The Soviet Union under dictator Josef Stalin "summarily executed" some American prisoners after World War II and forced others, some of whom are still alive, to renounce their citizenship, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin said in a letter to a Senate committee Wednesday.
But no evidence uncovered by Russian investigators so far indicates that American POWs from the Vietnam or the Korean wars were transferred to the Soviet Union, said Dmitri Volkogonov, the senior Russian emissary who read Yeltsin's letter to the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs.
Yeltsin's letter spoke only in general terms of newly discovered documents indicating "the shocking facts" of some prisoners being executed by the regime of Stalin "and in a number of cases being forced to renounce their U.S. citizenship."
But the letter also said the rights of all surviving American POWs "are now fully guaranteed" and they are free to return to the United States if they choose. "There are no American citizens forcibly held on the territory of Russia," Yeltsin said.
While U.S. authorities have suspected for years that the Soviet Union held American war prisoners, Soviet authorities steadfastly refused to provide confirmation. In the last year, however, Yeltsin and other Russians have pledged to cooperate with U.S. inquiries and have provided some details as they emerged about the fate of Americans.
Although Volkogonov shed little light on the fate of more than 10,000 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam and Korean wars, his appearance did provide the fullest public accounting of what befell Americans held captive in the Soviet Union between World War II and the end of the Cold War.
Volkogonov, a former general who co-chairs a Russian-U.S. commission formed last March to investigate the fate of Americans missing from several conflicts, told the committee that:
* Soviet authorities detained 119 American servicemen "with Russian, Ukrainian or Jewish names" from the more than 22,000 GIs they liberated from German POW camps at the end of World War II. Although most were later released after U.S. protests, 18 died in Soviet custody, while "some ended up staying in camps for a long time."
* The largest group of Americans imprisoned in the Soviet Union included more than 730 pilots and other airmen who either made "forced landings on Soviet territory" or were shot down on Cold War spy flights. Volkogonov was not specific as to their fates but spoke generally about prisoners being interned in labor camps, with some being executed and others forced to eventually renounce their American citizenship.
* Nine Vietnam-era U.S. servicemen were transferred to the Soviet Union, but they were all deserters taken to Moscow for propaganda purposes and later resettled in third countries. While the possibility of Vietnam-era POWs being transferred to the Soviet Union "cannot be entirely discounted," investigators have failed to turn up any documentary evidence to support this suspicion.
* Soviet records show that North Korea held about 3,000 American airmen at five prison camps along the North Korean-Chinese border during the Korean War. While the records do not indicate that any were sent to the Soviet Union, some may have gone to China.
In 1954, in the aftermath of the Korean War, the only Americans imprisoned in the Soviet Union were six men arrested for espionage. Two were subsequently executed on Stalin's orders, despite being innocent of the charges. Three were eventually released, while the fate of the sixth remains unknown.
* The only U.S. citizen now being held against his will in the former Soviet republics is a man arrested last March for trying to smuggle icons out of Moscow airport. Volkogonov identified him as Marcus Lee, a Florida businessman. He said Lee is being held in Lefortovo prison but will soon be released because of a decision by Yeltsin to pardon him.
While Volkogonov cautioned that the commission would need three to six more months to complete its search of secret Soviet archives, he presented four volumes of documents to the committee containing the names of Americans known to have died in the Soviet Union and those living there voluntarily today. The number of names was not disclosed.
Members of the latter group, which he said included "military and diplomatic people who for political or other reasons had decided to stay," have already been contacted by Russian authorities and many have agreed to meet with U.S. officials.
"I believe we may still find more information about Americans in the Soviet Union," Volkogonov said. "We may find their graves or more information about their tragic fates. But I can now nearly exclude the possibility of any American still being held against his will in the former Soviet Union."
Calling Volkogonov's testimony a "revelation," Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said that the Americans located by the commission will be contacted by U.S. officials "and asked whether they want to come home." He added that the list of their names, which still has to be translated from the Russian, will be made public shortly.
The extraordinary spectacle of a former three-star Soviet general, flanked by senior officers from the KGB, taking an oath to tell the truth before a committee of the U.S. Senate clearly impressed several members of the committee, which is approaching the end of its yearlong mandate to investigate the fate of Americans missing from the Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II.
But while they praised Russia's recent willingness to cooperate on the MIA issue as a sign of the changes in the former Soviet Union under Yeltsin, some committee members remained dissatisfied with Volkogonov's responses.
Committee Vice Chairman Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who has said that investigators are being "stonewalled" in Moscow, complained that access has been denied to several Russian officials the committee is still seeking to interview. They include a KGB general, Pyotr Grigoriev, who claims to have information about "specially selected" Vietnam era POWs being transferred to the Soviet Union for "ideology retraining," according to classified documents in the committee's possession.
Volkogonov said researchers have had access to Soviet archives from many previously secret organizations, including those kept by intelligence services, psychiatric hospitals, the border police, military units, the Politburo and Stalin's personal correspondence.
Volkogonov denied that there has been any attempt to withhold information.