In July and August, the 75-year secrecy provisions for key records in the case of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg are set to expire. Towards the end of WWII, Wallenberg managed to save the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi persecution. In January 1945, he and his Hungarian assistant, Vilmos Langfelder, were detained by Soviet military counterintelligence (SMERSH) and taken to Moscow. Soviet and later Russia authorities have claimed that Wallenberg died suddenly of a heart attack in his prison cell in the Internal (Lubyanka) Prison on July 17, 1947. However, the full circumstances of his fate have remained unknown.
The records in question mostly consist of specific entries for the year 1947 in the prison registers of the Internal (Lubyanka) Prison in Moscow. They also concern internal correspondence and preparatory materials from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies for one of the most important records in the case of Wallenberg, the so-called “Vyshinsky Note” of August 18, 1947.
The “Vyshinsky Note,” authored by Deputy Soviet Foreign Minister Yakov Malik and signed by First Deputy NKID (People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs) Commissar Andrei Vyshinsky, stated that Raoul Wallenberg “is not in the Soviet Union and is unknown to us.”
Crucial gaps exist concerning the creation of this document, including one of Malik’s original drafts of the planned text. The missing records would provide important insights into how and when the Soviet leadership, especially then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin, decided Wallenberg’s fate. It will be interesting to see if the Russian authorities finally release the relevant documents or if they will extend the secrecy period, as they have done with other records the Kremlin deems highly sensitive.
To understand the significance of the secrecy expiration, it is important to recall that just a decade ago, real hope existed that Russian authorities would honor requests for access to certain historical records, especially those concerning victims of Stalinist repression.
In 2013, Team 29 – a now-defunct group of Russian lawyers and journalists who specialized in cases of freedom of information – secured a short-lived but memorable victory before Russia’s Constitutional Court. The court was responding to a complaint by Team 29 client Nikita Petrov, the prominent historian of the Memorial Society, known for its research of political repression in the Soviet Union. The branches of Memorial and the International Memorial Society were forced to disband earlier this year, following a decision by Russia’s Supreme Court on December 28, 2021.
Petrov was seeking access to documentation from the archives of the Russian State Security Service (FSB), dating from the 1940s and early 1950s. In its ruling, the Court stated the 30-year period of classification of documents should be applied to all documentation containing information classified as state secret.
THE RULING left important exceptions in place and was essentially voided through new legislation the following year. However, in the eyes of many observers, the decision sent an important signal. For a short moment, at least, after years of clamping down on civil liberties, it seemed that Russian courts again recognized – in very limited and restrictive form – the public’s right to information and with it, to historical truth. Historians and human rights advocates around the world took notice, including Wallenberg’s family.
During the decade-long investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance conducted by the official Swedish-Russian Working Group (1991-2000), the KGB (predecessor of the FSB) released records that confirmed Wallenberg’s presence in both Lefortovo and Lubyanka Prison during the years of 1945-47. However, the Russian side failed to disclose that an unidentified numbered prisoner – Prisoner no. 7 – had been interrogated on July 22nd and 23rd, 1947, for more than 16 ½ hours, along with Vilmos Langfelder.
The FSB archivists only revealed this information in 2009, in a formal response to one of our research inquiries. The archivists stated that, based on the strong circumstantial evidence, they believed “in great likelihood, Prisoner no. 7 is the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.”
If true, it would mean that Wallenberg was alive six full days after his official date of death. It would also mean that the official version of his fate was a lie and that as late as the 1990s, the Russian side had intentionally sabotaged the official inquiry of his case. Since then, two former FSB officials have confirmed that Wallenberg and Prisoner no. 7 are the same person. However, the FSB archivists have, so far, refused to release key records that could provide additional details and possibly point the way to finally solving the Wallenberg mystery.
After years of fruitless follow-up requests, researchers and Wallenberg’s niece, Marie Dupuy, saw no other option but to take legal action. In 2015, Dupuy contacted Team 29, founded and headed by Russian attorney Ivan Pavlov.
The group immediately agreed to represent her. After six years, their joint efforts appeared to finally yield success: In May 2021, the FSB Central Archive informed Dupuy that it was ready to welcome her in the archive reading room to review the requested information.
THE INVITATION came just as the Investigative Committee (IK) detained Pavlov on April 30, 2021, for allegedly sharing classified information in a pre-trial investigation of another client, journalist Ivan Safronov. Pavlov denied the charges, but by late summer, he announced that he had sought refuge in Georgia, because he feared immediate arrest in Russia or worse.
With the brutal crackdown on internal dissent and free speech in Russia, the few hopeful signs of 2013 are now just a faint memory. The small space that previously existed, in which Russian lawyers and their clients were able to maneuver and make themselves heard, has been completely obliterated. But not only the rights and the voices of the Russian people are being extinguished, so are the rights of foreign claimants and their families, which can only serve to enhance Russia’s growing isolation.
That is what makes the Wallenberg case so important at this moment. Despite the difficulties, Wallenberg’s family is determined to carry on their quest for answers. During the COVID pandemic, the reading room of the FSB Central Archive remained closed. Additionally, travel to Moscow was deemed too risky for foreigners, especially individuals engaged in issues concerning civil liberties and human rights.
Instead, Dupuy asked Swedish diplomatic representatives to act on her behalf. Talks with FSB officials, facilitated by the Swedish Embassy in Moscow, were ongoing when hostilities in Ukraine commenced on February 24.
Dupuy and her research team have also submitted several pending requests for access to documentation with seven other Russian archives, including the Presidential Archive (APRF). Moreover, in recent weeks, new information has emerged indicating additional documentation relevant to the Wallenberg case apparently exists in previously undisclosed collections of SMERSH and other Russian archival funds.
A positive decision would raise a faint glimmer of hope that, despite the Kremlin’s wish to control the historical narrative, Russia’s leaders still recognize the need to account for the crimes of the Stalin era and to respect the rights of victims of repression and their families to learn the truth about their fate.
Susanne Berger, founder and coordinator of the Raoul Wallenberg Research Initiative is a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal. Dr. Vadim Birstein was a member of the first International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg headed by Prof. Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg’s half-brother, in 1990-91. He authored the award-winning book SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII (2012).