Interview with Vadim Birstein by Dmitry Volchek (Radio Freedom)
1. Is it known today under what circumstances exactly Raoul Wallenberg and his driver were detained, was this a planned operation or an accident?
On January 13, 1945, together with his driver Vilmos Langfelder, he was met in the garage of the Hungarian government by intelligence officers of the 581st Rifle Regiment, that was advancing in Pest, the eastern part of Budapest, and these officers brought them to the command post of the regiment (however, according to official reports, Wallenberg “came by himself”). At the same time, Wallenberg’s car was requisitioned. Wallenberg and Langfelder were then handed over to the headquarters of General Ivan Afonin, Сommander of the 18th Guards Rifle Corps and at the same time, of the entire Budapest Group of Soviet Forces. All this is known from the detailed discussion in the letters of three Soviet officers who participated in the events, one of whom even kept a diary. In 1991, these letters were handed over to the Swedish side and not so long ago became available on the website of the Swedish Foreign Ministry, which presents documents about Wallenberg. However, recent Swedish biographies of Wallenberg did not use these detailed data in full. And from the declassified archival documents it is clear that the correspondence about Wallenberg was going to the top of the front command of the Red Army political departments and military counterintelligence “SMERSH.”
Finally, Wallenberg and Langfelder were transferred from Afonin’s headquarters to the SMERSH Directorate of the 2nd Ukrainian Front, located in the city of Debrecen (220 km east of Budapest), together with the other units of this front Headquarters under the command of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky. It was this Headquarters where the order to deliver Wallenberg and Langfelder to the Main Directorate of SMERSH in Moscow was received.
In fact, there was nothing unusual about this, all high-ranking officials detained by SMERSH units were brought to Moscow, and Viktor Abakumov, the SMERSH head, himself or his deputy, [usually] conducted the first interrogation. However, special orders to search for Swedish diplomats who were hiding in besieged Budapest repeatedly were sent to the commanders of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian fronts. It was a delicate matter – during the war, Swedish diplomats represented Soviet interests in Hungary, and the request to find hiding diplomats in Budapest came from the Swedish Envoy in Moscow, Staffan Soederblom
But the fate of Raoul Wallenberg was also influenced by the fact that he was a relative of the leading industrialists and bankers of Sweden, Jacob and Marcus Wallenberg. Therefore, orders in his case could come only on direct instructions by Josef Stalin, especially because Abakumov and his “SMERSH” reported only to him. For instance, Stalin gave personal instructions to SMERSH to arrest two Swiss diplomats in Budapest, Harald Feller and Max Meier. This is clear from Abakumov’s report to Vyacheslav Molotov (second to Stalin in the Soviet hierarchy): “I report that, in accordance with the instruction of Comrade Stalin I.V., on March 4 , counterintelligence organs detained FELLER Harald and MEIER Max … and took them to the SMERSH Main Directorate [in Moscow].” It should be mentioned that, in contrast to Wallenberg, these diplomats were lucky, since in 1946 Switzerland exchanged them for Soviet citizens.
Meanwhile, on January 17, 1945, the order for the arrest and delivery of Wallenberg to Moscow came to the headquarters of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. Formally, this was a detention, not an arrest, as “SMERSH” had never issued an “Arrest Warrant” for Wallenberg. Two days later, Wallenberg and Langfelder were formally taken into custody, and on January 25, they were sent under escort by train to Moscow. On February 6, 1945, they were taken to the Internal Prison of the State Security Commissariat (Lubyanka) and listed as prisoners of war “placed at the disposal of the SMERSH Main Directorate.”
Information obtained by military intelligence and SMERSH of the 2nd Ukrainian Front may have played a role in the order of General Afonin for an offensive in the area of the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest. Ironically, Afonin gave this order on January 17, the day when the order to arrest Wallenberg came from Moscow. The attack of the units of Afonin’s detachments was completely unexpected for the enemy, and the next morning the Ghetto was freed.
2. Did the Chekists [state security officers] and the Soviet leadership know about Wallenberg’s role in saving Jews and was this taken into account when a decision about his fate was made?
It is difficult to say whether the Chekists knew about Wallenberg’s activities, because during the official Russian-Swedish working group that investigated the Wallenberg case in 1991-2000, representatives of the SVR [Russian Foreign Intelligence Service] repeatedly stated that they did not have any archival materials related to Wallenberg. It is clear from general publications about Soviet intelligence that in 1941–45, there were no active Soviet agents in Hungary, and information about Hungarian affairs was reported mainly from Stockholm and Turkey, where Hungarian representatives were negotiating with the Western allies about a possible separate peace. Wallenberg’s activity did not last long, only from July to December 1944, at which time Hungary was occupied by German troops. So, it is doubtful that the Chekists had knowledge about Raoul Wallenberg’s activity before his arrest.
The Soviet leadership is another matter. Undoubtedly Stalin and Politburo members knew the name “Wallenberg”, the Wallenberg family was actively involved in business with Russia since pre-revolutionary times, in particular, the equipment of telephone stations, then the ball bearings were supplied by companies belonging to the Wallenberg family. The Wallenberg-controlled company SKF that produced ball bearings, not only supplied ball bearings to the USSR, but also built a factory in Moscow for their production, which is now the Moscow Ball Bearing Plant GPP-2. Photos of the early 1930s show that at that time three huge letters “SKF” were placed on the building of the plant. Despite the problems with delivery through the war zones, the supply of ball bearings from Sweden continued during the Second World War. Moreover, payment, at least in some instances, went to Wallenbergs’ Enskilda Bank in Stokholm in the form of platinum ingots, and for this, special decisions of the Politburo were needed.
So Stalin, having learned about the arrest of Raoul Wallenberg, was probably glad to get a member of this family for applying further possible pressure on the Swedes. Before the war, the extension of a credit agreement with Sweden was postponed, and the question persisted throughout the war. Finally, in October 1946 a large credit and trade agreement with Sweden was signed. Therefore, potential negotiations for the release of Raoul Wallenberg could serve as a tool of pressure on the Swedes. Probably, Stalin was quite surprised when the Swedes did not associate the signing of the treaty with the demand to release Wallenberg.
Since 1957, the Soviet and then later Russian officials claimed that Wallenberg died in July of 1947 of a heart attack, but the actual circumstances of his death remain unknown.
3. Pavel Sudoplatov wrote that Wallenberg was most likely poisoned by Grigory Mairanovsky. In your article you urge not to trust his statements. Why?
As you know, in 1994, the memoirs of Lt. General Pavel Sudoplatov, a former high-ranking security officer, entitled “Special Tasks” were published in English (in the Russian 1998 version it is entitled “Spetsoperatsii”, meaning “Special Operations”). Strictly speaking, it is difficult to call this book a memoir, since the son of Sudoplatov, Anatoli, and two American co-authors, the historians Jared and Leona Schecter, participated in its writing. Chapter nine of this book was about Raoul Wallenberg, his activities, his relatives and, most importantly, his death, allegedly by poisoning him in 1947 by the Soviet biochemist Grigory Mairanovsky at the notorious Toxicological Laboratory of the Ministry of State Security (MGB).
The chapter about Wallenberg made a great impression on many experts, not to mention the ordinary readers. According to a widespread assumption, Sudoplatov, as head of the MGB Terror and Diversion Service, was familiar with the Kremlin’s darkest secrets. In 1995, the American writer and journalist Kati Marton, the author of a book on Wallenberg, summed up this opinion in an article in the Washington Post: “While questions have been raised about some parts of Sudoplatov’s book, there is no reason to doubt him on the subject of Wallenberg.”
However, the documents that Susanne Berger, my colleague in the Wallenberg research, and myself received from Swedish archives, as well as additional information from Russian historical publications, convincingly show that the claims presented in Sudoplatov’s memoir were likely deliberate attempts of Russian disinformation.
Sudoplatov’s statements about Raoul Wallenberg are very similar to those contained in the memoir of the former KGB Chairman Ivan Serov, “Notes from the Suitcase”, published in Russian in 2016. Apparently, Anatoli Sudoplatov, the son of Pavel Sudoplatov and a Lieutenant Colonel of security in the reserves, played a significant role in the inclusion of information about Raoul Wallenberg in both publications. Both publications [These two books] may have been part of deliberate attempts by the Russian authorities to end the Wallenberg investigation at crucial moments. Thus, Sudoplatov’s book was published during the official Russian-Swedish Working Group (1991-2000), while Serov’s memoir was released shortly before the start of the court trial of Wallenberg’s niece Marie von Dardel-Dupuy against the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) in 2017.
Both publications look, in the language of intelligence, like successful “active measures” operations; that is, operations designed to influence public opinion abroad.
Now about the essence of the problem with Sudoplatov’s chapter on Wallenberg. In June 1994, after the release of Sudoplatov’s memoir, the Swedish representatives, through their Russian colleagues, asked Sudoplatov a number of questions to which he replied in writing. Sudoplatov’s answers were kept in the materials of the Swedish side of the Russian-Swedish Working Group that have never been published.
In his responses, Sudoplatov acknowledged that he had gathered all information about Raoul Wallenberg and his case exclusively from Russian media reports:
In Chapter 9 of the book “Special Operations: Notes of an Unwanted Witness”, which I co-authored, all considerations about Wallenberg’s fate are based on the interpretation of materials and documents published in our [Russian] press.
The entire content of the particular chapter [nine] in the book is based on my subjective interpretation of excerpts from documents about Raoul Wallenberg’s fate published by the newspapers “Izvestia” and “Segodnya.”
Here Sudoplatov refers to two Russian newspaper articles that appeared in 1993 – by Ella Maximova, correspondent of Izvestia, entitled “Wallenberg is dead. Unfortunately, there is enough evidence “(Izvestia, No. 103, June 3, 1993); and by the journalist Vladimir Abarinov, entitled “Not only money is laundered, but also versions” (Segodnya, June 8, 1933). In the first article, Maximova published excerpts from some of the declassified documents relating to Wallenberg, and in the second, Abarinov debated with her the interpretation of these documents.
That was all that, in his own words, Sudoplatov knew about the Wallenberg case. One can only guess how in about half a year that passed since the publication of these two articles and before the publication of the English version of Sudoplatov’s book, a whole chapter about Wallenberg appeared as an alleged first-hand story.
In fact, Sudoplatov did not even know the name of Wallenberg until he was called in 1989 by Vladimir Abarinov, who asked him about the Wallenberg case. “And who is this [Wallenberg]? – answered Sudoplatov. “For the first time in my life I hear this name” (V. Abarinov. “Borgia on Lubyanka.” “Sovershenno Sekretno”, September 11, 2013).
In 1994, Sudoplatov answered the question about Wallenberg’s poisoning posed by the Swedes this way:
The variant of the murder of Wallenberg in the laboratory of Mairanovsky is presented in the book only as a version [I retained Sudoplatov’s terminology, “variant” and “version” – V. B.].
In other words, again this is not evidence, but a hypothesis (security officers like to use the word “version” instead of “hypothesis”). However, it is necessary to know the details in order to understand why, even as a hypothesis, Sudoplatov’s statement is incorrect.
4. And how did the Mairanovsky laboratory work?
Grigory Mairanovsky and his secret toxicological laboratory are infamous for using prisoners sentenced to death for experiment with poisons. Since we are talking about Lubyanka, i.e. about the prison of state security, then, obviously, these were mainly prisoners convicted under the “political” articles 58 and 59 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR.
Sudoplatov’s cooperation with this laboratory began in 1938, but in 1942 this laboratory, and, accordingly, its chief Mairanovsky, became part of the 4th Directorate of the NKVD, then the NKGB (terror and sabotage in the enemy’s rear). Although later Sudoplatov denied in every way that he knew what was going on in the laboratory, according to a number of testimonies, Sudoplatov and his deputy Naum Eitingon from time to time visited the laboratory and were well aware of its activities. And Mairanovsky, undoubtedly, participated in the activities of Sudoplatov’s terrorists, providing them with poisons. Thus, among the government awards of Mairanovsky, there was a medal to the “Partisan of the Patriotic War” of the 1st degree, which he received for supplying poison to the group of partisans who conducted the special operations. And in 1945, Mairanovsky went on a business trip to the Far East, where he unsuccessfully used the so-called “truth serum” during interrogations of Japanese prisoners of war. All this could not happen without the knowledge of the head of the Directorate Pavel Sudoplatov. And later Sudoplatov kept in his possession Mairanovskiy’s reports on experiments on convicts sentenced to death.
In August 1946, the subordination of Mairanovsky to Sudoplatov ended. The newly appointed State Security Minister, Viktor Abakumov, did not like Mairanovsky and his activities, about which later, after his arrest in 1951, Mairanovsky complained in his letters from prison to the state security leadership. Mairanovsky was demoted from the head of the laboratory to a senior engineer and transferred to the newly formed MGB Department of Operational Technique (OOT) headed by Colonel Foma Zhelezov. The OOT laboratories were located not in Moscow, but in the settlement Kuchino near Moscow. In its work, imprisoned scientists, Soviet and foreign citizens, were widely used, i.e. Kuchino was the so-called sharashka in Russian. There, Mairanovsky’s work was completely different. I found mention of Mairanovsky in the little-known short memoir in English of the German physicist Otto Maar, who was convicted in East Germany by a Soviet military tribunal to a 25-year imprisonment and brought to the Soviet Union to serve his sentence. Maar wrote:
A medical laboratory apparently [was] just opened, as there is practically nothing there except the room and furniture. … The top man … is the prisoner George N. who promises the blue skies above and … grand plans. … Now George has another big idea — encephalography. He will detect the minute electromagnetic impulses of the brain and make them visible on a screen …
Mairanovsky, the Russian Colonel in charge of the section, is all fire and flame; he believes that with such a device, thoughts could be read.
This “bullshit” project failed, and, as Maar noted, “Mairanovsky has nothing to show and is being hounded by the control-commissioner.” As punishment, prisoner Georgy N. was sent to a Vorkuta labor camp, and his place was taken by an imprisoned doctor. Maar explained: “A new program started: Observation of living cells in nutrient juices under ultrasonic action.” How these experiments ended is unknown because soon Maar was also sent to a labor camp in Vorkuta.
Therefore, in July 1947, when Wallenberg apparently died, he could not be poisoned by Mairanovsky in “his” Toxicological Laboratory, because he was no longer there. And after the removal of Mairanovsky from the lab, his former lab was divided in 1946 into two separate laboratories, chemical and toxicological, and in 1947 they were managed by Mairanovsky’s former subordinates.
However, the informal “professional” ties of Sudoplatov with Mairanovsky, after the latter’s transfer to the OOT, did not stop. They both continued to participate in secret killings. Those killings were of two types. Nikita Petrov, deputy chairman of the Memorial Society board, recently published additional detailed documents about four such known “liquidations” in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Raoul Wallenberg was not a target of these operations.
The second type of “liquidations” were murders at the secret MGB “safe apartments.” Sudoplatov or Eitingon invited the future victim to such an apartment, where Mairanovsky, under the guise of a medical examination, made a deadly poison injection. Mairanovsky called these killings his “extra work”, and stated he received orders for killings personally from Sudoplatov.
But the murder of Wallenberg also does not fit here. Before the killings, Sudoplatov discussed these operations in every detail with the state security leadership. That means that he knew not only the name of the future victim (otherwise how could he invite the future victim to a safe apartment?), but also the reason why the victim should have been “liquidated.” According to Mairanovsky, he was not told the names of the victims. However, he, possibly, knew some of those invited to the apartments, since he wrote from prison: “With my own hand, dozens of dreadful enemies of the Soviet power were destroyed, including nationalists of all kinds (including Jewish), about which Lt. General Lieutenant P. A. Sudoplatov is informed.”
One way or another, the fact that Sudoplatov did not know anything about Wallenberg in 1989, and he learned some details of the case from newspaper publications only in 1993, suggests that Wallenberg was not killed at a safe apartment.
Consequently, questions about when and under what circumstances Wallenberg died, remain open. The only fact remains clear, that after July 1947, no archival records of Wallenberg and his driver, Langfelder, were found.
5. At the same time, you think that the FSB knows under what circumstances Wallenberg died. What can they hide? And for what purpose?
It seems that one of the objectives of the publication of Sudoplatov’s “memoirs” was to additionally convince public opinion that the official date of Wallenberg’s death on July 17, 1947 “presumably from myocardial infarction”, declared by the Soviet leadership in February 1957, was correct, and the words “myocardial infarction” were covering Mairanovsky’s injection. At the same time, it is obvious that the FSB knows much more.
When in 2009, Susanne Berger and I sent a request to the FSB Central Archive (via the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow), we received an unexpected response that the record of the last interrogation of Vilmos Langfelder shows that on July 23, 1947 he was interrogated along with an unidentified numbered (without a name) Prisoner no. 7 for 16 and a half hours. The numbers were assigned to prisoners in state security investigation prisons instead of names temporarily, due to the need of the investigation. From this record, the FSB archivists made a logical and rather sensational conclusion: “The note “Prisoner no. 7” … with the highest degree of probability can refer only to R. Wallenberg.”
This means that during the nine-year work of the Russian-Swedish Working Group in 1991-2000, the leadership of the FSB Central Archive knew about the record from July 23, 1947 (the record was in the same archival journal from which other records were declassified), but they were silent, and wrote to us about its existence only in 2009. Why? There is no answer to this question.
And in 2011, Lt. General Vasily Khristoforov, at that time Head of the FSB Directorate of Registration and Archival Collections, fully identified Prisoner no. 7 with Raoul Wallenberg. In an official FSB response to an inquiry from the German Berlin Wall Museum, he wrote: “We inform you that the Central Archive of the FSB of Russia does not have records of interrogations of Raoul Wallenberg (“Prisoner No. 7”), including on July 23, 1947.”
Therefore, it appears that Wallenberg was alive for at least six consecutive days after the Soviet official date of his death on July 17, 1947, allegedly from myocardial infarction.
At the same time, the FSB persistently refuses to show the original record of this interrogation or to provide a Xerox copy of this page from the archival journal. This is not the only document in the Wallenberg case that the FSB refuses to show or present an unedited copy of. It is unclear what the FSB really knows and what it is trying to hide.
Recently, the General Prosecutor’s Office also refused to provide Wallenberg’s niece access to the archival materials used by the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office (GVP) for the rehabilitation of Wallenberg in 2000. The response of GVP’s Senior Prosecutor A. E. Sozhigayev was quite amazing: “As for providing the opportunity to get acquainted with the documents regarding Wallenberg’s rehabilitation and other materials at the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office, this is not possible, because these materials contain official information that a limited circle of people can be acquainted with.” Therefore, the Russian “limited circle of people” knows something that it is not possible to show or report to Wallenberg’s closest relative.
Now it is somehow forgotten that at a meeting of Gorbachev’s Politburo, which had been discussing the Wallenberg case in 1989, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB Chairman at that time and a member of the Politburo, told Alexander Yakovlev, another Politburo member and Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee: “Alexander Nikolaevich, … what is incomprehensible? They shot him [Wallenberg]. Firstly, he apparently knew too much, and secondly, he refused to cooperate with us.” Yakovlev commented: “I have no reason to disbelieve Kryuchkov.”
And Sergei Stepashin, then Minister of Justice of the Russian Federation, accompanying Russian President Boris Yeltsin on an official visit to Sweden, told the press in December 1997: “There were many agreements between Hitler and Stalin, especially on the issue of Jews. I believe that was the main reason why they [obviously, the MGB officers on the orders of Stalin and Molotov – V. B.] killed him [Wallenberg]: he knew too much about Stalinism and fascism.” Although it is a mystery what Stepashin had in mind, referring to the agreement between Hitler and Stalin about the Jews, it is important that Stepashin was convinced that Wallenberg was killed.
So, obviously, there is a circle of Russian officials who know much more about the fate of Wallenberg, than historians and the public.
6. What happens around the suit of the Wallenberg family to the FSB?
Here I’ll be brief. All levels of the courts, from the city to the Supreme, supported the decision of the district court to deny access of Wallenberg’s niece to the record about “Prisoner no. 7” and to the originals of other documents she requested for. So, the question “What are they hiding?” remains in force.
7. In the article in the Jerusalem Post, you place some of the responsibility on the Swedish government. What should it do, in your opinion, and why is it not making proper efforts?
What happened to Sudoplatov’s answers to the questions of Swedish diplomats could be an example of the attitude of some of the Swedish officials to the problem of Wallenberg’s fate. It is absolutely clear that the co-chairs of both the Swedish and Russian subgroups of the Russian-Swedish working group were already aware in 1994 that Sudoplatov acknowledged that in the past, until the early 1990s, he knew nothing about Wallenberg and his fate, and Sudoplatov’s claims in the 9th Chapter on Wallenberg in his book were “versions” and not evidence. However, neither the Swedish, nor the Russian final report of the working group published in 2000 even mentioned Sudoplatov’s answers and contributed to the fact that Sudoplatov’s mystification is still going on, his “memoir information” remains popular and widely quoted.
For decades, Raoul Wallenberg’s parents, Maj and Fredrik von Dardel, as well as his half-brother, the physicist Professor Guy von Dardel and his half-sister Nina Lagergren were forced to wage an exhausting two-front war in an effort to find out what happened to Wallenberg, both with the stubbornness of the Soviet authorities, and with the lethargy of the Swedish government, which did not want to provoke its powerful eastern neighbor. Since Sweden in the past did not show enough insistence and practically left Wallenberg to the mercy of his fate, in 2001 the Prime Minister of Sweden Goran Persson publicly apologized to the Wallenberg family.
One can only hope that, in particular, the Swedish government will increase the pressure on the Russian authorities so that the FSB and other organizations will eventually provide complete archival documentation about Raoul Wallenberg.