Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War Are Forced into Repatriation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Tens of thousands of mostly Soviet citizens who were left in Western hands after World War II as prisoners of war, along with Cossack soldiers and others fleeing Eastern Europe and communism, were forced to return to the Soviet Union after the signing of a postwar repatriation agreement among the Allies. On return, however, the refugees were imprisoned or executed, because Stalin had condemned them as traitors.

Summary of Event

Among the agreements made by the Allied leaders at the Yalta Conference near the close of World War II was one for the repatriation of persons displaced by the war, particularly prisoners of war. On the surface the agreement, called the Agreement Relating to Prisoners of War and Civilians Liberated by Forces Operating Under Soviet Command and Forces Operating Under United States of America Command (February 11, 1945), seemed innocent enough, a humanitarian effort to get people safely back to their homeland now that the war was near its end. However, the Allies failed to comprehend the suspicious and cruel mind of their ally from the east, Joseph Stalin. The leader of the Soviet Union had mastered the technique of presenting himself as a wise and gentle visionary leader, the father of his people, while at the same time committing atrocities against those very people. The Western press praised his Moscow Trials of 1936 and 1937 as models of Soviet justice, when in fact they were rigged from the very beginning. Thus it was easy to convince U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill that Stalin would welcome home Soviet citizens stranded abroad by the depredations of the Nazis. Operation Keelhaul World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war Human rights;Soviet Union Treason;Soviet Union [kw]Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation (Feb. 11, 1945) [kw]Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation, Soviet (Feb. 11, 1945) [kw]Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation, Soviet Exiles and (Feb. 11, 1945) [kw]Repatriation, Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into (Feb. 11, 1945) Operation Keelhaul World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war Human rights;Soviet Union Treason;Soviet Union [g]Europe;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [g]Soviet Union;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [c]Human rights;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [c]World War II;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] [c]Military history;Feb. 11, 1945: Soviet Exiles and Prisoners of War are Forced into Repatriation[01400] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;human rights Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Soviet Union[Soviet Union] Vlasov,Andrey

To Stalin, many of the refugees were dangerous because they had been exposed to foreigners and foreign influence, including new ideas and new possibilities. Thus, Stalin decreed that all Soviet citizens who were former prisoners of war were also traitors because they “failed” to hold their ground to the very death. He called for their execution or for their perpetual exile to Siberia.

The number of Soviet prisoners of war was great because whole divisions had been encircled and captured in the chaotic early days of the war, largely because of the incompetence of the top-level leadership. The final purges of the Great Terror had gutted the army, for Stalin believed that Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the other truly talented leaders intended to conduct a coup against him. The leaders he kept alive were largely his old friends from the Russian civil war, who proved utterly inadequate fighting the Germans.

The large numbers of returning prisoners of war, even allowing for the vast numbers who had died as a result of mistreatment by the Nazis, could be considered a silent indictment of the quality of the Red Army’s leadership, something Stalin could not tolerate. When the mass repatriations of prisoners of war began, about one hundred processing stations were created along the borders of the Soviet Union. Agents of the Soviet secret police determined which returnees were to be shot on the spot as traitors and which were merely to be shipped to Siberia.

Prisoners of war were not the only repatriates. In addition to the soldiers who had been captured in those first catastrophic weeks of the invasion of the Soviet Union, there were large numbers of people Refugees;Soviets who had fled the Soviet Union before the war and who had become enmeshed in the Nazi system. Also, thousands of people were fleeing Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. These exiles included whole communities of Cossacks Cossacks previously loyal to the czar who had fled into Eastern Europe early in the war and subsequently fought for the Nazis. The Cossack fighters believed that aiding the Nazis was the lesser of two evils, and they hoped for a chance to destroy the Soviet system that had destroyed their old way of life. When it was announced that the Cossacks had to return to the Soviet Union under the terms of the repatriation agreements, they resisted, often violently. Others went on hunger strikes to protest the prospect of being handed over to Stalin. Their plight attracted the attention of such luminaries as British king George VI and Geoffrey Francis Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury. However, these pleas for a humanitarian exception went mostly unnoticed, and the Cossacks were returned to the Soviet Union by force. Even British troops fired on those who attempted to escape through the woods.

The returning former prisoners then had to face the Russian Liberation Army. During the early hopeless months of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, many captives considered the Nazis not as enemies but as liberators who would free them from Stalin’s tyranny. Among them was General Andrey Vlasov, a capable young officer who had been catapulted into high position by the purges that had murdered older, more senior officers. He was painfully aware of how Stalin had gutted the Red Army, and when the Nazis offered him an opportunity to fight against Stalin, he accepted the leadership of the Russian forces in the Wehrmacht. It is difficult to determine how many of the soldiers under him joined the Russian Liberation Army because they held a deep and burning desire to destroy Stalin or how many joined because doing so got them out of the hellish conditions of the prisoner-of-war camps. These questions did not matter either to the Allies or to Stalin. The Allies saw them as treacherous enemies and Stalin saw them as traitors because they had fought for the Nazis. Thousands of them were shot immediately on entering Soviet territory. Vlasov was given a secret trial sometime in July of 1946. Although some accounts claim that he was shot, others claim that the “honorable” penalty of being shot was considered too good for a turncoat and he was instead hanged, with the drop being made deliberately short so that he would endure a slow and painful death by strangulation.


As the full implications of the prisoners of war agreement became known in the West, it became a matter of great contention, particularly for the conservative elements who considered Roosevelt to have betrayed Eastern Europe to Stalin. Others considered the agreement a great shame to the U.S. military, who obeyed the orders to send the refugees back to their homeland, particularly given that the refugees themselves were so clearly opposed to their repatriation. All involved believed that the U.S. leadership should have suspected that something was amiss, that Stalin’s intention regarding the repatriation of prisoners were not motivated by benign humanitarianism. In fact, there is some evidence that a number of U.S. and British leaders knew what Stalin really intended but did not wish to put their own prisoners of war, stranded in Soviet-held territory, at risk by playing political hardball. Operation Keelhaul World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];prisoners of war Human rights;Soviet Union Treason;Soviet Union

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Knopf, 2004. An examination of the workings of Stalin’s inner circle, particularly the way in which Stalin frequently used his followers to deflect blame for his atrocities away from himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perlmutter, Amos. FDR and Stalin: A Not So Grand Alliance, 1943-1945. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. A study of the relationship between Roosevelt and Stalin during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polian, Pavel. Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR. Translated by Anna Yastrzhembska. New York: Central European University Press, 2004. First published in 2001, this comprehensive study of forced migration and repatriation to and from the Soviet Union includes discussion of the repatriations following World War II. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seaton, Albert. The Horsemen of the Steppes: The Story of the Cossacks. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985. A history of the Cossacks, from their origins in the cultural collision between the Tatars and the Russians, through the great peasant rebellions, to the postrevolution flights west, to the attempts to forcibly repatriate those who had fought for the Nazis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Secret Betrayal. New York: Scribner, 1978. The most extensive account available in English of the forced repatriations. A highly controversial work that presents the story of the deaths of the repatriates to the Western world. Published as Victims of Yalta in 1977.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ure, John. The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. An accessible history of the Cossacks, their explorations, and their rebellions, particularly of interest since it includes material only available since the fall of the Soviet Union, which gave Western scholars access to previously secret archives.

World War II: European Theater

Warsaw Ghetto Armed Uprising Against Nazis

V-E Day Marks the End of World War II in Europe

Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech

Soviets Escalate Persecution of Jews

United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide

East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statute Is Approved

Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

Death of Stalin

Refugee Relief Act

United Nations Drafts a Convention on Stateless Persons

Categories: History