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Article

Ambiguous Homecoming: Retribution, Exploitation and Social Tensions During Repatriation to the USSR, 1944–1946

Past and Present. 2019. Vol. 242. No. 1. P. 193-226.

In 1944-46, five million Soviet citizens returned from displacement to the USSR. They had been forced labourers, refugees from conflict, and prisoners of war in occupied Europe. As they returned, all faced official scrutiny and some were arrested, but the majority of Soviet repatriates went home and not to the Gulag. Repatriation was not an episode of mass repression perpetrated by an all-powerful state. Instead, recently declassified archival collections demonstrate that Soviet administrators and police could hardly keep track of returnees. In the absence of strong state control, the crucible of return was in the relationships between repatriates and soldiers, local bosses, and neighbours. The chaos at the end of the war combined with the popular assertion that repatriates were guilty of collaboration with German occupiers made them attractive targets for abuse. Aspects of this story depended on specifically Stalinist practices, yet repatriation was not uniquely Stalinist insofar as it generated problems found in other incidents of mass displacement, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War. Rather than exclusively a creation of the Soviet system, the often harrowing experience of return was largely a by-product of war.