After the Soviet armed forces liberated most of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis in 1944 and 1945, the Soviet Union started slowly but surely to assert its influence in the country. Post-war Czechoslovakia was still a country with democratic institutions and free elections. The end of democracy was to come in 1948 when the communists took over, but the first signs of what was to come appeared much earlier...
Vladimir Bystrov of the "Oni byli prvni" or "They were the first" association, founded by the few survivors and the descendants of Czechoslovak citizens abducted to the Soviet Union. The name of the organisation refers to the fact that those victims of Soviet organised terror were the first victims of communism on Czechoslovak territory.
Those abducted from what is now the Czech Republic were mostly Russian refugees, people who had escaped from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Many of them were intellectuals, scholars and army officers. The Soviets carefully monitored their activities and when they came to liberate Czechoslovakia in late 1944, the Soviet secret police had a list of people they were after. The Czechoslovak government never protested against their arrest and deportation.
"The pseudo-democratic Czechoslovak state failed because it only looked on as the abductions took place and did little against them. The state did not even protest. It was a disease of the time, one of many troubles which no one paid much attention to. Czechoslovakia declared itself as a democratic state but it fell short of that definition. Historically it is not right to say that the communists came in 1948. No, they came much earlier and acted much earlier."
Vladimir Bystrov, himself a son of one of the deportees, admits the 1940s were difficult times and many people simply were not aware of the horrors of Stalinism.
"It was a very confused time. For example, the allies, mainly the British, sent refugees fleeing from the Soviet Union back into the hands of the Soviets. The Americans were somewhat hesitant but still they advised the fleeing Russians to simply overthrow Stalin in the next elections. It was a total misunderstanding."
Nobody really knows how many people were abducted from what is now the Czech Republic; around a thousand, maybe more, maybe less. The organisation "Oni byli prvni" managed to document a few hundred cases. Only around 60-80 victims came back to what is now the Czech Republic. The deportations continued in the period between 1948 and 1955, after the communist takeover. But then people were no longer abducted, but were officially handed over to the Russians by the Czechoslovak secret police. Vladimir Bystrov.
"In Slovakia, which is an independent country now, it was tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who were deported to Soviet labour camps. People from the Czech lands were arrested and put in Soviet prison camps. Those people were classified as counterrevolutionaries - allegedly they could jeopardise Soviet interests in Czechoslovakia. They were right-wing politicians, anti-Bolshevik Russian émigrés, Ukrainian nationalists etc."
These were people who, often without a trial, spent years far away from their adopted homeland, in Soviet forced labour camps. Many of them never came back; none of them, nor their descendants received any moral or financial compensation from the abductors. The organisation "Oni byli prvni" was established after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia to draw attention to the issue. Vladimir Bystrov says the Czech state did not turn them down.
"The state has been very cooperative. It never denied what had happened. In 1995 parliament adopted a declaration in which it apologised to all victims and relatives of the abducted citizens for what had happened to them. In 2002 parliament approved a law on compensation for victims and their widows and children. It is one of the most progressive laws as regards compensation for victims of communism."
The abducted were sent to labour camps alongside convicted criminals. All correspondence with the outside world was prohibited, so in most cases their families had no contact with them until their return or death. To this day, some of the families do not know anything about the fate of their relatives. Vladimir Bystrov says that no new findings can be expected any time soon.
"We have to live in the bitter knowledge that the hope of finding anything more than we already know from the archives of the former Soviet Union is faint. What is also difficult for us is that while media and politicians - with the exception of communists - are aware of the historic reality, there are still people who refuse to understand what happened here. They are still convinced that Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet Union and if the Soviets prosecuted someone, they had a good reason for it."
It's become clear that no compensation can be expected from the former Soviet Union. In a law, passed two years ago, the Czech Republic assumed responsibility for redemption of the tragic events, admitting that post-war Czechoslovakia failed to prevent foreign powers from abducting its citizens from their own homes. Vladimir Bystrov says Czechoslovakia then closed its eyes to the fate of its own people.
"It's not about what the Soviet Union wanted to do and maybe had a moral right to do. It is the fact that nowhere in the modern world does one state have a right to perform jurisdiction over citizens of another state without the country's consent."
Since 1995, the Office for Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes has published studies documenting the communist era. Its latest publication, called "The Abductions of Czechoslovak Citizens to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1955", written by Vladimir Bystrov, is available free of charge from the body.
More information is available on the Interior Ministry's website http://www.mvcr.cz/udv.