Russia still covering up fate of Wallenberg

Nearly 70 years after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet Red Army in the waning days of World War II, the circumstances surrounding his ultimate fate still remain unclear but evidence increasingly points to a Soviet cover-up.

A newly found Swedish document shows how the KGB intervened as late as the early1990s to stop an investigation into the circumstances behind Wallenberg’s disappearance, two US-based researchers said earlier this week.

Wallenberg is credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis between July and December 1944. While serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest, he issued protective passports to Jews and sheltered them in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

Wallenberg disappeared after being detained in Budapest by Soviet officials on Jan. 17, 1945.

The Russians have said he was executed on July 17, 1947, but unverified witness accounts and newly uncovered evidence suggest he may have lived beyond that date, according to the Associated Press.

Wallenberg researchers were hoping that key pieces of the puzzle regarding the diplomat’s fate would emerge when an international commission was granted access to Soviet prison records as communist rule was crumbling.

“But a document from the Swedish Foreign Ministry supports claims that the KGB – the former Soviet secret police and intelligence agency – acted to obstruct that effort, said German researcher Susanne Berger who consulted a Swedish-Russian working group that conducted a 10-year investigation until 2001,” according to the wire service.

The Sept. 16, 1991, memorandum from the Swedish Embassy in Moscow cites the former head of the Soviet “Special Archive,” Anatoly Prokopenko, as telling Swedish diplomats that the KGB instructed him to stop a search for documents by researchers working for the first International Wallenberg Commission.

Prokopenko also said the KGB wanted copies of all documents that the researchers had already viewed, according to the memo, which was made available to the Associated Press by Berger. Its authenticity was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry.

The document was significant because it illustrates how since the end of the Cold War researchers have struggled to get access to crucial documents from Soviet archives, Berger said.

“The action in 1991 has, unfortunately, proved symptomatic, rather than an exception to the rule,” Berger told the Associated Press. “Twenty years later, we are still facing this fundamental problem.”

In an interview with the wire service on Monday, Prokopenko said the researchers had been euphoric when they found an archive document on Wallenberg’s transfer from one Soviet prison to another, sharing their discovery with other members of the commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate.

“That was a mistake, the archivist implied, saying the KGB officers on the panel reacted quickly, warning authorities, and Prokopenko was immediately ordered to bar the researchers’ access to the files,” according to the AP.

Prokopenko said he complied because he was working to open the archives to the public, taking advantage of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms, and realized that open disobedience would lead to his immediate ouster.

“I had to make a sacrifice for the sake of uncovering numerous other secrets of the archive,” Prokopenko said.

He added that following a brief period of openness before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, authorities have grown increasingly reluctant to allow public access to the archives.

“The situation has grown worse, and even the files that were opened to the public in 1991-1992 were classified again later,” he said.

The Swedish government declassified parts of the memo after Prokopenko mentioned the KGB interference in an 1997 article in a Russian newspaper, but it didn’t become publicly known until Berger obtained it this month.

Wallenberg, who would have turned 100 this year, was arrested the day after the Red Army seized Budapest, along with his Hungarian driver Vilmos Langfelder. The Russians have never explained why they detained the pair.

Russian scholar Vadim Birstein, one of the researchers working for the first Wallenberg commission, told the Associated Press they had just found some previously unknown documents when the archive was closed to them in the spring of 1991.

“We were stopped exactly after I found three documents: two with the name Wallenberg on it and one with the name Langfelder – and (the authorities) said they weren’t hiding anything!”

Birstein and Berger, who are based in the US, said that though they and other researchers have since been granted access to study some Wallenberg files, important archive material has still not been made available.

“At the key junctures, the doors have remained closed,” Berger said, noting that even the first piece of material that was handed over by the Russians in 1991, and was meant to illustrate a new openness on their side, turned out to be censored.

It concerned interrogation material suggesting that Wallenberg had been questioned on July 23, 1947, which would have been six days after his alleged death.

Russia has failed to produce a reliable death certificate or hand over Wallenberg’s remains – circumstances which have prompted researchers to continue efforts to try to tap Russian authorities for more information.

As Sweden’s envoy in Budapest from July 1944, Wallenberg not only saved 20,000 Jews by giving them Swedish travel documents or moving them to safe houses, he also dissuaded German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of the city’s ghetto.

(Above: Budapest plaque honoring Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The plaque is affixed to the wall of the building where Wallenberg was abducted by Soviet authorities in 1945.)

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