Accessibility links

Breaking News

Raoul Wallenberg Case: Establishing Historical Truth Is A Marathon, Lawyer Says

Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. He died in a Soviet prison.

Relatives of wartime Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg have pledged to appeal a Moscow district court decision that denied their demand that Russia's secret services release documents related to Wallenberg's death while in the custody of Josef Stalin's secret police.

Lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who is representing the Wallenberg family in the case, told RFE/RL that the court's decision last week was "unlawful and cynical" and said the plaintiffs will appeal the decision through the Russian courts and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights.

"Cases involving the search for historical truth -- if you'll allow a sports metaphor -- are not sprints but marathons," Pavlov said. "We knew from the beginning that we would have to run a long distance and we prepared for that. We are ready."

Moscow's Mechchansky District Court on September 18 rejected a request from the Wallenberg family to compel the Federal Security Service (FSB) -- as the successor to the Soviet-era KGB and other security agencies -- to provide uncensored documents that could shed light on Wallenberg's fate, which remains one of the enduring mysteries of the postwar period.

The court accepted the FSB's argument that revealing the documents would violate the privacy of other people mentioned in them. The FSB also argued that it was not technically the successor agency to the Stalin-era secret police, even though it controls the archives of those agencies.

A memorial bust of Raoul Wallenberg in Moscow
A memorial bust of Raoul Wallenberg in Moscow

Wallenberg was Sweden's special envoy to Budapest during World War II. Hungary was a German ally but was nonetheless occupied by the Nazis in 1944. Over the next year, virtually the entire Jewish population was rounded up and sent to death camps. Wallenberg is credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing them passports and sheltering them in Swedish diplomatic buildings. When the Red Army arrived in Budapest, Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet secret police together with his driver, Vilmos Langfelder, on January 17, 1945, and taken to Moscow. What happened after that remains a mystery.

In 1957, the Soviets said Wallenberg died of "a heart attack" in the police prison on Lubyanka Square on July 17, 1947. His body was supposedly "cremated without autopsy." In 1989, the Soviet Union returned Wallenberg's passport and other personal possessions to Sweden, saying they had been found during the remodeling of a storeroom.

A Russian government investigation headed by Vyacheslav Nikonov -- the grandson of Stalinist Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov -- determined that Wallenberg was executed in 1947, a version that was confirmed by former Soviet Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev in 2000.

The same year, the Soviet government officially "rehabilitated" Wallenberg and Langfelder as "victims of political repression." Periodically, unconfirmed reports of sightings of Wallenberg by former Soviet gulag prisoners have emerged, many of which were collected by legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

The position of the FSB and the government is never to give anything in general. They want to keep all information that relates to our historical memory in an atmosphere of total secrecy, no matter what."
-- Lawyer Ivan Pavlov

According to Canadian human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler in 1990, two men had reported seeing Wallenberg at a Soviet prison between Moscow and Leningrad as late as November 1987. Cotler was part of an international investigation into the Wallenberg case that was promised access to the Stalin-era secret-police documents, but never received them.

Russian journalist Aleksei Kartsev told The New York Times in 1990 -- using words that call to mind Pavlov's metaphor of the sprint and the marathon -- that trying to get documents from the KGB "is a process of water wearing away stone."

During that 1990 probe, however, one fascinating document emerged indicating that Langfelder was interrogated on July 23, 1945, and that the same day another prisoner was questioned who was only identified as "Prisoner No. 7." Wallenberg's relatives believe that Wallenberg was this mysterious prisoner and that the document proves he was alive at least six days after the Soviets said he had died.

Pavlov told RFE/RL he was certain the FSB archives contain information about Wallenberg's fate.

"Just like now, in the 1940s, remand prisons were regimented institutions where any movement of a detainee was documented and a note was made in the appropriate logbooks," Pavlov said. "This happens when a detainee is moved from one cell to another, when they are taken for questioning, when they are moved from one prison to another."

The FSB refused to release those log entries, citing the privacy rights of "third parties."

Pavlov said the legal protection of personal confidentiality expires in the 2020-22 period.

"But I am sure that by then the FSB will think up some new excuses to avoid making the information public," Pavlov said.

What is missing now is what has been missing from the beginning, Pavlov said -- "political will."

"The position of the FSB and the government is never to give anything in general," Pavlov said. "They want to keep all information that relates to our historical memory in an atmosphere of total secrecy, no matter what. Because if you give out even just a little, it just leads to requests for further information and, in the end, you have to open up all the archives -- something that I'm sure our secret services would like to avoid."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov