Prisoners of War, Soviet

   The Wehrmacht captured more than 4.4 million Soviet forces, most in the dark days of 1941–1942. More than a million of these died of hunger and disease in 1941–1942. Joseph Stalin’s son Yakov, a junior officer, was captured and later killed while trying to escape from a German camp. Many senior Soviet officers formed resistance cells inside prison camps. Major General I. M. Shepetov, captured at Kharkov in the spring of 1942, was executed in a Nazi concentration camp a year later for organizing Soviet prisoners.
   The fate of former prisoners of war who returned to their own lines was horrific. The Soviet Union—like Nazi Germany—was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention. Soviet law held that there was no reason for a soldier to be captured by the enemy, and there were strict punishments for the families of those who voluntarily went over to the German side. Those who escaped from German captivity and made their way back to Soviet lines were often treated with suspicion, and some were executed for desertion. Aleksandr Yakovlev, a decorated war hero, noted: “A serviceman taken prisoner was regarded as having committed a premeditated crime. Soviet soldiers and commanding officers who had broken out of encirclements were treated as potential traitors and spies.” The end of the war thus presented a major challenge to the regime: what to do with those who had been imprisoned by the Nazi enemy, and—however, unwilling— had seen the West.
   More than 1.8 million former prisoners of war and 3.5 million civilians drafted as slave laborers returned to Russian hands in 1945–1947. (Almost 500,000 Soviet citizens remained in the West, including 160,000 former prisoners of war.) All former prisoners and forced laborers were put through “filtration” camps run by Smersh and the NKVD. Of those in the military, 339,000 were sentenced to death or 25 years hard labor in the gulag. Another 145,000 received six-year sentences in special regime camps. Other soldiers were sentenced to internal exile, to work in eastern Siberia or the Far North. Civilians were not completely forgiven: many had their passports stamped with the note that they were forbidden to live in major European cities.
   A harsh fate awaited those who had joined the Vlasov Army, a force comprising several divisions of Russian soldiers armed by Germany to fight against the Red Army. The group had been organized by General Andrei Vlasov, the hero of the Battle of Moscow, who had been captured in 1942. Vlasov and several of his chief subordinates were hanged in the Lubyanka in 1946. A picture of the executed men hanging from gallows was found in Joseph Stalin’s desk after his death.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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