Lienz at 70 – a Tragedy Neither Moscow Nor the West Wants to Acknowledge

June 8, 2015

Staunton, June 7 – In these days 70 years ago, British forces forcibly returned to Soviet control more than 30,000 Cossacks and other Russians at the Austrian city of Lienz. Many but far from all fought on the German side during the war. At Yalta, Stalin demanded their return, and the Western allies agreed fearful he might not return Allied personnel in his hands.

Many of those handed over had nothing to do with German forces, and not a few of those the British herded into the Soviet hands committed suicide or tried to, very much aware of what their fate would be if they were handed over. And the fate of those who were confirmed their fears: some were executed, and most of the rest were sent to the GULAG and an early death.

Not surprisingly, this is not an event either Western leaders or Russian ones want to talk about, the former because they are ashamed of what they did but find it hard to talk about the complexities of the fate of Russians and Cossacks; and the latter because Moscow can’t attack the West without admitting its responsibility for a massive violation of international law.

That is all the more so in both bases because the Lienz Tragedy was only part of a much larger horror: The Western allies handed over to Stalin approximately two million people, many of whom had not fought for the Germans and were sent back against their will, again in most cases to suffer and die at Soviet hands.

But for the Cossacks, the Lienz Tragedy is a singular event, one that defines in large measure how they view the world, and consequently, it is not surprising that this year, on the round anniversary, the horrors of what happened on the River Drau 70 years ago have been the occasion for recollections and actions.

Cossack communities outside of Russia, along with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, took the lead in marking this sad anniversary by erecting a chapel at the site of the Lienz Tragedy ( and thus giving new impetus to the maintenance and revival of the Cossacks around the world.

Not surprisingly, Western governments said little about what for them is a long ago event they would prefer to forget. But for the Russian government of Vladimir Putin, the events of 1945 are not ancient history but rather a touchstone for Moscow’s actions, including preventing Cossacks from going to Lienz and raiding a Cossack museum in Podolsk.

Border control troops at Domodedovo defaced the passport of Cossack activist Vladimir Melikhova and then after they had done so declared that his passport was not in order and that he could not travel abroad. Other Russian siloviki [law-enforcers] then raided his museum devoted to the Don Cossack struggle with the Bolsheviks after 1917.

It might be comforting to some to think that these two actions are random, but tragically, they aren’t: they are part of a new Moscow campaign to subordinate all Cossacks within Russia and abroad to Moscow’s command and to declare any who do not submit “enemies of the people.”

To that end, Russian officials have played up divisions within the Cossack and neo-Cossack communities of Russia, played games with the laws on Cossacks, demanded that all Cossacks become Orthodox even though many are Buddhist or Muslim, and sought to disorder Cossacks abroad by appointing its own people as their representatives rather than allowing these Cossack groups to represent themselves.

That list can be easily extended, but it proves what Melikhov says: Once again, Moscow is viewing genuine as opposed to totally controlled ones as its enemies just as Soviet forces did in the 1920s and thereafter. Given the image of the Cossacks cultivated in the West, many people there are likely to view this Kremlin action as somehow appropriate or justified.

But the anniversary of the tragedy of Lienz, which highlights the complexities of Cossack and Russian life in the 20th century, should be an occasion not for new repression or its tolerance but for reflection that what is happening to Cossacks in Russia now is but the latest turn in a Soviet-style wheel that crushed so many Cossacks and others over the last 100 years.