Hard labor in Siberia is Soviet Union’s ‘reprisal’
In the early hours of August 9, 1945, Soviet forces launched nearly simultaneous attacks on Japanese troops from southeastern Mongolia, the Soviet Maritime Provinces and from Northern Sakhalin. That same morning Soviet forces invaded Manchuria, present day northeastern China. The Kwantung Army had been severely depleted due to the Imperial Japanese Army’s deployment of Manchuria-based divisions to fronts south of Japan. It proved little match for the 1.5 million Soviet troops, and Manchuria collapsed in a short period of time.
On August 14, Japan notified the Allied Powers it had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. However, the Soviet Union did not cease its attacks. On August 16, Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Union Alexei Antonov ordered his forces to continue their offensive. He dismissed the Imperial Rescript of Surrender, a radio speech to the public made by Emperor Showa on August 15, as a mere statement that did not yet bring the surrender of the Japanese forces into effect.
The Red Army continued its push until September 5, three days after Japan signed an instrument of surrender on September 2. An estimated 80,000 Japanese soldiers died in the fighting against the Soviet Union.
Civilians living in Manchuria bore the brunt of the Soviet offensive. Many tried to flee, but up to 200,000 died after being caught up in the fighting or from hunger and freezing conditions. The issue of war-displaced Japanese left behind in China is a tragic reminder of the postwar turmoil even today.
On August 23, 1945, Soviet leader Josef Stalin issued Order Number 9898, under the title of Commissar of Defense, to transfer 500,000 Japanese soldiers as prisoners of war to the Soviet Union to engage in forced labor. In the order, addressed to People’s Commissar (Minister) for Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s right-hand man, and others, Stalin detailed conditions for Japanese soldiers to be POWs, locations for their camps, and work they would be forced to do.
The order stated:
(a) 150,000 POWs to construct Baikal-Amur Railway’s main line.
(b) 75,000 POWs to Maritime Provinces (coal mines, railway construction and construction of soldiers’ barracks and other kinds of labor).
(c) 65,000 POWs to the Khabarovsk district (forest logging, construction of factories, and other kinds of labor).
The transfer of POWs to the Soviet Union started in early September. Officers and soldiers disarmed in Soviet-occupied Manchuria, North Korea and other places were reorganized into construction battalions. They were then regrouped and taken aboard freight trains to labor camps. Police officers, public servants, newspaper company executives and other nonmilitary personnel were detained separately and taken to labor camps. According to testimony of those sent to the camps, many were given the impression that they might be sent back to Japan. However, they were sent to Soviet territories or areas under Soviet control such as Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia. Most were sent to concentration camps and forced to do heavy labor.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s statistics, 575,000 Japanese, including 14,000 transferred to Mongolia, were sent to the labor and concentration camps, and were enslaved from anywhere between several and 14 years. Of these, 55,000, including 2,000 in Mongolia, died. Organizations formed by relatives and supporters of the forced laborers and some Russian researchers put the number of deaths between 62,000 and 92,000. Most of the deaths resulted from the bitter cold—sometimes as low as minus 50 C (minus 58 F)—lack of food, poor working conditions and lack of medical care. Within the camps, the laborers were given a communist education under the title of “a democratization movement,” under the surveillance of Soviet authorities. Some POWs snitched on the others to Soviet authorities.
Stalin’s will was reflected in the content of Order Number 9898 calling for forced detention and labor in Siberia. According to the semi-official record Sengo Kyosei Yokuryushi (Postwar Forced Detention History) Volume 7, three political factors lurked in the background for this policy:
1. “reprisal against Japan,” as described in Stalin’s victory speech about the war against Japan;
2. international circumstances at the time as the Cold War structure was about to take shape;
3. human and material damage the Soviet Union suffered during World War II.
In a radio address concerning Japan’s surrender broadcast on September 2, 1945, Stalin said the Soviet Union participated in World War II to wipe out a “stain.” “We have a special score of our own to settle with Japan,” he said, adding: “The defeat of the Russian troops in 1904–05 during the Russo-Japanese War left bitter memories in the minds of our people. It was a dark stain on our country. Our people believed in and awaited the day when Japan would be routed and the stain wiped clean.”
As the Cold War battle lines started to become entrenched, the Soviet Union began economic reconstruction without assistance from the West. The USSR replenished its labor force that had been ravaged during the war with the “forced labor” of Japanese detainees. The policy of forced detention and labor was devised to selfishly serve Moscow’s particular circumstances at that time. As recorded in “Postwar Forced Detention History,” Soviet detention of Japanese prisoners in Siberia gave rise to humanitarian problems and was contrary to customary international law in that the Soviet Union detained civilians along with military forces. And Moscow’s refusal to immediately allow Japanese officers and soldiers to return to Japan, instead forcing them to perform back-breaking labor, violated the Potsdam Declaration.
Clause 9 of the declaration defining terms for Japan’s surrender stated: The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives. As a member of the Allied Powers, the Soviet Union was bound by the Potsdam Declaration, which was an international agreement. Former Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Takushiro Hattori wrote that the Siberian detention was the “most unbearable suffering for the Japanese race.”
Siberian internment and the Soviet occupation of the Northern Territories, which included looting, violence and rape, caused many Japanese people to take a disdainful view toward the Soviet Union in the postwar period.
Soviet forces finally occupied the Habomai group of islets, part of the Northern Territories off the Hokkaido coast and on the south of the Kuril Islands, on September 5, 1945—three days after Japan had formally signed surrender documents.
Hikosaburo Hata, Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army, despaired at the Soviet troops’ actions, saying, “Intolerable deeds such as lawless shootings, looting, rape and carjacking were frequently observed all over Manchuria.”
According to an expert in Soviet internment of the Japanese, “In addition to food, clothes and medicines held by the Kwantung Army, Bank of Japan banknotes, Bank of Korea banknotes, corporate bonds, stocks, 3,705 carats of diamonds and 2,100 kilograms of gold bullion kept in Manchuria were taken [by Soviet troops]. Entire facilities were removed from factories and taken to Soviet territories.”
The Soviet Union signed an agreement with Japan in April 1991 that obligated it to hand over lists of prisoners-of-war who died in the camps and also their remains. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Japan in October 1993, he apologized for the Siberian internment, describing it as a “crime of totalitarianism.” However, lists for 13,000 people who died in the camps have yet to be handed to Japan and moves to retrieve victims’ remains have floundered.