Today’s book tells the story of the forcible repatriation of Soviet citizens and former subjects of the Russian Empire by the British Army at the end of the Second World War. Some of these were Soviet prisoners of war who had joined General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army, which fought alongside the Germans. Others were Cossacks (and their families) who were veterans of the White armies who had fled Russia after the end of the Civil War. Many of these had fought with the German-backed Russian Corps in Yugoslavia.
At the time, the British view was that all these people – including the non-Soviet Cossacks – were ‘traitors’. The British government felt no obligation towards them, and considered good relations with the Soviets more important than protecting people who had fought on the side of Britain’s enemies. British opinion later shifted and began to consider the repatriations as a ‘betrayal’ of people who had either acted under duress or, as long-term opponents of Bolshevism, had some understandable reasons for acting as they did. The episode came to be seen as a shameful sacrifice of human lives to a brutal dictatorship.
As a result of this book, originally published in 1974, and of a 1978 work on the same subject by Nicholas Tolstoy, a monument dedicated to those handed over to the Soviets in 1945 was unveiled in Cromwell Gardens, London, in 1986.
During the Russian Civil War, Atamanshchina bedevilled the anti-Bolshevik White Armies. The leaders – Atamans – of the Cossack forces which made up a large part of the White Armies often refused to take orders from the General Staff officers who notionally commanded them. Areas controlled by Cossack troops suffered numerous depredations, including pogroms. Atamanshchina came to symbolize all that was wrong about White rule, most notably its lack of central authority and its lawlessness.
In a recent post, I remarked that the future of the rebel republics in Ukraine depended upon their ability to centralize authority and build properly functioning states. The omens are not good. Atamanshchina appears to be alive and well today in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), with much of the LPR under the control of Cossack forces who refuse to accept the authority of the republic’s government led by Igor Plotnitsky. News reports in December that the main Cossack leader, Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, had left the LPR and returned to Russia sparked speculation that he had been ordered out by someone powerful in Russia in an effort to strengthen Plotnitsky’s authority. Last week, though, Kozitsyn gave an interview claiming that he continues to command Cossack forces in the LPR, albeit from inside Russia. ‘Nobody has the right to deprive me of command’, Kozitsyn said.
In his interview Kozitsyn claimed that his troops control 80% of the LPR. He does not recognize the LPR, he said, ‘it is a utopia.’ Rather, he added, ‘We say that we are part of the Russian Empire. Today we recognize Putin as our Emperor.’ I wonder what Putin thinks of that.