On January 13, 1945, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, accompanied only by his chauffeur, left his legation in Budapest for a meeting with officers of the advancing Soviet army, which was then in the process of “liberating” the city from the pro-Nazi government. Wallenberg’s apparent purpose in seeking out the Soviets was to ensure the protection of Jews and their property in Budapest, and to make security arrangements for members of his legation. Wallenberg was not a career diplomat. He was a businessman with experience in Hungary who had, on the initiative of American officials, been appointed to work in Budapest as an employee of the War Refugee Board (WRB), an agency established by President Franklin Roosevelt for the purpose of rescuing Jews from the Nazis. To assist Wallenberg, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided him with a diplomatic passport and the rank of legation secretary at the Swedish legation. From July 9, 1944, the date of his arrival in Budapest, to the following December, Wallenberg saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from deportation to death camps, both by issuing them “protective passports” (documents which gave the holder the protection of the Swedish legation) and in some cases by negotiating directly with the Nazis for their freedom in exchange for money.

But for all his sophistication in dealing with the Nazis, the thirty-two-year-old Wallenberg was, according to one of his colleagues at the legation, “naive when it came to the Russians.” Whether he met with Soviet officers remains unknown. It is now clear, however, from recently released reports, that Wallenberg, despite being a diplomat from a neutral country, was promptly taken into custody by the Soviet army and that three days later, on January 16, the Soviet deputy minister of defense, Nikolai Bulganin, sent a coded telegram to the commander of the Second Ukrainian Front, Marshall Malinovsky, ordering Wallenberg’s arrest by the notorious military counterintelligence branch known as SMERSH, a Russian acronym for “Smert’ shpionam,” meaning “Death to Spies.”

Why the Soviets arrested Wallenberg and took him off to Moscow, together with his chauffeur, Vilmos Langfelder, has remained unclear for the past fifty-six years. An even deeper mystery is what happened to Wallenberg after he arrived in the Soviet Union. Despite the persistent efforts of Wallenberg’s family, historians, journalists, politicians, and a host of prominent international figures, Wallenberg’s fate has never been clarified. Indeed, perhaps the greatest puzzle of all is why, after all these years, the Wallenberg case is still unresolved.

The most far-reaching and thorough investigation into the Wallenberg affair was conducted, and recently concluded, by the Joint Swedish–Russian Working Group on Raoul Wallenberg, whose members included officials from the Swedish and Russian foreign ministries, representatives from the Swedish and Russian security agencies, and also Wallenberg’s half-brother, Guy von Dardel. Their investigation began in September 1991, just a month after the coup attempt in Moscow, and the Swedish members were hopeful that, under the new Russian policy of openness, long-suppressed information about Wallenberg would finally be released.1 Unfortunately, although the Russians have provided significant new materials relating to Wallenberg, their archival policy has become increasingly restrictive, and some key collections that were accessible in 1991 were later closed.2 Moreover, the authors of the published reports did not have direct access to several important archives, including those of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and the counterintelligence service, as well as the archives of the Swedish intelligence service. Until the materials in these archives can be consulted, all conclusions about Wallenberg’s fate must remain preliminary. A further problem is that Russian authorities claim Wallenberg’s prison file—clearly a crucial piece of evidence—is missing.

Nonetheless, the reports of the working group, issued separately by the Swedes and the Russians in January 2001 along with three additional reports by the group’s independent consultants, significantly improve our understanding of the Wallenberg affair. Ten years of painstaking archival research and interviews in Russia, Sweden, and numerous other countries uncovered many new details about the Stalinist prison regime, the political machinations of Soviet leaders (not only among themselves but also with respect to Sweden), and the arbitrary way in which they disposed of the lives of innocent people.

What is also revealed in these reports is that the Wallenberg case goes well beyond the individual tragedy of a young man whose heroism saved the lives of thousands of Jews. Wallenberg, who belonged to one of Sweden’s most prominent financial families, was a pawn in a larger political game played out by the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, by Sweden as the tensions of the postwar era increased. Indeed, this is a game that has continued for more than a half-century, with the Soviets (and later the Russians) stonewalling efforts to find out the truth about Wallenberg and Swedish authorities, for one reason or another, not pressing as hard as they might.



The working group’s ten-year investigation, and the five reports that resulted from it, go a long way toward explaining Russian motives for arresting Wallenberg and keeping him in prison at least until July 1947, the last date for which there is proof that he was alive. Although there is no record of formal charges against Wallenberg, it is almost certain that the Soviets arrested him because they believed he was a spy, for either the Allies, the Germans, or both. The WRB, for which Wallenberg worked in Budapest, cooperated closely with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. In fact, Iver Olsen, who helped to organize Wallenberg’s mission and communicated regularly with him in Budapest, was the representative for both the WRB and the OSS in Stockholm. The Soviets were well aware of the OSS–WRB connection and of Wallenberg’s relations with Olsen, and so, as evidence cited in the reports suggests, the Soviets suspected that Wallenberg was, at least in some capacity, an OSS operative.3

According to the Swedish report, however, there is evidence that Wallenberg’s work on behalf of the WRB was purely humanitarian, and that any suspicion on the part of the Soviets to the contrary was incorrect:

An internal CIA document from 1955 indicates that when asked whether he had ever had operational contact with Raoul Wallenberg or used him operationally, Olsen repeatedly and categorically denied having done so. His contacts with Raoul Wallenberg had been only in his capacity as WRB representative. “Olsen was extremely emphatic on this point.” …None of the WRB dealings with Raoul Wallenberg reveals any direct links to intelligence work. …It cannot be ruled out that some OSS agents also perceived Raoul Wallenberg as an agent. On the other hand, the CIA has not found material anywhere that indicates that Raoul Wallenberg was aware of Olsen’s links with the OSS…4

Wallenberg’s many contacts in Budapest (evident in his appointment calendar, which was confiscated upon his arrest and returned by the Russians to Guy von Dardel in 1989) may also have aroused doubts on the Soviet side about the neutrality of his mission. According to the reports of Susanne Berger and Susan Mesinai, outside experts who served as independent consultants to the working group, several people who helped Wallenberg in his rescue work were involved in the Hungarian resistance movement and in other projects sponsored by Allied intelligence. Thus, for example, Wallenberg had contacts with the underground nationalist society, EXZ, made up of church leaders and aristocrats working toward an independent democratic leadership of Hungary.

Then there was Wallenberg’s close contact, for the purpose of negotiating for the lives of Jews, with Nazi leaders in Budapest, including Adolf Eichmann. Wallenberg himself received funds from the leading Jewish resistance organization, known as JOINT, whose representatives routinely made deals with Nazi officials to save Jews from the death camps. The Soviets were highly suspicious of JOINT, which they later claimed was part of a “global Zionist plot.” Also, according to the Russian report, some of the “protective passports” issued by Wallenberg to Hungarian Jews fell into the hands of the Nazis, who were then able to escape arrest when the Soviets occupied Hungary. The Russian report gives no evidence for this claim.

According to a SMERSH assessment from February 1945, cited in the Swedish report:

Instead of protecting the interests of the Soviet Union and Hungary, the Swedish Embassy and Swedish Red Cross are giving protection to the enemies of the Soviet Union and Hungarian people and providing them with refuge and sanctuary.

Presumably “enemies” referred to both members of the Hungarian underground who opposed Soviet occupation and Nazis who allegedly obtained Swedish passports.

Although SMERSH was arresting large numbers of people at random behind the front in Budapest, the order for Wallenberg’s arrest, coming as it did from high quarters in Moscow, must have been issued for a specific reason—presumably because Wallenberg was believed to be a spy. In view of the highly centralized structure of the Stalinist system and the fact that Stalin was a micromanager when it came to cases of important political prisoners, it is doubtful that either Deputy Defense Minister Bulganin or Viktor Abakumov, the chief of SMERSH, would have ordered Wallenberg’s arrest without Stalin’s explicit approval.


Upon their arrival in Moscow on February 6, 1945, three weeks after their capture in Budapest, Wallenberg and his driver were imprisoned in separate cells in the NKVD’s notorious Lubianka prison. On Wallenberg’s prison card he was registered as a “prisoner of war,” and it was noted that he was arrested on January 19. Prison records released to the working group by Russian authorities show that Wallenberg’s first interrogation took place on February 8—“a typical night session lasting three and a half hours,” in the words of the Swedish report. According to these records, Wallenberg was not questioned again until the end of April, a month before he was transferred to Lefortovo prison in Moscow, together with a cellmate, Willy Roedel, a German diplomat. Although Wallenberg remained in Lefortovo throughout 1946, he was, so the prison records state, interrogated only twice during his incarceration there. After he was transferred back to Lubianka, in early March 1947, the records show only one further interrogation, on March 11, 1947.


Some of Wallenberg’s fellow inmates (several of whom were German prisoners of war interviewed after being repatriated by the Soviets in the early 1950s), as well as former prison staff and security officials questioned by the working group, suggest that Wallenberg was well treated physically despite the fact that he consistently refused to cooperate with his interrogators. According to these witnesses, there could have been a few additional, unrecorded interrogations, but the general impression of the witnesses was that Wallenberg was rarely questioned. If the Soviet prison records are accurate, then it is puzzling why the Soviets, in dealing with such a well-known prisoner, with extensive connections in the political and intelligence circles of the Western allies, would not have wanted to question him further. A look at what went on at the official level between Sweden and Russia on the Wallenberg matter, documented largely by materials from the Russian and Swedish Foreign Ministry archives, may provide some clues.

Initially, the Soviets acknowledged that they had Wallenberg in their custody. In a memo of January 16, 1945, USSR Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Dekanozov informed the Swedish legation in Moscow that Wallenberg was under the “protection” of Soviet troops in Budapest. The Russian ambassador to Sweden, Alexandra Kollontai, told Wallenberg’s mother, Maj von Dardel, in February 1945 that her son was in Soviet custody, although she did not say where. However, after all the other members of the Swedish legation had returned to Sweden in April 1945, and the Swedish Foreign Ministry began to press the Soviets for answers, the Soviets claimed they had no knowledge of Wallenberg’s whereabouts.

Amazingly, the Swedish envoy to Moscow, Staffan Soederblom, who had initially urged the Soviets for information about Wallenberg, went along with their story, suggesting on more than one occasion in 1945 that Wallenberg had probably been killed in Hungary either in a car accident or during fighting as the Soviets took over Budapest. Although these theories were circulating in Budapest and on Soviet-controlled Hungarian radio, it is puzzling that Soederblom would have given them credence, in view of the communications of both Dekanozov and Kollontai about Wallenberg being in Soviet hands.

The Swedish report suggests that Soederblom, who was forced to retire because of mental illness six years later, had lost his ability to make sound judgments. This is borne out by the fact that Soederblom simply repeated his views about Wallenberg in a meeting with Stalin in June 1946—a meeting for which Stalin had set aside an hour but which lasted only five minutes. According to the Russian report:

The interview, most likely, caused Stalin some bewilderment, and possibly even irritation—not one major issue was raised. It emphasized the ambiguity of the [Swedish] approach to the Wallenberg affair: from one side [of the Swedish government], a request for an investigation, from the other—a “personal opinion” type of comment that the diplomat had most likely died in Budapest.

As the Russian report notes, the Soviet side did not consider it possible for a diplomat to have a “personal opinion” on matters of state and therefore would have assumed that Soederblom’s views represented those of the Swedish government. And so the Soviets might have concluded that the Swedish government, despite requesting an investigation, apparently wanted the Wallenberg case closed.

Why would Stalin have been irritated? Perhaps, as both the Russian and Swedish reports suggest, the Soviets wanted to use Wallenberg as a bargaining chip, apparently as part of an exchange agreement for Soviet citizens in Sweden whom the Kremlin wanted back. This might explain the mixed signals they sent about Wallenberg from the very beginning. Publicly they spread the false information that Wallenberg was dead, while through other channels they apparently wanted the Swedes to know that Wallenberg was in their custody.

The reports, including those from the Russian side, document several meetings between Soviet and Swedish diplomats during 1946 at which the Soviets hinted about an exchange for Wallenberg. This is confirmed in a 1986 statement by Swedish Ambassador to Moscow Rune Nystroem, cited by Susanne Berger:

That Raoul Wallenberg could have been exchanged for persons in Sweden was a question that came up, or at least was suggested by the Soviets, at a very early stage in the [Wallenberg] case. On the Swedish side, however, it appears that the suggestion was either not understood or it was felt that it was not possible to agree to an exchange.5

If an exchange was indeed the Soviet intention, then it would explain why, as Russian security officials have told the working group, Wallenberg was never formally charged with any crime and no official investigation, which would have entailed intensive interrogations, was carried out. He was viewed, at least up until the end of 1946, more as a hostage than as a political criminal awaiting trial.

It is not clear why the Swedish government did not pursue the Wallenberg case more forcefully; Swedish officials may have been concerned about the fate of Swedish businesses located in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, which were in danger of being confiscated if Sweden did not quickly establish “normal” political and economic relations with the East Bloc. Whatever the explanation, the Swedes could not ignore the Wallenberg issue after German and other prisoners of war returning from the Soviet Union in the early 1950s testified that Wallenberg had been in both Lubianka and Lefortovo prisons between 1945 and 1947.

When the Swedes again began pressing the Soviets for answers about Wallenberg, the post-Stalin government, headed by Nikita Khrushchev, apparently decided that some sort of a response was called for. In Febru-ary 1957, after protracted discussions within the Soviet leadership about how to handle the Wallenberg matter (discussions that are well documented in the working group’s reports), Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko handed over a memorandum to the Swedish government stating that, after a thorough search of the prison archives, a single document had been discovered. The document, a copy of which was attached to the memorandum, was a handwritten report by the Lubianka prison doctor, A.L. Smol-tsov, addressed to then Minister of State Security Viktor Abakumov. Smoltsov stated that Wallenberg had died in his cell of a “sudden myocardial infarction” on July 17, 1947.

A notation on the report (presumably added by Smoltsov later) stated that on instructions from Abakumov, Smoltsov had ordered the body to be cremated. According to this now well-known Gromyko memorandum, no further documentation about Wallenberg could be found, and, because Smoltsov had died in 1953, there would be no opportunity to question him. Gromyko also claimed that Abakumov, who had been executed in 1954, had given the Soviet Foreign Ministry false information about Wallenberg, thus implying, disingenuously, that his ministry had not known about Wallenberg being a prisoner.

Not surprisingly, the Swedes were not convinced that this was the whole story, particularly since Wallenberg was only thirty-four years old at that time and had no history of heart trouble. The case was kept alive in Sweden by continued reports over the years about Wallenberg’s presence in prisons and labor camps at various places in the Soviet Union well after 1947. The reports came from former prisoners of war who eventually were repatriated to Central and Eastern Europe, as well as from some former Soviet prisoners.

These witnesses recalled either meeting someone they thought was Wallenberg or hearing about Wallenberg from other prisoners. At least seven witnesses, for example, mention Wallenberg’s presence in Moscow prisons after 1947; three former prisoners reported seeing someone who appeared to be Wallenberg at prisoner transit points in the late 1940s; two witnesses say they saw Wallenberg at the Kazan Special Psychiatric Hospital in the early 1950s; and there are at least seven reports about Wallenberg having been seen or heard of in Vladimir prison, located 250 kilometers east of Moscow, after 1947.

One particularly interesting report came from a Swedish physician named Nanna Svartz, who reported a conversation in German with a Soviet doctor, Alexander Miasnikov, during a 1961 medical conference in Moscow. According to Dr. Svartz, Dr. Miasnikov told her that he had recently seen Wallenberg in a Moscow mental hospital. Although Dr. Miasnikov later denied that he had said this, claiming that a misunderstanding had occurred because of his poor grasp of German, Dr. Svartz remained convinced that her version was accurate.

Despite all these reports, the Soviets (and later the Russians) doggedly insisted that the Gromyko memorandum was the definitive account of Wallenberg’s death until late 1992, when the working group’s investigation was well underway. At that time, new evidence relating to the memorandum and the significance of July 17, 1947, as a key date in the Wallenberg case was released by the Russian side. Among the new documents were messages between Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky and Soviet state security officials showing that the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs was well aware of Wallenberg’s imprisonment in Moscow as early as 1946. By the spring of 1947 Vyshinsky, still faced with inquiries from the Swedish government, was looking for a way to resolve the case. On May 14, 1947, he wrote to his boss, Foreign Minister Viacheslav Molotov, saying that he had requested clarification from the state security organs regarding the fate of Wallenberg and that “insofar as the Wallenberg case remains unresolved until the present moment I ask you to order Abakumov to present information on the subject of this affair and suggestions for its liquidation.” It should be noted that in Russian “its” (ego) could also mean “his,” so it is unclear whether Vyshinsky was referring to the case’s liquidation or to the liquidation of Wallenberg. On the same document Molotov ordered Abakumov to “report to me.”

According to other documents provided to the working group, Vyshinsky wrote to Abakumov on July 7, 1947, with suggestions for how they could persuade the Swedes that Wallenberg had died in Budapest in 1945. From this it would appear that the Soviets were not planning to release him. Most ominously of all, a notation on a letter Vyshinsky wrote to Abakumov two weeks later shows that Abakumov wrote a letter to Molotov on July 17 (the same date that appeared on the Smoltsov report of Wallenberg’s death) and that the subject was Wallenberg. This letter, which could contain the key to the case, is said by Russian archivists to be missing.

All of the participants in the working group concur on the significance of July 1947. As the Swedish report put it, “There can only be full agreement on the fact that important decisions were taken about him at that time, or, alternatively, that something serious happened.” The Russian report goes further, arguing that “all the circumstantial evidence confirms that Raoul Wallenberg died, or most likely was killed, on July 17, 1947.” Among this evidence is the Vyshinsky-Molotov document, which, in the Russian view, shows that the Soviets intended to kill Wallenberg in 1947, and that the Smoltsov report was a cover for some more sinister cause of Wallenberg’s death.6 According to prison documents released to the working group, a few days after July 17 several of the prisoners who had direct contact with Wallenberg were called in for lengthy interrogations about him and then placed in solitary confinement. This lends further credence to the view that he had just been killed. After July 1947 there are no further records of Wallenberg’s presence in any of the prison registers. His name vanishes without a trace. As for Roedel, the prisoner with whom Wallenberg spent the most time in the same cell, and Langfelder, the driver when he was arrested, the archival evidence suggests that they died within months.

According to Wallenberg’s fellow prisoners who were released and repatriated in the early 1950s, he consistently refused to cooperate with his interrogators. Thus by mid-1947 the Soviets might have given up on him as a source of information and decided to execute him. And if, as is likely, it was Stalin who decided Wallenberg’s fate, Stalin’s intense anti-Semitism may have also been a factor. Wallenberg was a savior of Jews, and Stalin was by this time embarking on his plans to launch a widespread campaign against Jews in the Soviet Union.7


Still, the authors of the Swedish report and, more vehemently, those of the three independent reports remain unconvinced that Wallenberg died in July 1947, and they have strong arguments on their side. First of all, there is the ambiguity surrounding the term “liquidation,” used by Vyshinsky in his May 17 letter, and the fact that it could refer either to the man or to the case. If the intention was to dispose of the case, rather than the man, Wallenberg could have become a “secret prisoner,” identified by a number but with no recorded name. According to prison files studied by the working group, certain categories of prisoners were numbered, and their identity kept secret.

Those who question the Russian version also regard it as surprising that Wallenberg would be killed before his case was fully investigated and he was sentenced. If the official records are accurate, Wallenberg was interrogated only five times before July 17, 1947, and was never sentenced. Even if Wallenberg had refused to cooperate, it would have been early to give up on him without more extensive interrogations. Furthermore, if a decision had been made to execute Wallenberg, he would have been “convicted” of a crime and there would have been some record of the execution being carried out.8 As for the possibility that Wallenberg died because of some sort of accident or from mistreatment, his importance as a prisoner and reports from other inmates that he was treated relatively well, at least physically, make this improbable, although it cannot be ruled out.9

In addition to the numerous reports I have mentioned that Wallenberg was alive after July 1947, in 1993 members of the working group interviewed a former hospital orderly at Vladimir prison, Varvara Larina, who recalled a prisoner kept in isolation there from the mid-1950s to the 1960s. Larina’s description from memory resembled Wallenberg, and when shown a number of photographs she chose the one of him. The fact that several of Wallenberg’s cellmates in Lefortovo and Lubianka were later transferred to Vladimir prison after being sentenced, and then were identified only by a number and kept in solitary confinement, led Guy von Dardel to organize a research effort there in 1991. This was followed up later by University of Chicago professors Marvin Makinen (himself a former prisoner at Vladimir) and Ari Kaplan, who conducted an extensive computerized analysis of prison registration cards for the years 1947 through 1972, concentrating on the specific section of Vladimir prison where Wallenberg was reported to have been held (korpus 2).

Makinen and Kaplan found that a number of witnesses who claimed that Wallenberg was present in korpus 2 had, in fact, also been imprisoned in korpus 2 at the time they saw him, and they identified seemingly empty cells where an isolated prisoner might have been secretly held. Although Wallenberg’s name does not appear in the prison registry, Makinen and Kaplan believe that the eyewitness reports of Wallenberg’s presence “provide compelling reasons to doubt the credibility of the Gromyko memorandum about the alleged death of Raoul Wallenberg in 1947 and strongly suggest that he lived incarcerated in the Soviet Union at least into the 1960s and possibly 1970s and further.”

Central to the problem of determining Wallenberg’s fate is that, as I have mentioned, his file (delo in Russian) is said by Russian authorities to be missing, although some documents have turned up that appear to have been part of that file, such as Smoltsov’s report concerning Wallenberg’s supposed death in July 1947 from heart failure. Significantly, when von Dardel was in Moscow in 1989, the Russians produced out of the blue a plastic bag full of Wallenberg’s personal belongings. They claimed that the bag was discovered inadvertently in the basement of Lubianka, but this is unlikely, in view of the strict procedures for dealing with prisoners’ possessions. While it is possible that certain records were deliberately destroyed, it is implausible that any evidence relating to an inmate as important as Wallenberg would just disappear, or end up misplaced in a basement.

As Susan Mesinai points out in her report,

A prisoner whose presence is already known to the authorities—and the Russian side has established that this was the case—cannot just “vanish into thin air.” There must be a paper trail.

Mesinai herself has made a painstaking effort to reconstruct what happened to Wallenberg by piecing together the evidence that is available, including the sightings of Wallenberg, and analyzing them against the backdrop of what we know about the Soviet prison regime. Both Mesinai and Susanne Berger are convinced that the Russians are still withholding crucial evidence in the case, particularly since several archives have remained closed to researchers—notably, as I have said, those of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and the counterintelligence service, which might be expected to have important material on Wallenberg.

Perhaps, then, as Susanne Berger says, the greatest myth of all is that the truth about Wallenberg cannot be discovered. The answers may well exist, but if so the Russians are not willing to provide them, even after fifty-six years, with the principal participants in the Wallenberg affair long since dead. Once the first cover-up began, it seems to have set the stage for a cover-up that has been carried out by subsequent Soviet officials and is almost impossible to reverse. But, as is stressed in all the reports, except those from the Russian side, it would be a mistake to give up and close the case on Wallenberg. In the words of Mesinai: “If one places one’s ear to the ground, one will understand as I have—that there is too much insistence, and has been over time, that there is ‘nothing to be found,’ and that this case is now ‘history’—when in fact the real investigation has barely begun.”

This Issue

September 20, 2001