A Cold War Execution Most Foul? Too Early to Close the Book on the Raoul Wallenberg Case

September 28, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Editor’s Note: This article is an adapted version of a formal review of General Serov’s memoir, “Raoul Wallenberg and Ivan Serov’s Memoir ‘Notes from a Suitcase.’


“I have no doubts that [Raoul] Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947.” A few weeks ago, this statement by the former Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) Chairman Ivan Serov in his recently posthumously published memoir made global headlines. Many journalists immediately proclaimed that the more than 70-year-old mystery of the young Swedish diplomat’s fate finally appears fully solved. However, a closer look at Serov’s memoir Notes from a Suitcase: Secret Diaries of the First KGB Found 25 Years after His Death reveals that many key questions in the Wallenberg case remain unanswered. Indeed, there are strong reasons to believe that the memoir is, at least in parts, a fabrication, especially as it concerns the fate of Wallenberg.

An architect and businessman, Raoul Wallenberg was just 31 years old when in 1944 he accepted a diplomatic assignment to Budapest to protect Hungary’s Jews from Nazi persecution. With the help of a wide network of aides and by issuing a special protective document, the now famous Swedish “Schutzpass” (Protective Passport), Wallenberg managed to save thousands of lives. In January 1945, he tried to contact the commanders of the advancing Soviet military troops for informing them about the Budapest Jews he was in charge of. Once these Soviet forces reached Wallenberg, however, he was arrested and taken to Moscow.

Due to his courage and creativity in extremely dangerous and chaotic wartime Budapest, Wallenberg remains a symbol of what one heroic person can do in nearly impossible circumstances. In 1981, the U.S. Congress made Wallenberg Honorary Citizen of the United States, the second person after Winston Churchill who received this honor. In 1957, after a decade of claiming they had no information, Soviet authorities announced that Wallenberg died of a heart attack in Lubyanka Prison in July 1947. Despite various long-term international efforts, the full facts of Wallenberg’s fate have never been established. In his memoir, Serov claims that during an interrogation in 1954, former State Security Minister Abakumov admitted that Wallenberg was “liquidated” in 1947. According to Serov, Abakumov followed the direct order of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

These statements, purportedly by Serov — who died in 1990 — are of great interest since in 1954 he was appointed chairman of the newly created KGB. As the Russian historian Nikita Petrov, a leading expert on Serov’s life and the history of Soviet state security services, pointed out in an interview with The New York Times, it is the first time that such a high level former Soviet official has provided confirmation of Wallenberg’s death in 1947, and of the fact that he was murdered.

Serov’s memoir certainly gives analysts much to ponder. The primary goal of the publication was, evidently, to promote, in accordance with the current political trend in Russia, one of the cruelest Chekists (members of Soviet state security organs) of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. A favorite of Lavrenty Beria (NKVD Commissar), Serov left a bloody trail in the Baltics, Ukraine, Crimea, Poland, Romania, and Germany.  In 1940, he received his first high award, the Lenin Order, for participation in the Katyn Massacre, the execution of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war. Serov’s last high military award, the Kutuzov Order of the 1st Class, was presented to him for his participation in the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.

The editor of Serov’s book, Aleksandr Khinstein, has a reputation in Russia as a person used for leaking official information to the mass media. As a member of President Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party, Khinstein was elected three times, in 2003, 2007, and 2011, to the State Duma. Last year, he proposed that construction of the venues for the 2018 Soccer World Cup, hosted by Russia, should be carried out largely by prisoners, in order to keep costs down. In 2016, Khinstein became assistant on mass media questions to the Secretary of the General Council of the “United Russia.” Khinstein is also a member of the Central Council of the Russian Military Historical Society (RVIO), created by Putin to promote the pro-Stalinist view of Soviet history and World War II.

The choice of the publishing house “Prosveshchenie” (“Enlightenment”) also is interesting. It is an old governmental publisher of school text books, but in late 2011 it was bought by the OLMA Media Group, the publisher of Khinstein’s five other books and the books of his co-author, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. A member of President Putin’s party, Medinsky is famous for his attitude to history: “I am not a scientist-historian” he stated in 2012:

My specialty is different, it is … practical specialization in PR and propaganda …. You think naively that facts are the main thing in history. Open your eyes: for a long time, nobody has paid attention to them! The main thing is their interpretation, the angle of view and mass propaganda.

Apparently, only one outside person, British author Nigel Bance, has had a chance to examine Serov’s original notes, an essential part of any proper evaluation of historical sources. Curiously, many passages of Serov’s diary quoted in Bance’s recent book on the Wallenberg case differ from the text of the Russian version of Serov’s memoir. Bance, who obtained a copy of Serov’s chapter on Wallenberg from Serov’s daughter Svetlana in 2002, cites several additional sentences and whole paragraphs missing in the Khinstein publication. In some instances, names and other details vary in the two published versions of Serov’s diary.

Adding to the questions about the Khinstein edition is the fact that the chapter on Raoul Wallenberg is not part of the main body of the memoir, but rather what Hinstein calls one of several “fragments,” a loose collection of texts dictated by Serov and written down by his son-in-law, the popular Russian detective writer Eduard Khrutsky. Serov wrote (or dictated) his comments on the Wallenberg case in or after 1987, and it remains unclear to what extent he relied on his personal recollections, diary entries, on discussions with former colleagues, or published sources. Serious questions remain also about the handling of his diary during the editing and publication process

According to Serov’s memoir, he found out about the Wallenberg case at the end of 1953, and conducted an internal review of the issue shortly after he became the KGB Chairman in March 1954. Serov writes that the review was ordered by Nikita Khrushchev, who supposedly wished to use the inquiry against his rival Molotov. However, this story is questionable. Although Serov writes that in 1954 Khrushchev “had no idea” about the case, in fact Khrushchev knew about it at least since April 1952, when he participated in the approval of two diplomatic notes regarding the Wallenberg case. Moreover, it is doubtful that Khrushchev could have kept inquiries into the Wallenberg case secret from Molotov. Immediately after Stalin’s death in 1953, Swedish officials intensified their inquiries about Wallenberg. At the time, Molotov, who had been directly involved in the decision-making process about Wallenberg’s fate in 1947, continued to deal with the case, as the new Soviet foreign minister (from 1949 to 1953, Stalin ousted Molotov from this position).

To make matters worse, Serov’s recollections about the case are surprisingly vague and imprecise, lacking the specific details one would expect in such a personal document.  His notes do not shed any additional light on what exactly happened to Wallenberg after his trail breaks off in Lubyanka Prison in March 1947, nor do they contain any evidence for the claim that Wallenberg was “liquidated” in 1947. As already mentioned, the most sensational information in Serov’s notes is Abakumov’s alleged confirmation of Wallenberg’s murder. If Abakumov was interrogated about the Wallenberg case, it is strange that the interrogation did not expose any other important details, at least none Serov felt compelled to cite in his memoir.

In the Khinstein publication, Serov writes that interrogations of Grigory Maironovsky, head of the KGB’s infamous poison laboratory, and his co-workers regarding Wallenberg’s “liquidation” also provided no information about Wallenberg’s fate. Interestingly, Maironovsky’s name does not appear in the excerpts of Serov’s memoir quoted by Nigel Bance. Supposedly, all of the interrogated members of the poison laboratory claimed that they did not know the names of their victims. However, there is no documentary proof that such interrogations about Wallenberg ever happened.

Serov’s internal review also led him to Vasily Blokhin, Lubyanka Prison’s chief executioner. Serov mentions that there was a report about the cremation of Wallenberg’s body, co-signed by Blokhin. It is not clear when this interrogation could have happened. Blokhin was discharged from his job in April 1953, before Serov became KGB Chairman and inquired about Wallenberg, and died in 1955. Blokhin was not in charge of sending bodies of prisoners to the Moscow Crematorium, and Serov’s claim is, therefore, highly questionable. Similarly, Serov’s allegations about the reasons for Wallenberg’s arrest do not go beyond the general accounts that have been circulated by other Russian officials. Such an across the board lack of detail is worth noting.

The information that Serov does include in his memoir is as important as what he does not. Surprisingly, the memoir does not even mention the creation or discovery of the key document in the Wallenberg case in the KGB files, the so-called Smoltsov Report. This report written by the head of the Lubyanka Prison Medical Department, Aleksandr Smoltsov, stated that Raoul Wallenberg had died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947.

Similarly, Serov barely mentions the extensive preparations of an official reply to the Swedish government about Wallenberg from 1955 to 1957. He fails to mention the fact that he and Molotov together started to prepare the official statement issued to the Swedish government in 1957. Serov’s omission of this important aspect of his involvement in the Wallenberg case has no explanation. This raises doubts about the claim that Khrushchev wanted to use the case against Molotov, as well as the authorship of this portion of the memoir.

It appears that in 1954, only seven years after Raoul Wallenberg’s death, Serov, with all KGB resources at his disposal, could not establish with clarity what exactly happened to Wallenberg. One wonders if he interviewed those who could have provided some additional details, such as Colonel Sergei Kartashov, head of the 4th Department of the MGB Chief Military Intelligence Directorate, who was in charge of the Wallenberg case from 1945 to 1947; or Daniil Kopelyansky and Boris Solovov, the investigators who were involved in the case and were still alive and well in 1954.

Moscow did not provide any of the documents cited in the Serov book to the official Swedish-Russian Working Group, which investigated the Wallenberg case from 1991 to 1999. (The Working Group was unable to clarify Wallenberg’s fate.) This may have been because the documentation no longer exists. Serov himself was in charge of extensive document destruction around the time of the creation of the KGB.

On the other hand, Serov in 1954 did order the preservation of the file of Wallenberg’s long-time cellmate, the German diplomat Willy Rödel, who was apparently “liquidated” in late 1947.  Hence, the question remains whether similar documentation was also preserved for Raoul Wallenberg. This may well have been the case, because in 1989 Soviet officials returned some of Wallenberg’s personal effects to his family, including his diplomatic passport, as well as his prisoner registration card. The official Russian story is that the items were discovered by chance in a former KGB storage room. Nevertheless, it seems more likely that there was some kind of administrative documentation that pointed to their location.

If a transcript of Viktor Abakumov’s interrogation about Wallenberg existed or continues to exist, why was it never released to researchers or Swedish officials? Perhaps it was destroyed, but perhaps Moscow is still holding it back. Similar questions persist about other missing documents, especially about the letter Abakumov sent to Molotov on the day of Wallenberg’s alleged death, which almost certainly contained relevant information about Wallenberg’s fate. Were these documents destroyed or have they been intentionally withheld? It is possible that they contain details about the time or cause of Wallenberg’s death that do not match the official Soviet version of events released by Serov and Soviet leaders in 1957.

In recent years, it appeared that Russian officials have withheld other important information that could have provided leads about Wallenberg’s imprisonment. This has happened several times before, so it is easy to imagine that there are more documents in Moscow still to be shared.  Serov’s basic claim regarding Wallenberg’s death in 1947, as well as the documentation he says he learned about in connection with his review of the case, must be thoroughly evaluated. For that reason, Marie Dupuy, Raoul Wallenberg’s niece, recently submitted a formal request with the Central Archive of the Russian State Security Services (FSB), asking for the release of Abakumov’s interrogation transcript and the record of cremation of Wallenberg’s remains.

“Verification” is the key word for researchers and the public. Last year a group of international scholars and Wallenberg experts joined forces to create the Raoul Wallenberg International Research Initiative (RWI-70). The aim of this project is to pool researchers’ expertise and to seek access to key documentation in Russian archival collections that has so far remained inaccessible. As part of this new project, we wrote a comprehensive catalogue of all open questions that have so far remained unanswered. In late September, a delegation of researchers and Raoul Wallenberg’s family travelled to Moscow. They presented a list of questions to the Russian authorities. The case was discussed by historians, experts, and some Russian officials at the International Roundtable on the case of Raoul Wallenberg sponsored by the “Memorial” Society, Moscow.

If access to the requested documentation were finally granted, there would be some chance to solve the mystery of Wallenberg’s disappearance.


Dr. Vadim Birstein, a biologist and historian, was a member of the first International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg headed by Prof. Guy von Dardel, Wallenberg’s half-brother, in 1990-91. He has published many articles on the Wallenberg case (some co-authored with Susanne Berger) and is the author of the books The Perversion of Knowledge: The True History of Soviet Science (2001) and SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon: Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII (2012), which received the inaugural St. Ermin’s Intelligence Book Award in 2012.

Susanne Berger is a historical researcher. From 1995-2001 she served as an independent consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group in the Raoul Wallenberg case.  She is the founder and coordinator of the RWI-70.


We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

One thought on “A Cold War Execution Most Foul? Too Early to Close the Book on the Raoul Wallenberg Case

  1. I am Andor Szentivanyi’s son. My father was in Raoul Wallenberg’s group. My dad knew him personally.
    Knowing about the tragic circumstances leading to the death of Fred Cuny, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hungarian Arrow Cross fed disinformation to the Soviets just like the Soviets fed disinformation to their enemies leading to the execution of Fred Cuny.