The story of the Swedish businessman and diplomat Raoul G. Wallenberg (1912-1947?) seamlessly links the two defining events of the 20th Century, the Holocaust and the Cold War. Young and idealistic, he fought one totalitarian regime (Nazism) only to fall victim to another (Stalinism).
At the end of WWII, Wallenberg showed extraordinary courage when he embarked on a humanitarian mission – initiated and funded in large part by the U.S. War Refugee Board – to protect the remaining Jewish communities in Hungary from Nazi persecution. During six harrowing months in 1944, Wallenberg and his colleagues managed to protect thousands of Budapest’s Jews from deportation and certain death. In January 1945 Wallenberg was detained by advancing Soviet military forces and taken to Moscow where he disappeared.
Soviet and later Russian authorities have claimed that Wallenberg died suddenly in a Moscow prison on July 17, 1947, as a result of a heart attack. The information has never been confirmed.
In 1981, in recognition of his unique courage and accomplishments, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation proclaiming Raoul Wallenberg an Honorary Citizen of the United States. At the time, it was only the second time this honor had been bestowed on a foreigner, after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Although the Soviet state ceased to exist twenty-six years ago, Raoul Wallenberg’s family still has not received answers to their most pressing questions: Why was Raoul Wallenberg arrested and why was he never released? And what exactly happened to him in the summer of 1947, after his trail breaks off in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison?
Many other crucial gaps remain in the official Wallenberg case record. The continued existence of these ‚white spots‘ is in and of itself revealing. Aside from documentation that could answer the question of what exactly happened to Raoul Wallenberg in Soviet imprisonment, these also include questions about Wallenberg’s personal and professional connections before going to Budapest; his selection for the humanitarian mission in 1944; his ties to his famous relatives, the Wallenberg family (especially the bankers Marcus and Jacob Wallenberg, his cousins once removed); and Raoul Wallenberg’s activities and contacts in Hungary in 1944.
In 2001, an official bilateral Swedish-Russian Working Group concluded its ten year investigation without obtaining full clarity of Wallenberg’s disappearance. Unfortunately, many of the documents released by the Russian side of the Working Group were heavily censored and important collections remained altogether inaccessible to independent researchers. Since 2001, a number of researchers have continued a dialogue with archivists of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). As a direct result of these contacts, new documentation has emerged from Russian archives that had not been made available previously. This includes information that Raoul Wallenberg may have been held as „Prisoner no. 7“ in Lubyanka Prison and that he was interrogated on July 22-23, 1947, a full six days after his official death date. In spite of repeated requests, Russian officials have not permitted independent researchers or Raoul Wallenberg’s family access to verify the information and to pursue additional inquiries.
The emergence of this and other new information underscores the fact that important material with direct relevance to the question of Wallenberg’s fate continues to be found in key Russian archival collections, especially those of the former Soviet State Security and Intelligence Services. It also serves to shatter the myth that, contrary to official Russian claims, the mystery of his disappearance can be solved.
In the autumn of 2016, Raoul Wallenberg’s family and a delegation of the RWI-70 traveled to Moscow to submit to Russian authorities a comprehensive list of the most urgent questions and pending requests in the Raoul Wallenberg case. Until today, no access to these files has been granted to the family or independent researchers, in direct violation of current Russian and international law.
In Russia, independent historical review has become close to impossible and obtaining direct access to archival documentation continues to pose a major problem. The restrictive trend started already back in 1993, when the Russian parliament enacted the Russian Law on State Secrets which resulted in the re-classification of numerous previously opened archival collections.
On April 4, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin actually signed a decree stating that from this day forward, the Russian federal archives that belong to the centralized Rosarchive system (including the Archive of Socio-political History [RGASPI], The State Archive of the Russian Federation [GARF] and Russian State Military Archive [RGVA]), are placed under his personal control. (See “Putin: Rosarchive will be transferred under direct control by President.” TASS. April 4, 2016; in Russian)
The Kremlin apparently feels that revelation of the truth about historically sensitive cases like that of Raoul Wallenberg or Katyn (the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II) runs counter to its current policy of promoting only “useful” history, meaning the presentation of historical events in ways that serve to reinforce President Putin’s idea of a strong, powerful Russia.
In addition, the recently revived [Tsarist era] Imperial Historical Society has promoted an „All-Russian Cultural View“ and „a single view of history.“ Russian school text books regularly celebrate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s leadership in the defeat of Nazi Germany, while failing to mention anything about his role in the genocide of millions of Soviet citizens during government ordered purges.
One of the hallmarks of democratic societies is that they value and protect the rights of every individual person. In Russia, where civil liberties have been under serious assault for years, Team 29, a group of young legal professionals and journalists, has been at the forefront of this battle, regularly defending these rights in Russian courts and in the country’s media. Taking their name from Article 29 of the Russian Constitution (which guarantees Russian citizens the right of freedom of expression), they represent ordinary citizens who find themselves accused and convicted of the most grievous crimes, such as espionage or treason, for simple acts like forwarding a job application to a foreign company or criticizing Russian governmental policies in an SMS sent to a friend. Team 29 also continues to assist historians who challenge Russian authorities to comply with existing laws governing privacy, secrecy and access to historical records.
In 2012, Team 29’s representation of Russian historian Nikita Petrov who challenged the refusal by the Russian State Security Services (FSB) to release specific historical records for the years 1946 until 1956, led to a potentially groundbreaking decision by Russia’s Constitutional Court. The court sided with Petrov, stating that historical documents generally should not be classified more than thirty years. The work of the RWI-70 aims to test and build on this decision.
In 2017 Team 29 successfully defended the historian Boris Sokolov against charges of slander when he publicly challenged the provenance and some of the information contained in the recently published memoir of the former Chairman of the KGB, Ivan Serov.
Still, human rights defenders, journalists as well as historians working in Russia today face enormous pressure. Both foreign and Russian scholars continue to pursue their research, often under very difficult circumstances. That is why a joint, international effort in the Raoul Wallenberg case, in close cooperation with Russian historians and legal representatives, offers the best chance for success. Russian authorities are facing rising demands to show that the rule of law is still a reality in the country. Also, official international bodies are beginning to actively support our efforts, increasing public and diplomatic pressure. A good example is the official Resolution that was introduced in the U.S. Congress (House of Representatives) by U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen earlier this year, which requests the U.S. President to demand from the Russian government the release of all information that can serve to fully clarify Raoul Wallenberg’s fate.