Early 1944, Italy: the Allied armies had been fought to a standstill by the Germans beneath the gaze of the shattered Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Under leaden skies, the living clung to life, while the dead littered the landscape. Rats and carrion birds feasted on their remains; no one who fought at Cassino would ever forget its horror. By spring, the weather finally began to improve and the Allies started preparing for a renewed offensive – one they hoped would finally break through the German defences. Fresh to the theatre, the II Polish Corps was charged with capturing the monastery and prising the surrounding high ground from the enemy’s clutches. For the Polish soldiers it was an opportunity to avenge the misery and destruction the Third Reich had inflicted on their homeland. It was also a chance to earn a battle honour that would remind the world that Poland was still fighting hard for an Allied victory and, importantly, a nation free from the interference of their other sworn enemy: Joseph Stalin.
The lost and found
Before it had even reached the Italian theatre, the journey of the II Polish Corps had been an epic tale of endurance. The story started with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Struggling against Hitler’s war machine, Poland was left reeling from the hammer blows, desperately hoping to stabilise the front in the east in order to buy time and spur an Allied offensive on the Western Front. These plans were rendered useless when the USSR invaded Poland on 17 September, delivering a coup de grace. While many thousands of servicemen escaped via Poland’s southern border, the bulk of her armed forces fell into enemy hands and was disbanded, with the soldiers sent home. Around 15,000 officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were taken into captivity by the Soviet Union, joining border guards, personnel from other Polish organisations, and members of the intelligentsia already detained.
With Poland divided between the USSR and Germany under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet security agency, the dreaded NKVD, acted on its masters’ orders and moved to liquidate the Polish officers, NCOs and others in its hands. Thousands were killed in a series of secret massacres, including massed shootings and burials in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. Thousands upon thousands of other Poles in the east of the country would also be detained and deported, primarily in four major round-ups that started in early 1940. The programme was only interrupted after the Germans unleashed Operation Barbarossa against the USSR on June 22, 1941. In total, it is estimated around 1 million Poles had been transported to work in Kazakhstan, Siberia, the Kola Peninsula and countless other locations across the vastness of the Soviet Union.
As the Blitzkrieg raged, British offers of aid to Stalin came with a partial caveat: the USSR should start normalising relations with Poland. As an extension of subsequent talks, Stalin agreed to release the Polish detainees, including women and children. He also acquiesced to the formation of an independent Polish army that would fight alongside the Red Army. A deal to this effect was signed with representatives of the Polish government in Moscow on 30 July 1941. General Władysław Anders was chosen to command this new Polish force. Born in 1892, he had served in the Tsarist army in the First World War and fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian-Polish War of 1919-1920. Anders had commanded a cavalry brigade at the start of the Second World War and had managed to chalk up some minor successes. He had tried to withdraw his forces into neutral Hungary once the Soviet invasion had started. Unfortunately, Anders was wounded before leading his men to safety and was taken to a hospital instead. He was soon captured by the Russians and put on trial by the NKVD. 'I had, I learned, betrayed the international proletariat by fighting the Bolsheviks in 1918-1920,’ he wrote after the war. 'I was also indicted for having fought Soviet troops and was held responsible for the casualties suffered by them.’ For good measure, Anders was condemned as a spy. Somehow he avoided the executioner’s bullet and was thrown in jail instead.
In March 1940, Anders was transferred to the basement prison of the Lubyanka, the NKVD headquarters in Moscow, where he faced just over a year of interrogation, fear and poor health. So it was to Anders’ immense surprise that he was released soon after the German invasion of the USSR and vaulted into a position of command. His first priority was to ensure news of what the Russians called an ‘amnesty’ was delivered to all captive Poles and to help, where possible, able-bodied men to make their way to the new Polish army’s assembly points. Unfortunately, many captive Poles were left unaware of these developments, only finding out many months later. Others were gathered together by their Soviet work managers and told they had been absolved of their so-called crimes, as well as being informed about Anders’ new force. Some were made aware of the army either through rumour or the sudden arrival of a Polish liaison officer. Most of those who joined the new force had to find their own way to the assembly points, one of the first being at Buzuluk, roughly equidistant between Moscow and the Ural Mountains. An extremely lucky few were both informed of the amnesty and then fast-tracked by the Soviet authorities on specially-organised rail journeys.
Unfortunately, the Poles were quick to learn the hand that gives can also take away; large numbers of those attempting to join the army had their hopes dashed when Stalin reneged on the number of Poles allowed to travel and join Anders. Stanislaw Bierkieta, in his late teens when he was arrested by the Russians, was one of those affected. In transit south from the Kola Peninsula, he recalled a Polish civil servant arriving and informing the men they were no longer needed and that they would be transferred to a collective farm instead. ‘We would have lynched him there and then had he been in reach.’ Bierkieta said. Together with a colleague who held vital travel passes, he decided to risk heading out alone.
New model army
Those who succeeded in reaching Buzuluk and other Polish assembly points were often shadows of their former selves. For Anders it was not surprising to find his compatriots arriving in such an atrocious state, but he was perplexed by the notable lack of officers and experienced NCOs. The Poles knew more than 15,000 had been taken in Soviet captivity but, with so few arriving, it seemed as though most had vanished into thin air. When asked by the Poles about their disappearance, Stalin suggested they had escaped – possibly to Manchuria.* The closest the Poles came to the truth was when Merkulov, the right-hand man to Beria, the head of the NKVD, was asked where he thought the missing officers were. ‘In their case we made a fatal mistake,’ he replied.
*Commentators have often noted Stalin’s response as illustrative of his psychopathic humour. Certainly there is that possibility, but the reply also carries a twin insult. For much of the 1930s, Poland and Japan had shared intelligence on the USSR and Stalin was well aware of this, although he over-inflated its significance. Manchuria, of course, was under Japanese control and so it appears Stalin was trying to make the Poles feel uncomfortable by reminding them of their country’s prior dealings with an Axis belligerent. In addition, the reply slanders the character of the officers, whose fate Stalin was perfectly aware of, by implying they might have joined the Japanese.
Despite the immense hurdles, Anders got on with the business of constructing an army. Exercise for the troops was immensely difficult due to harsh winter conditions that had already led to poor health, frost bite and even death. Weaponry was in short supply, although greater amounts of British-supplied clothing and equipment soon arrived, giving the Poles – who had moved to more southerly climes in the USSR – a somewhat motley appearance when combined with the mixture of Russian and worn-out Polish apparel they were already wearing. In tandem with this, the idea Anders’ Poles would fight alongside the Soviets was starting to falter. Both Anders and the Polish government-in-exile were wary of Stalin's intentions, with limited good faith between the sides.*
*See endnote 1.
This was made all the worse after Stalin suddenly ordered a dramatic curtailment of rations for the Poles, news of which reached Anders on 8 March 1942. After much debate, Anders argued it was imperative to evacuate a large percentage of his forces into Persia and the Polish government-in-exile concurred, with Stalin acquiescing to the Soviet transport of Polish personnel into British-controlled Persia in late March and early April. Not too long afterwards, Anders pressed for the rest of his forces to be allowed to follow; he was keen free himself of further Soviet control and argued it was better to have all available Poles fighting alongside the Western Allies, whose cause Poland – barring the tiny communist Polish Workers’ Party and its affiliates – had identified with since 1939. Thus, it was agreed between all parties that Anders’ remaining units would cross into Persia from August-September and all Polish units in the Middle East would come under British auspices. In total, Anders managed to evacuate 113,000 Polish men, women and children out of Soviet clutches.
British support units in Persia were initially shocked at the physical state of the Poles on arrival and were left scrambling to care for so many sick and malnourished people. But despite their pitiful condition, there were many Western observers who refused to believe the Polish reports of maltreatment and the horrors experienced in the USSR. For example, Edmund Stevens in his book Russia is No Riddle (1945), made several fallacious comments regarding Anders’ force. ‘Anders was far more concerned with getting troops out of Russia than civilians. It was strictly not the case of women and children first,’ he wrote. In fact, the numbers of women and children brought out broke many of the rules imposed on Anders by his unwilling hosts. And this taps into Anders’ most tragic dilemma: there was only so many people he could save. Undoubtedly, many of those he and his staff knew about but had to leave behind lost their lives as a result. A large number of the women and children Anders managed to get out were sent to live on bases in India or Africa, where they recovered in peace. Other women joined rear-line and support units, for example becoming vehicle mechanics or drivers.
Once fitness was restored, many of the men were afforded an opportunity to transfer to units in Britain and elsewhere that were desperate to build up their numbers, particularly the Polish Air Force, the 1st Armoured Division and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. Around 40,000 men remained to be shaped into the II Polish Corps and trained along British lines. They were posted from Persia to Iraq, to Palestine and eventually arrived Egypt by mid-1943, where the Corps was informed it had been earmarked for use in the Italian theatre. The force now comprised 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division (composed of 1st Brigade and 2nd Brigade); the 5th Kresowa Infantry Division (comprising 5th Wilkenska Brigade and 6th Lwow Brigade); and the 2nd Polish Armoured Brigade. The Corps also contained numerous artillery and support units.
First clashes at Cassino
Anders’ soldiers arrived in Italy during December 1943 and January 1944, a time when the Allies had been given a bloody nose on the Gustav Line, a major German defensive feature that stretched from Ortona on the Adriatic coast, over the Apennines, through Cassino* and down to the Mediterranean at the mouth of the River Garigliano. Cassino was no ordinary Italian town; on a steep hill behind was a monastery founded by Saint Benedict in 524 AD. It therefore marks the beginnings of the Benedictine Order, which went on to influence the fabric of Europe civilisation. Saint Benedict had chosen the location with care, for churches and places of worship were often the target of choice for marauding armies. Despite the precautions, the site would be sacked three times by the mid-11th century. Thick walls were built up until the monastery, from the outside, looked more like an imposing fortress than a place of holy contemplation.
*The lynchpin of the defence line covering Highway 6, the main north-south road to Rome.
The Germans had spent three months building up the Gustav Line, making the best possible use of mountain peaks, gorges and caves in which they remained unobserved from the Allies and could take cover from any incoming fire. They had also spent time carefully sighting their guns, re-enforcing houses with concrete and laying down miles of barbed wire. Thousands of mines had also been sown, including the deadly anti-personnel schu mine. Although the Germans had announced the monastery was a neutral zone, the Allies believed – erroneously as it was to turn out – that the position was being used for observation or, worse still, it was being turned into defensive bulwark.
First to face the Gustav Line around Cassino had been American units from the Fifth Army. The Italian winter of 1943/44 was atrocious and the men made limited headway in return for heavy casualties. However, the Americans had managed to capture a number of vital points, including a foothold on ‘Snakeshead Ridge’. This was an important feature as it offered the Allies a secondary route towards Monte Cassino without having to make a head-on assault from the monastery’s base. However, the Snakeshead still heavily favoured the defender and offered almost no place for an attacker to freely manoeuvre. Roughly in the middle of this boomerang-shaped feature was Point 593, a rocky outcrop that afforded the Germans excellent cover and clear fields of observation. It would have to be captured in order for any advance on the Snakeshead to proceed.
By early 1944, the American units had been relieved. Various units from other nationalities continued to battle over the ground in the following months, although only limited gains were made. It was during this period the Allies made the controversial decision to launch a major air strike on the monastery; thinking they would flush the Germans out, on 15 February they bombed Italian monks and civilian refugees instead. It was a terrible mistake but one that was a major fillip to the Germans: elite Fallschrimjäger (paratroopers) of the 1 Fallschrim, which was part of the defending German 10th Army, occupied the ruins and promptly turned it into the defensive bastion the Allies had originally feared. The monastery’s destruction was also used for maximum propaganda purposes by Goebbels.
The Allies started making preparations for Operation Diadem in spring. It would be a large-scale offensive to break through the Gustav Line and the next defensive position, the Hitler Line, which was described by the historian Matthew Parker as ‘decidedly makeshift’. While German forces were being battered into submission on the Gustav Line, Fifth Army units holding the beachhead at Anzio* would strike out and attempt to seal off German avenues of escape and ensure their destruction. If all went according to plan, a decisive victory was within the Allies’ grasp – one that could deal a severe blow against Germany’s entire position in central and possibly northern Italy.
*A major seaborne landing that had occurred on 22 January 1944, at Anzio and Nettuno, to the north of the main Allied line. It started out as an effort to outflank the enemy on the Gustav Line but quickly become bogged down into a vicious slog of attack and counter-attack in and around the beachhead.
In the meantime, the II Polish Corps had been incorporated into the British Eighth Army and their first frontline experience came during March 1944 on a relatively quiet sector. On 24 March 1944, the commander of the Eighth Army, General Leese, met General Anders and his chief of staff, General Wisniowski. Leese informed them the Poles were to play a key role in Operation Diadem; they had been selected to take the monastery and its environs, although the two men could turn this down if they felt their troops were still unready. The pair held a short conversation and then readily agreed to take on the Herculean task. Monte Cassino had become world renowned and they believed a victory here would garner both public and political support from the British and Americans. It would also act as a reminder of Poland’s commitment to the Allied cause. Within the theatre, victory at Monte Cassino would push the Italian campaign along and earn Polish II Corps the respect of their new peers.
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The Poles were scheduled to take over positions near the monastery in the last week of April, while the offensive would start with a massed artillery barrage at 23:00 on 11 May. Learning the lessons of previous assaults, Anders decided his forces would focus on taking the high ground beyond the monastery. If they succeeded, the Germans’ hold of the site would become increasingly tenuous and, it was hoped, prompt their withdrawal. The Kresowa Division was chosen to tackle Phantom Ridge and from there, Colle Saint Angelo. It would then push on towards Point 575. The Carpathian Division was to strike and seize Point 593 and then attack Point 569. If it succeeded, the division would then battle away from the Snakeshead, past the Albaneta Farm, and towards Point 505. But for any of this to happen, the Poles needed to bring up supplies across rugged terrain under the constant gaze of snipers and enemy observers who called in artillery strikes with unerring accuracy. Through great effort, including the sterling work of five Cypriot mule companies, many of these difficulties were overcome.
Stanislaw Bierkieta remembered the horror of being shelled. He had managed to reach Anders’ army and became a platoon leader in the 15th Pozan Uhlans Regiment by the time Polish II Corps reached Monte Cassino. He recalled military policemen (MPs) directing troops along the main road and listening for the threat of incoming fire. ‘A nearby MP suddenly shouted for us to take cover. I jumped behind a dead mule and found myself lying next to a dark-skinned chap who I assumed was a Cypriot. After the shells hit, the MP called out that it was safe to move on. I stood up but noticed my neighbour remained on the ground. “You can get up now,” I said. But he didn’t respond and I realised I’d been taking cover next the blackening corpse of a man killed some time beforehand.’
Anders’ orders on the eve of battle declared: ‘We go forward with the sacred slogan in our hearts: God, Honour, Country.’ The assault began with a spectacular preliminary barrage of roughly 1,600 guns across the whole Cassino front. At 01:30 on 12 May, the Carpathian Division started its assault. Despite its impressive scale, the bombardment of German positions had been relatively ineffectual, the enemy having made good use of the shelter afforded by reverse slopes, caves and other defensive positions. The Germans raced into position as soon as the shelling stopped, ready to meet the oncoming attack.
Lashed by withering fire, the 2 Carpathian Battalion managed to take Point 593 by 02:30 before continuing on towards Point 569. With casualties mounting, their effort started to falter. The German 3 Parachute Regiment, under Colonel Heilman, prepared to make a counter attack, covered by friendly mortar and machine gun fire from the monastery. The fallschrimjäger were soon retaking lost ground but discovered that the Poles defended their positions with equal tenacity. In some quarters the men engaged in hand-to-hand combat having fired off their ammunition. The fallschrimjäger kept pressing ahead and eventually broke through, forcing the Poles off Point 593. The cost for the 2 Carpathian Battalion had been immense and only a few dozen men made it back unscathed. The rest were either wounded, dead or dying.
The battle to take Phantom Ridge had also stalled. Again, the Allied bombardment had been ineffectual and again the enemy had responded with a deadly hail of mortar and machine gun fire. Advancing spasmodically, most Poles were forced to dive for cover and crawl forward whenever possible. The intensity of the battle proved too much for some, their minds cracking under the extreme psychological pressure. By 03:00 all three battalions of the 5th Wilkenska had been committed to the battle for Phantom Ridge. To assist, the 18th Battalion from the 6th Lwowska Brigade was thrown into the fray. Despite their best efforts, the terrain and the relentless enemy fire proved insurmountable obstacles for the Poles, and so they withdrew, bloodied but unbroken. Although thwarted, Anders’ men had proven their mettle and created a serious distraction for other Allied assaults to press ahead and record more positive progress. Indeed, the advance of the Free French on the far left of the battle line was now a cause for deep concern among the Germans.
Eye of the storm
On 16 May, the British 78th Division supported by the 6th Armoured Division started its attack across the River Rapido, which runs in front of Cassino town. The unit was aiming to conclusively break through to the Liri valley and advance along the axis of Highway 6. To divide and distract German focus away from 78th Division’s advance, the Poles would launch their second offensive. They were also determined to finally take the monastery and had already busied themselves by bringing up more supplies. Where possible, they sent out patrols to gather intelligence. Stanislaw Bierkieta was involved in a particularly tough reconnaissance mission at this time. He led around a dozen men to scout a quarry in the direction of Monte Cairo, crossing a wide, heavily-mined valley in the process. Bierkieta’s unit reached the quarry and found it unoccupied by the enemy. However, the Germans had been watching from positions further back. ‘They were aware of our presence and started raining down all sorts of fire on us when we came in close enough. It was so intense that all we could do was crouch behind cover and pray we wouldn't be hit.’
The enemy’s fire eventually slackened off and a second, supporting patrol arrived. These men were shaken and on edge, having suffered several casualties caused by mines on the journey over. Waiting until dusk, the two teams then slipped away and began the long trek back. Halfway along, a party of volunteers went off to find the dead and wounded from earlier that day when disaster struck again. ‘My sergeant, an extremely brave man, and some others were killed by an anti-personal mine while undertaking this search,’ Bierkieta recalled. ‘Another group of us, including myself, then went out and struggled to get all of the wounded and dead back in. It was tough and terrible work, but somehow we managed.'
Anders revised his tactical approach in the days leading up to 16 May. It was decided the 6th Lwowska Brigade of the Kresowa Division would tackle the north end of Phantom Ridge. The responsibility for taking Albaneta and the hills beyond fell to the Carpathian Division. The 2nd Carpathian Brigade was charged with helping take the dreaded Point 593 and then, if it was possible, to make an attack towards the monastery. At 22:30, 16 May, the assault began. Aggressively pushing forward, the casualties quickly mounted as the Germans again responded with a storm of mortar and machinegun fire. Stanislaw Zurakowski, a company runner in the 16th Lwow Rifle Battalion of the 5th Kresowa, was at the heart of this maelstrom. He remembered the sickening sensation of racing from point to point with messages: ‘I always felt that every gun was aimed at me,’ he said. ‘I always thought I was a sitting duck, but somehow I made it. None of the other runners in my company did.’
This time the Poles were able to maintain the momentum of their advance, making particularly good progress on the north end of Phantom Ridge. Before long, the toe-hold there had been expanded and was used as a jumping-off point to make an attack on Colle Sant’ Angello, the bulk of which the Poles took by the dawn of 17 May. However, German counter attacks were becoming stronger. At one point, Polish frontline troops were cut off from their comrades bringing up supplies, with contact only re-established once the enemy had been fought off in a desperate, almost last-ditched fight. By now, the men were shattered and too exhausted to assist with the Carpathian’s attack on Albaneta.
The Carpathian Division had succeeded in taking and then holding Point 593. Again casualties had been high, but the Poles were now able to bomb the Germans out and hold off their inevitable counter attacks because of their greater supplies of grenades. The idea of pushing towards the monastery was promptly shelved when it became apparent that the attack by units towards Albaneta had started to bog down. The fighting eventually slackened off in all sections as the combatants on both sides recouped and prepared for further fighting. The battle for the monastery was about to reach a violent crescendo – or so it seemed.
The price of victory
Led by Albert Kesselring, German High Command in Italy was keenly aware the Gustav Line was no longer tenable and so ordered a withdrawal to the Hitler Line. The decision was an unpopular one, particularly among the defenders of the monastery who considered themselves undefeated. Despite the high casualties and horrific conditions, they had been expecting a fight to the finish. Nonetheless, orders were orders, and a retreat started in the late hours of 17 May. So tight was the Allied noose now around the monastery that most fallschrimjäger able-bodied enough to withdraw were either killed or captured by British or Polish patrols. Very few reached the safety of the new, temporary German lines.
In the early hours of 18 May, the Poles intercepted enemy radio traffic and became aware that the Germans had ordered a retreat from the monastery. A scouting group from the 12th Poldolski Lancers, from the Carpathian Division, was sent to discover whether this was the case. Their journey was tough going and, given the paucity of intelligence about the German withdrawal, must have been quite nerve-wracking. The men entered the surviving hulk of the monastery to discover wounded fallschrimjäger, corpses and total destruction. The battle was finally complete when a home-made regimental pennant was hoisted on top of the ruins. Once this was done a bugler played the legendary Krakow Hejnal. The Poles soon hoisted the Union Jack in honour of their allies and a Polish flag. Total casualties for the Poles at Monte Cassino were 72 officers and 788 other ranks killed, and 204 officers and 2,618 other ranks wounded. Five officers and 97 other ranks were listed as missing. More casualties were added to the list when the Poles secured nearby Piedimonte San Germano after making four assaults on the town over 20-25 May. Although the cost had been painful, the fall of Monte Cassino made international headlines as the Poles had hoped.
But the fame was fleeting as General Mark Clark’s liberation of the open city of Rome on 5 June with Fifth Army units breaking away from Anzio soon grabbed the world’s attention. In turn, this was overshadowed by the successful landings in Normandy on 6 June. Back in Italy, the Germans made full use of the opportunity handed to them by Mark Clark’s decision to move on Rome rather than block their available exit routes. Instead of being bottled up, the German 10th Army was able to escape and fight another day. The failure to spring this trap was a particularly hard pill to swallow for the Poles as the dream of a telling victory in Italy had been dashed; there would be no dramatic drive into the north, just more fighting from one defence line to another.
Worse still, the Allied breakout from Normandy, although spectacular in August and September, had slowed to a crawl by mid-autumn 1944. In Poland, large swathes of territory had come under Soviet control and worries abounded as to what the post-war fate of the nation would be. Reports also filtered through of the horrors inflicted on Warsaw by the Germans during and just after the Warsaw Uprising that lasted from August into October. News also arrived of how the Red Army had stood by in Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, just across the River Vistula. The Soviets blamed over-stretched supply lines as the cause for their forces’ immobility, although the Poles suspected duplicity – that Stalin had halted his forces to allow the Germans to destroy the bulk of the Polish Underground Army, the AK, for him.
But despite the grim news from home and the obstacles they continued to face in Italy, the men and women of the II Polish Corps continued to fight with the same spirit of determination their unit had been born with. And it is this commitment to keep on fighting that excites the interest of Poles today. For them, Monte Cassino is almost the physical manifestation of a nation’s struggle regardless of the location or the odds. Thus the battle achieved a far greater significance than Anders could have possibly conceived when asked if his troops could win where all others had so far failed.
Endnote: The cool relations existing between the USSR and Poland became cooler still across 1942 due to the question mark hanging over the fate of the missing officers, NCOs and members of other government services. Grim evidence would be revealed after the Germans uncovered the Katyn forest burial site, with Joseph Goebbels maximising news of the discovery in April 1943 and subsequent findings by independent observers that the USSR was responsible. The Soviet response was to obfuscate, lie and play the role of victim, claiming the Germans committed the outrage during the summer of 1941 and that the Poles were spreading lies by claiming it was a Soviet atrocity. The Poles refused to apologise or retract the accusation, instead deciding to highlight the murders. This provoked Stalin to break off relations with the Polish government-in-exile and gear Soviet propaganda towards discrediting Poland.
Evidence was eventually planted to fit the Soviet version of events after the site fell into Red Army hands in late 1943. Those who had investigated the site beforehand – and who had subsequently been taken into Soviet captivity – quickly recanted earlier testimonies the dead were most likely murdered in 1940. In the interests of maintaining a unified front, both Britain and the USA sat on their own investigative reports pointing to Soviet foul play. After the war, the USSR went to further lengths to have Katyn recognised as a German massacre. However, the USSR and then Russia inched towards accepting Soviet culpability in late 1980s and 1990s. Evidence was made available from the Yeltsin era onwards, although many critical files are believed to remain withheld and are unlikely to be released any time soon.