Military Wiki
Repatriation of Cossacks
Part of the Aftermath of World War II
DateMay 28, 1945
LocationLienz and elsewhere in Austria
Result 45,000 - 50,000 repatriated Cossacks
Don Cossacks Allied Forces
Casualties and losses
45,000 - 50,000 repatriated

The Repatriation of Cossacks after the Second World War (see terminology) refers to the forced repatriation to the USSR of the Cossacks and ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who were allies of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

The repatriations were agreed to in the Yalta Conference; most of the repatriated people were Soviet citizens, although some of them had left Russia before or soon after the end of the Russian Civil War, or had been born abroad.[1][2] Those Cossacks and Russians were described as fascists who had fought the Allies in service to the Axis powers, yet the repatriations included non-combatant civilians as well. The Cossacks who fought the Allies did not see their war service as treason to the Russian motherland, but as an episode in the Russian Revolution of 1917 — their continuing fight against the Communist Government in Moscow in particular, and against Bolshevism in general.

In the history of the Cossack repatriations to the USSR, the British repatriation at Lienz, Austria, is the most recognized and studied.


Andrew Roberts has referred to these events as the Betrayal of the Cossacks.[2] General Poliakov and Colonel Chereshneff referred to it as the Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz.[1][3] Another term used is the Tragedy of the Drau.[citation needed]

Operation Keelhaul is a specific repatriation operation whose name was later used to refer to the entirety of these events.


During the Russian Civil War (1917–23), thousands of Russians integral to the Volunteer Army and the White Movement fought the Bolshevik Red Army.[1] Cossack Hosts (of which there were eleven at the start of the First World War, 1914–18) composed much of the White Movement, and so were the strongest counter-revolutionary force against the Bolshevik Government. During the Civil War Leon Trotsky imposed Decossackization on the Cossacks, leading to many, especially the Don Cossacks and the Kuban Cossacks, to escape Russia for the Balkans where they established the Russian All-Military Union, the ROVS.

The Cossacks who remained in Russia endured more than a decade of continual repression, e.g. the portioning of the lands of the Terek, Ural, and Semirechye hosts, forced cultural assimilation (i.e. the Ukrainization of the Kuban Host,[citation needed] and repression of the Russian Orthodox Church), deportation, and, ultimately, the Soviet famine of 1932-1933. The repressions ceased and some privileges were restored after publication of And Quiet Flows the Don (1934) by Mikhail Sholokhov.[4]

The Second World War

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and attacked the USSR, thus bringing Russia into World War II. [Russia was actually brought into the war as an ally of Nazi Germany under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, complying with the pact by its invasion of Poland on 17th September 1939. Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s reneging on said pact]. During the attack some ROVS, especially the Cossack émigré generals Pyotr Krasnov and Andrei Shkuro, asked Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’s permission to fight beside Nazi Germany against Communist Russia. Goebbels welcomed their idea and by 1942 General Krasnov and General Shkuro had mustered a Cossack force — mostly from Red Army POWs captured by the Wehrmacht — who would be under the command of General Helmuth von Pannwitz.[5]

The Wehrmacht recognized the Cossacks as military units with their own uniforms and insignia; the 1st Cossack Division was established the next year. Although the Cossack units were formed to fight the Communists in Russia, by the time they formed, the Red Army had already recaptured most of the Nazi-occupied territory, so they were deployed to the Balkans to fight the Communist Yugoslav Partisans commanded by Josip Broz Tito.[6] By the war’s end, the Cossack units had come under the command of the Waffen-SS.

Effect of Yalta and Tehran Conferences

The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta conference.

The agreements of the Yalta and Tehran Conferences, signed by President Roosevelt, Premier Joseph Stalin, and Prime Minister Churchill, determined the fates of the Cossacks who did not fight for the USSR, because many were POWs of the Nazis. Stalin obtained Allied agreement to the repatriation of every Soviet citizen held prisoner because they feared that the Soviets either might delay or refuse repatriation of the Allied POWs whom the Red Army had liberated from Nazi POW camps.[7] Although the agreement for the deportation of all Soviet citizens did not include white emigres who had fled during the Bolshevik Revolution before the establishment of the USSR, all Cossack prisoners of war were later demanded. After Yalta, Churchill questioned Stalin, asking, “Did the Cossacks and other minorities fight against us?” Stalin replied, “They fought with ferocity, not to say savagery, for the Germans” — true of most Cossacks who fought against the USSR, notably the Tatar Caucasian Division; however, the Cossacks who fought against the Western Allies did so reluctantly.[7]

In 1944, General Krasnov and other Cossack leaders had persuaded Hitler to allow Cossack troops, as well as civilians and non-combatant Cossacks to permanently settle in the sparsely settled Carnia, in the Italian Alps. The Cossacks moved there and established garrisons and settlements, requisitioning houses by evicting the inhabitants, with several stanitzas and posts, their administration, churches, schools, and military units.[8] There, they fought the partisans and persecuted the local population, committing numerous atrocities.[9] When the Allies progressed from central Italy to the Italian Alps, Italian partisans under General Contini ordered the Cossacks to leave Carnia and go north to Austria. There, on the river Drava, near Lienz, the British army imprisoned the Cossacks in a hastily established internment camp. For a few days, the British fed them, giving the Cossacks the impression that they understood their problem as political refugees. Meanwhile, the Red Army’s advance units approached to within a few miles east, rapidly advancing to meet the Allies. Most Cossacks believed that, under British protection, they were safe from repatriation to the USSR.

On 28 May 1945, the British army transported 2,046 disarmed Cossack officers and generals — including the cavalry Generals Pyotr Krasnov, Andrei Shkuro, and Kelech-Giray — to a nearby Red Army-held town. There they were handed over to the Red Army commanding general, who ordered them tried for treason. Many Cossack leaders had never been citizens of the Soviet Union, having fled revolutionary Russia in 1920, hence they believed that they could not be guilty of treason. Nonetheless, some were executed immediately. The high-ranking officers were tried in Moscow, and then executed — most notably, General Pyotr Krasnov was hanged in a public square. General Helmuth von Pannwitz of the Wehrmacht, who was instrumental to the formation and leadership of the Cossacks taken from Nazi POW camps to fight the USSR, decided to share the Cossacks’ Soviet repatriation, and was executed for war crimes with five Cossack generals and atamans in Moscow in 1947.

On 1 June 1945, the British placed 32,000 Cossacks (with their women and children) into trains and trucks, and delivered them to the Red Army for repatriation to the USSR;[citation needed] like repatriations occurred that year in the American occupation zones in Austria and Germany. Most Cossacks were sent to the gulags in far northern Russia and in Siberia and many died; some, however, escaped and others lived until Nikita Khrushchev's amnesty in the course of his de-Stalinization policies (see below). In total, some two million people were repatriated to the USSR at the end of the Second World War,[10] but historians calculate that the number of repatriated Cossacks is 45,000-50,000; others calculate (without consensus) some 15,000–150,000.[citation needed]


On 28 May 1945, the British Army arrived at Camp Peggetz, in Lienz, where there were 2,479 Cossacks, including 2,201 officers and soldiers.[10] They went to invite the Cossacks to an important conference with British officials, informing them that they would return to Lienz by six o’clock that evening; some Cossacks worried, but the British reassured them that everything was in order. One British officer told the Cossacks: “I assure you, on my word of honour as a British officer, that you are just going to a conference”.[10] By then, British–Cossack relationships were friendly to the extent that many on both sides had developed emotions for the other. The Lienz Cossack repatriation was exceptional, because the Cossacks forcefully resisted their British repatriation to the USSR; a Cossack noted: “The NKVD or the Gestapo would have slain us with truncheons, the British did it with their word of honor.”

The first to commit suicide, by hanging, was the Cossack editor Evgenij Tarruski. The second was General Silkin, who shot himself. . . . The Cossacks refused to board the trucks. British soldiers [armed] with pistols and clubs began using their clubs, aiming at the heads of the prisoners. They first dragged the men out of the crowd, and threw them into the trucks. The men jumped out. They beat them again, and threw them onto the floor of the trucks. Again, they jumped out. The British then hit them with rifle butts until they lay unconscious, and threw them, like sacks of potatoes, in the trucks. — Operation Keelhaul (1973), by Julius Epstein.

The British transported the Cossacks to a prison where the Soviets assumed their custody. In the town of Tristach, Austria, there is a memorial commemorating General Helmuth von Pannwitz and soldiers of the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps who were killed in action or died as POWs.

Other repatriations

Judenburg, Austria

On 1 and 2 June, 18,000 Cossacks were handed over to the Soviets near the town of Judenburg, Austria; of those in custody, some 10 officers and 50–60 Cossacks escaped the guards’ cordon with hand grenades, and hid in a nearby wood.[3] One eyewitness described many of these Cossacks as 'Ukrainians'.[11]

Near Graz, Austria

The Russian Cossacks of XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps, stationed in Yugoslavia since 1943, were part of the column headed for Austria that would take part in the Bleiburg repatriations, and they are estimated to have numbered in thousands.[12] Tolstoy quotes a General Alexander telegram, sent to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, noting "50,000 Cossacks including 11.000 women, children and old men".[13] At a location near Graz, British forces repatriated around 40,000 Cossacks to SMERSH.[14]

Fort Dix, New Jersey, United States

Although repatriations are thought to have occurred only in Europe, it also occurred in the United States at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where 154 people were repatriated to the USSR after the Second World War; three committed suicide in the US, and seven were injured.[15][16] Julius Epstein described the scene:

First, they refused to leave their barracks when ordered to do so. The military police then used tear gas, and, half-dazed, the prisoners were driven under heavy guard to the harbor where they were forced to board a Soviet vessel. Here the two hundred immediately started to fight. They fought with their bare hands. They started — with considerable success — to destroy the ship's engines. . . . A sergeant . . . mixed barbiturates into their coffee. Soon, all of the prisoners fell into a deep, coma-like sleep. It was in this condition that the prisoners were brought to another Soviet boat for a speedy return to Stalin's hangmen.[10]

Western Allied motivations

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The Allies were not legally obliged to return all Cossacks, specifically those who did not qualify as Soviet citizens. The Yalta Agreement, moreover, did not authorize the use of force during repatriation operations. To this day, the question remains why the Allies conceded to Stalin's will for illicit, unconditionally forced repatriation. Speculations as to why include the Allies' desire to preserve the ethereal peace following World War II and to set stable grounds for future cooperation between the West and the USSR. Contributing to the pro-repatriation issue was the cause of "expediency." During the war, Germany had allocated Allied POWs on the Eastern half, and Soviet POWs on the Western in order to frustrate escape attempts. Given the reciprocality, the enduring presumption was that the more quickly the Allies repatriated all Cossacks according to Stalin's instructions, the more quickly Allied prisoners would be returned to their mother countries from the Soviet hands. Of greater pressure on the Allied administration was the USSR's notorious volatility that could spontaneously kill all Allied POWs in its temporary possession. Therefore, the Allied decision to force rapid Soviet POW repatriation was not blatantly selfish, as they did realize the sacrifice of involved—either save one's compatriots from potential slaughter and mistreatment, or save foreigners from a virtually guaranteed massacre.

Contrary to the long-held assumption that the Allies knew nothing of the fate of the repatriated Soviet POWs, governmental archives declassified during the period 1972-1978 reveal that the Allies were indeed knowledgeable that they were thrusting prisoners to their deaths. As British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden remarked in September 1944, "the probability that if we do what the Soviet Government want and return all these prisoners to the Soviet Union, whether they are willing to return or no, we shall be sending some of them to their deaths." In the face of a fatal dilemma, the fact that the Allies chose forcible repatriation suggests their greater hope for global peace and future peace as the Cold War slowly unfolded.

Some British people may have taken the view that the Russians were entitled to execute any of their people caught wearing German uniform, since Britain had executed one of its people caught wearing German uniform, John Amery.


The Cossack officers, more politically aware than the enlisted men, expected that repatriation to the USSR would be their ultimate fate. They believed that the British would have sympathised with their anti-Communism, but were unaware that their fates had been decided at the Yalta Conference. Upon discovering that they would be repatriated, many escaped, some probably aided by their Allied captors;[7] some passively resisted, and others committed suicide. Of the Cossacks who escaped repatriation, most hid in the forests and mountains, some were hidden by the local German populace, but most hid in different identities as Ukrainians, Latvians, Poles, Yugoslavians, Turks, Armenians, and Ethiopians. Eventually, they were admitted to displaced persons camps under assumed names and nationalities; many emigrated to the USA per the Displaced Persons Act. Others went to any country that would admit them (e.g. Germany, Austria, France, and Italy). Most Cossacks hid their true national identity until the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991.


After the death of Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of the USSR conferred a partial amnesty for some labor camp inmates on 27 March 1953, then extended it on 17 September 1955. Yet, some specific political crimes were omitted from amnesty: people convicted under Section 58.1(c) of the Criminal Code, stipulating that in the event of a military man escaping Russia, every adult member of his family who abetted the escape or who knew of it is subject to five to ten years’ imprisonment; every dependent who did not know of the escape is subject to five years’ Siberian exile.[17]


The event was documented in publications such as Nicholas Bethell's The Last Secret: The Delivery to Stalin of Over Two Million Russians by Britain and the United States (1974).

Nikolai Tolstoy describes this and other events resulting from the Yalta Conference as the “Secret Betrayal” (cf. Western betrayal), for going unpublished in the West.


In Lienz, Austria, there is an eighteen-gravestone cemetery commemorating the “Tragedy of the Drau”.

Use in GoldenEye film

The plot of the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye involves the secret resentments of MI6 agent Alec Trevelyan, the son of "Lienz Cossacks." Trevelyan plots the destruction of the UK because of "the British betrayal and Stalin's execution squads," the latter of which he and his family had survived, but being tormented by survivor's guilt, his father ultimately killed his wife, then himself, leaving Trevelyan orphaned. Bond himself admits of the repatriation, "Not exactly our finest hour."

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Chereshneff, Colonel W.V. (1952). "The History of Cossacks". Rodina Society Archives. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Roberts, Andrew (4 June 2005). "Blood on our hands; They Surrendered in Good Faith Only to Be Sent to Certain Torture and Death; the Betrayal of the Cossacks 60 Years Ago Was Not the Work of the Nazis or the Red Army, but of British Politicians". The Daily Mail. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Major General of the General Staff Poliakov (September 1949). "Massacre of Cossacks at Lienz".  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "massacre" defined multiple times with different content
  4. Shambarov, Valery (2007). Kazachestvo Istoriya Volnoy Rusi. Algorithm Expo, Moscow. ISBN 978-5-699-20121-1. 
  5. François de Lannoy: Les Cosaques de Pannwitz: 1942–1945. Bayeux: Heimdal, 2000. ISBN 2-84048-131-6
  6. "The 1st Cossack Division". WW2 German Cavalry. Archived from the original on March 14, 2008. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Ure, John (2002). The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. London: Gerald Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-3253-1. 
  8. "Occupation of Friuli". 
  9. "I Cosacchi in Italia, 1944-'45 Atti dei Convegni di Verzegnis". I libri di Cjargne Online.  (Italian)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Hornberger, Jacob G (April 1995). "Repatriation — The Dark Side of World War II". Freedom Daily. Retrieved 2007-04-05. 
  11. "Peter Pearson's War Story". WW2 People's War. BBC. 2 January 2004. 
  12. Dizdar, 2005, p. 134
  13. Tolstoy, 1986, pp. 124-125:
    In a second telegram sent to Combined Chiefs of Staff, Alexander asked for guidelines regarding the final disposition of “50,000 Cossacks including 11.000 women, children and old men; present estimate of total 35,000 Chetniks – 11,000 of them already evacuated to Italy – and 25,000 German and Croat units.” In each of above cases “return them to their country of origin immediately might be fatal to their health.”
  14. Vuletić, 2007, p. 144
  15. "Russian Repatriation". World War II Timeline. Archived from the original on May 13, 2008. 
  16. Ledeen, Michael A (June 1, 2000). "It Didn't Start with Elian". AEI Online. Archived from the original on April 17, 2009. 
  17. Cliff, Tony (1956). "Russia From Stalin To Khrushchev". 


Further reading

  • Catherine Andreyev (1987). Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-30545-4.
  • Nikolai Tolstoy (1978). The Secret Betrayal. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. ISBN 0-684-15635-0.
  • Nikolai Tolstoy (1981). Stalin's Secret War. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-01665-2.
  • John Ure (2002). The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. London: Gerald Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-3253-1.
  • Samuel J. Newland (1991). Cossacks in the German Army 1941–1945, London: Franc Cass. ISBN 0-7146-3351-8.
  • Nikolai Tolstoy (1986). The Minister and the Massacres. London: Century Hutchinson Ltd. ISBN 0-09-164010-5
  • Ian Mitchell (1997). The cost of a reputation. Lagavulin: Topical Books. ISBN 0-9531581-0-1.
  • Józef Mackiewicz (1993). Kontra. London: Kontra. ISBN 0-907652-30-1.
  • Harald Stadler/Martin Kofler/Karl C.Berger (2005). Flucht in die Hoffnungslosigkeit-Die Kosaken in Osttirol. Innsbruck.ISBN 3-7065-4152-1 8 (in German)

External links

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