Russia and the U.S. working together to lay war dead of past to rest

The Russian Commission on POW/MIAs has opened an office in Washington, bringing cooperation between the two countries closer on locating soldiers declared missing in action in various wars in the 20th century, from WWII to the Gulf War.

A Russian soldier with an Araldo accordion is posing with an American G.I. during a meeting of soldiers from both armies in Torgau, Germany, 26th April 1945. Source: Ullstein bild / Vostockphoto

In Russia, it is said that a war is not over until the last soldier lost in it is found. Following that logic, Russia and the United States are setting aside their differences and working together to find soldiers that went missing in World War II and the subsequent conflicts of the cold war.

Last week a corner was turned in bilateral cooperation in this area, which Russia and the U.S. initiated back in 1992 - the Russian Commission on POW/MIAs opened an office in Washington.

The commission’s Executive Secretary Andrei Taranov told the press that the Russian representative office’s tasks will include working with the U.S. to establish “the fate of Russian prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action, or soldiers killed in the line of duty.”

“Today the fate of Russian citizens who went missing in wars in armed conflicts remains unknown – over 2.7 million people during World War II, more than 130 in Afghanistan, over 50 in South Korea, more than 300 in the North Caucasus region, and two in the zone of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in August 2008,” Taranov said.

According to the U.S. Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, more than 83,000 Americans are still unaccounted for from World War II (73,524 of whom are soldiers), the Korean War (7,875), the Cold War (126), the Vietnam War (1,639), and the 1991 Gulf War (six).

The opening of the Russian Commission on POW/MIAs in Washington was met with enthusiasm by Russian searchers and the expert community. In an interview with RBTH, Deputy Chairman of the Union of Russian Search Groups Rashid Ismailov said that this event “will give a new impulse and a new format to joint efforts,” noting that searchers are very interested in getting access to documents from the German archives, which were removed - in the form of copies and microfilms - from the American zone of occupation in post-war Germany.

“There is information on POWs there, including Soviet POWs from concentration camps, the majority of which were in the U.S. zone of occupation. There may be data on some 3 million people in those archives,” said Ismailov.

Children look at a POW-MIA flag installed in support of captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan U.S. soldier, in Hailey, Idaho, June 21, 2013. Source: AP

Historian Alexander Vershinin, who is an expert at the Center for the Study of Society in Crisis, said Russia is interested in cooperating with the U.S. in this field.

“After World War II, the main mass of documentation from the German High Command, the Reich’s Ministry of Industry, and concentration camp management settled in America. Now it is stored at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,” he said.

“There is also an even more unique body of sources there – the archive of the Imperial Japanese Army. Whereas the German documents are available to us, at least partially, thanks to the activities of the Soviet Army’s trophy brigades in 1945, the Japanese materials were removed to the U.S. almost in their entirety.”

“That means that all of the information about the soldiers we lost in the Russo-Japanese War, in the Battle of Lake Khasan, and the battles of Khalkhin Gol is located overseas,” said Vershinin.

Russia and the U.S. started collaborating on March 26, 1992, with the foundation of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs during a meeting between the heads of state. According to a report recently published by the commission, since then it has been able to learn of the fates of around 450,000 Soviet soldiers from World War II.

The commission has accessed more than 6,000 documents on Soviet POWs and casualties, information on the burials of Soviet troops in Finland, and data on aerial combat by Soviet and American pilots during World War II. With respect to the Korean War, the U.S. helped Russia locate 43 of 45 missing Soviet pilots.

American (left) and Russian soldiers shake hands on April 24, 1945 at the destroyed bridge over river Elbe as both troops meet at Torgau, Germany. Source: DPA/AFP/East-News

In addition, the commission clarified information about unaccounted-for Soviet soldiers during Cold War conflicts; in particular, the U.S. provided Russia with data about 163 missing soldiers in Afghanistan. 

In the summer of 2009, Russia sent more than 400 pages of evidence on captured soldiers from the Russian State Military Archive to the U.S.

According to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, these documents “contain information on American POWs during the World War II period and include, among other items, German criminal police bulletins on the search for escaped POWs of various nationalities, and the search for POWs and civilians used in forced labor, indicating burial sites, registration cards, and other documents.”

Furthermore, Russia provided the U.S. with hundreds of documents from the Military Medicine Archive in St. Petersburg regarding the treatment of American troops in Soviet military hospitals, as well as materials on American POW pilots during the Korean War.

This information allowed the U.S. “to communicate information to 264 families of soldiers missing in action in 359 separate cases.” Russia also gave the U.S. 356 extracts of secret documents containing information on U.S. military aircraft downed in the Vietnam War.

Russia-U.S. cooperation will allow the two countries to take a fresh look at several historical episodes, military historian Major General Vladimir Zolotarev said.

“At first, the Americans insisted that American prisoners of war were redeployed en masse in the USSR during the Korean War. Russian experts provided them with the opportunity to study thousands of documents from that time, to visit dozens of places of detention, and to question around 400 witnesses and participants in the events. Now no one mentions a ‘mass’ exportation [of U.S. soldiers to the USSR],” the expert said. 

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