate of Ukrainians consigned to the bloodlands in Donbas; Eden would understand.

Unfortunately, at Yalta in 1945, the era of good feelings for the Soviet Union overlooked the nature of Stalinism and what would be the fate not just of repatriated prisoners but the borderlands in Eastern Europe that fell into the Russian sphere of influence. (At that time no one knew the fate of Polish officers rounded up and shot in the Katyn Woods near Smolensk.)

Bethell explains: “…that large numbers of Soviet citizens wanted to stay in the West, whether because they had fought for the Germans or simply because they disliked the Soviet government, was glossed over in all high-level British-Soviet discussions on the prisoner-of-war issue.”

Prisoner-of-War Cossacks in the West

Among those to suffer the most in the accommodations between Great Britain, especially, and the Soviet Union were the Cossacks, many of whom were being held after the war in camps in northern Italy and Austria.

With many of them were their wives and families, who had either left the Soviet Union after the Revolution or came west in the chaotic days after the war ended. But the Cossacks were marked men, as Bethell makes clear:

The men the Soviet authorities were most anxious to get their hands on were the followers of Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a Soviet general who fought most bravely defending Moscow and Leningrad during the first year of the war, but who fell into German hands on June 12, 1942. In his early weeks of captivity he came to believe that all Russia’s ills, including the sufferings of war, were brought about by the Soviet system. His biographer, V. Osokin, described the thought which came to dominate Vlasov’s mind: ‘If Bolshevism dies, then the Russian people will live. If Bolshevism survives, then the Russian people will die out, will cease to exist. Either—or. There is no third choice.’

For a while in summer 1945, the Cossacks and other former prisoners who had no wish to return to the Soviet Union thought that they might remain safe if held by British or American forces, but it turned out to be wishful thinking, as Bethell makes clear:

Indeed, so ill-informed were the Cossacks of the political and military realities of the time that they thought the British and American alliance with Stalin was a sham, that it would shortly collapse. They actually imagined the war was going to continue on a new basis—the West against the Soviet Union. In that case the Cossacks would be valuable allies on the western side. Had they suspected the truth, that the West was counting on Stalin’s good-will and was about to make him a present of these people, his bitter enemies, they would certainly never have surrendered.

British Duplicity

How then did the British authorities manage to coerce so many opposed to Soviet rule to give themselves up to the Russian army? After all, there were thousands of Cossacks being guarded by a handful of British soldiers, and had they rebelled, the might well have overwhelmed their captors (although where could they have gone?).

In short, the British captors tricked many of the Cossack officers, saying their presence was needed at a conference to discuss their resettlement in the West. They were told they would only be gone for a few days from their families, but instead they were marched into Russian captivity and never heard from again. Without their officers to lead them, the remaining Cossacks capitulated, and thousands were marched east at the point of guns. Bethell describes their reaction:

Most Cossacks feel that their gullibility must be explained by the deviousness and treachery of the British, rather than by the wickedness of [General] Domanov [a Cossack leader]. ‘Russian officers, brought up in the noble traditions of the Imperial Army, could not imagine such a lying betrayal,’ one Cossack has written. Naumenko writes, ‘Russian officers are accustomed to believing the word of an officer and they could not imagine that the British would do such a thing.’ Nikolay Krasnov, grandson of the famous general P. N. Krasnov, writes, ‘No one realised that the British High Command was capable of such deceit and such total evil.’ An old emigre told him: ‘It won’t be so bad being prisoners of the Anglo-Saxons. The English are gentlemen. We’re not dealing with that jumped-up Hitler but with officers of His Majesty the King. A British officer never gives his word on his own account, even if he is a fieldmarshal. He speaks for the High Command, for the Throne itself.’

Some Cossacks tried to flee and were cut down. Others committed suicide rather than give themselves over to the Russians. But most were obedient soldiers who followed British orders and boarded the trucks and trains that eventually delivered them to the Soviets and their deaths.

Putin and the Cossacks

Bethell is well aware that many of these men had taken up arms for the Germans (as did the ancestors of many Ukrainians now under assault from Russia), but he tries to place their actions in the gray area of history, in which there are few clear delineations between right and wrong:

After the war it was impossible to decide absolutely who had collaborated and who had remained loyal to the Soviet Union. There were so many middle ways….But this argument ignores the injustice done to those Cossacks who were innocent of any crime, for example the women and children. It ignores the injustice done to the men who took up arms against Stalin without realising that they were assisting an equal tyrant in the shape of Hitler. These men were perhaps naive, but it can hardly be maintained, in view of the crimes of the Soviet state, the full extent of which has now been revealed by Solzhenitsyn and others, that they deserved the normal traitors’ punishment.

Putin’s Russia makes no distinction between the European Union or NATO and Hitler’s Third Reich. All are one and the same, justifying the invasion of Ukraine, on the grounds that the country needs to undergo “de-Nazification”.

Another way to look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is to see it as the last enforcement of the Yalta conference, which Stalin left believing that he could deal with collaborators in any way he chose, and that Eastern Europe, up to what became known as the Iron Curtain (including all of Ukraine), was to be a Soviet protectorate of buffer states.

Next: Bloody Saturday 1962 in the Soviet Union. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.