The U.S. Defense Department is calling on Russia to open more archives from the Soviet era in order to fully answer questions about American servicemen allegedly held in Soviet prisons after World War II. A joint U.S.-Russian commission has been working on the issue for nearly 13 years, and has made some progress, but in a new report the American side says the Russians need to do more.
The records are more than 50 years old. No one knows how many men may have been held, and all are likely dead by now. The government that allegedly held them doesn't exist any more. But the U.S. government wants an accounting, and so do the families of the missing American soldiers.
"In a perfect world, we would like the Russians to open up all the records of the former Soviet Union, especially KGB records," said Lynn O'Shea, the Research Director of the National Alliance of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.
"We believe that their prison records will hold a lot of clues as to what may have happened to the servicemen that were moved into the Soviet Union after World War II and Korea," she added.
According to the families' group and the new Defense Department report, an unknown number of American servicemen were held in the notorious Soviet gulag system. There is evidence, some from claimed eyewitness sightings, but the Defense Department says it will never know for sure until the Russian government provides unrestricted access to the old Soviet archives.
"What we're trying to do is gain access to archives which until this point have been inaccessible," said Norman Kass, a Russia expert in the Department's office of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action affairs. "We believe that a lot of the historical record that would allow us to account for these various reports resides within the closed holdings of archives that have been established and maintained by the security apparatus of the previous regime, the Soviet Union."
But a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, George Borisenko, says much
access has already been granted, and teams of American investigators have visited many parts of Russia to check local records, interview people and take physical evidence. He says not a single document has been found proving that even one American soldier was ever held in a Soviet prison camp.
"Russia has given big access to different military and prison archives," said Mr. Borisenko. "As far as I know, until now neither American nor Russian researchers could find any really credible and document-based information that any U.S. soldiers had been transferred to the Soviet Union after being taken prisoners of war in Korea or in Vietnam, for instance."
Nor from World War II either, according to the Russian spokesman.
"There are many questions, many rumors, much unconfirmed information based on some memories of some people, but as far as I know not the documents themselves," he said.
And U.S. officials agree. That's why they want more access to the Soviet records.
Washington Post journalist Anne Applebaum, who won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction last year for her book called Gulag: A History, says while the Russians may have opened many archives to U.S. researchers, such as herself, there are many more that are closed, or tightly restricted, including the records of the Soviet military and the KBG secret police.
"While the archives of the Gulag system, the administrative archives, have been fairly open to researchers, the military archives are extremely difficult to use," said Ms. Applebaum. "And I would not be surprised if the people we're talking about were in the military system that the Russians, even not at the highest levels but at the lower levels of the archives, might have made access difficult for American researchers."
Now that the U.S. Department of Defense has concluded that Americans were held in the gulags, and called for unrestricted access to the Soviet records, officials hope the Russian government will be more forthcoming. But the Russian spokesman, Mr. Borisenko, says he does not know what additional records the Americans want to see.
Norman Kass of the Defense Department's office dealing with the issue, says the Russian position has always been not to acknowledge even the possibility that American military prisoners were transferred to Soviet prisons from Germany, Korea or Vietnam. But he disagrees with those who conclude that after nearly 13 years the Russian position is not going to change.
"If one were to approach it from the standpoint of behavior to date, I could certainly see where that conclusion could be drawn," said Mr. Kass. "I frankly don't subscribe to it. I think our job to continue to press the case on why we believe more needs to be done, more records need to be made available."
Mr. Kass says his office will continue to work through the joint commission to try to convince the Russians to provide more access, and he disagrees with family members like Lynn O'Shea, who say the issue should be moved to a higher level.
"What we would like to happen now is that the United States government raise this to the highest level [of] negotiations, one country to the other, with the clear stipulation that we do not hold the Russian government responsible for what was done by the leaders of the former Soviet Union," added Ms. O'Shea.
The Russian spokesman, Mr. Borisenko, says his side wants to continue working on the issue of missing soldiers through the commission. He says there are millions of Russians missing from World War Two whose fates may be contained in old Nazi records now held by the Americans.
But journalist Anne Applebaum says even with that motivation, and the stipulation that Russian officials will not be held responsible for what happened in the past, the Russians can not be counted on to welcome U.S. Defense Department researchers into their most sensitive archives with open arms.
"The Russian government has inherited not only the archives which it now controls, the Soviet archives, but it has inherited some of the Soviet mentality," she said. "So there is a tendency to keep things more secret even when they don't have to be secret.
"And the current government, particularly the current leadership, which is led by a group of people who were formerly in the KGB, are very sensitive about the past because they feel that new discoveries about the past might implicate them," continued Ms. Applebaum. "So I would doubt very much whether the Russian archivists would be happily giving away everything they have to the American military."
The next major American push for more access to the Soviet archives will come in May, when the U.S.- Russian Joint Commission has its next meeting in Moscow. Lynn O'Shea of the family group hopes the Russian side will open the records as a humanitarian gesture to enable the families of missing servicemen to finally know whether their loved ones were held in Soviet gulags, or not.