Days rolled into weeks, and weeks into months. Our wagon train eventually circled around and stopped in the city of Lienz, in north central Austria. All of the warring forces were shooting at us, even the partisans, who accused us of being allied with the Germans–but we were only for God and ourselves, running from the Red Terror of a Communism that was worse than anyone could imagine. We knew only that we wanted to be free–free to choose to pray or not to pray, to work for ourselves. My father, Fedor Ivanovich, left behind his home, his people, his everything, and took with him only the most dear to him–his beloved family—in an attempt to give us safety and peace. His goal was to get away from this madness and misery, away from everything old, including Europe–far away.
Our camp was a beautiful spot amid pine trees in the green valley outside Lienz, near the Drau river rushing down from the mountains. We set up camp below the hills, because we knew there might be partisans up in those mountains. One day, with our campfire going, the smell of home cooking was in the air, and mom wanted some mushrooms and berries, so we went into the hills a little. I needed to tinkle, so we went into the bushes. Through the branches, I saw a partisan watching us with his rifle pointing at my mother. My eyes must have moved him, for as soon as I saw him, he raced away. We ran down the hill as fast as lighting to warn everybody.
Our elders met in council and decided to stay where we were because we believed the rumor that the British were coming to help us. I was very young, so I remember this time as being Lent, the sacred week before Easter, but in reading other accounts of this day, I see now that it was at the end of May/beginning of June. On the morning of June 1, our elders and everyone in the camp decided to hold a service to unite in prayer to God. All the women prepared a great feast for the service and communion with our Orthodox priest, who was traveling with us to escape the fate of my Uncle the priest, who was shot in the head by the Commies right in front of my grandmother. A makeshift church had been set up in the center of the camp, with a platform built for the service so the thousands of us who gathered could see and hear the priest cry out “Xristos Vascres’ (Christ is Risen!). As we answered him in unison, English tanks and trucks approached and surrounded us, and as their soldiers began shouting and herding everyone into trucks, we realized we had been betrayed–they meant to send us back to Stalin’s Russia!
Cossack resistance to repatriation was fierce, since no one wanted to be separated from their families and repatriation meant certain death at the hands of the Communists. Mass chaos ruled as our people screamed and resisted being put into the trucks. The soldiers swung their rifle butts and used their bayonets indiscriminately against men, women, and children. Mother, Galina, and I (fortunately father and Anatoly were in the mountains pasturing the animals at the time) managed to run and hide in the trees and watched in horror as many of our people committed suicide–men hanging themselves from trees and women walking into the river with their babies to drown themselves rather than be forced back to Russia. Even after all these years, I have to stop in the middle of writing this because I am shaking and crying remembering that scene that was straight out of hell: the wailing and crying, the sounds of rifle butts cracking skulls, the bodies of my people lying on the ground, the sight of the river flowing red with blood….
Mother, sister and I somehow made it away from the horrific scene of the massacre to reunite with our menfolk in the mountains. With us now was a boy, Micha, whose family was lost that day. It was only mama’s determination to stay with our men that saved us from the terrible fate—death or repatriation and subsequent murder—that befell so many of our people on that hateful day.
We later learned that this forced repatriation of Cossacks was the result of an agreement between Stalin and Churchill reached during the Yalta Conference. Dear readers, I am not a historian or an educated person, and these memories are those of a 5 year old child, but this dark day in history, while not very well-known to many, did happen. While there are relatively few survivors of that day (because either people died that day or were murdered after their forced deportation to Russia), there are a number of accounts that can be found with a simple google search. This one accurately describes much of what we Cossacks saw on that bloody day. While the repatriation of the Cossacks to Russia has not been denied, to my knowledge, the British government has, to date, neither admitted nor offered any apology for their participation in this atrocious massacre, also known as “The Tragedy of the Drau.”