The house at rue Defacqz 71 is thin as a bread stick and pretty as that girl you used to love. Planted four storeys high on a wide side street branching off Brussels’ prestigious avenue Louise, it has a red brick frontage and decorative graphic panels by Adolphe Crespin.
This tall drink of art nouveau was designed by famed Belgian architect Paul Hankar back in 1893 and served as his private home until he passed through the veil of death at the turn of the twentieth century. These days number 71 looks shabbier than in its prime, but is still a fine example of what a Belgian architect can do with money and imagination to spare.
In the morning of 1 September 1944 the locals found two Russian men dead on the pavement outside. They’d been shot with a submachine gun. We’re still not sure who killed them.
The Warszawa Connection
Yuri Lvovich Voitchehovsky (Юрий Львович Войцеховский) was an exile, a collaborator, and an attempted murderer. He bet his life on the Nazis winning the war. It didn’t work out.
He grew up in Kiev and was 10-years-old when the First World War began. Three years later revolution turned Russia upside down, and two years after that the Bolsheviks shot Voitchehovsky’s army officer father for taking sides against them in the civil war. Yuri clung to his native soil until 1921 then left for Warsaw with older brother Sergei.
The newly independent Polish capital was swarming with White Russian exiles. The Voitchehovsky brothers fitted right in. Sergei got involved with exile paramilitary organisations, spying, and patriotic poetry. His brother studied at Warsaw Polytechnic by day and ran with the Association of Russian Youth (Объединение Русской Молодежи) in his spare time. By 1928 he was the organisation’s chairman.
At the end of April that year he was forced to resign. Some said he was too ‘dictatorial’; others claimed he embezzled some Association money. Either way, he was out. Five days later, still furious at his dismissal, he got a pistol and went to kill someone.
The target was Aleksej Lizarev, a commercial representative for the Soviet Union.
A Glancing Shot
Bang bang bang. Voitchehovsky barely even wounded his man before getting grabbed by the Polish police. He got ten years in Warsaw’s Mokotów prison.
He only served five years. Voitchehovsky left prison to discover the White Russian community still hadn’t forgiven him for messing up its good relations with the Polish government. Even brother Sergei didn’t seem happy to see him.
In the autumn of 1934 Voitchehovsky moved to Belgium to start again. The country had a White Russian community of only 8,000 but enough of them appreciated assassination attempts on Soviet representatives to arrange a visa and place at the Catholic University of Leuven for a degree in political science. Voitchehovsky graduated, got married, and moved to Brussels.
By this time the Belgian capital had unexpectedly replaced Paris as the centre of White Russian activity. The ageing Tsarists in France had got themselves in trouble for sending volunteers over the Spanish border to join General Franco’s right-wing rebels, seeing their own battle against the Bolsheviks reflected in the civil war raging among the olive groves and dusty town squares. The French government didn’t approve of private military intervention and encouraged the most active of their Russian guests to find another home. Most went north to Belgium.
Voitchehovsky took advantage of the new, bustling atmosphere by returning to politics. He gave speeches, wrote articles, founded the House of Russian Youth, took a position at the House of Russian War Veterans, and became local representative of the Russian Christian Labour Movement, which sounded like a trade union but acted as the wing of a Swiss-based anti-communist group with links to French intelligence.
He had ambitions to become leader of the entire Belgian exile community. A kind of fuhrer.
The Austrian Corporal
Voitchehovsky was not alone among White Russians in seeing Nazi Germany as an ally in the battle against communism. Plenty of the younger generation regarded themselves as more fascist than monarchist. The would-be leader of Russian Belgium went further. He attended the Nürnberg rallies of 1937 and ’38, then wrote and lectured enthusiastically about them back home.
‘With such unusual strength, with such obvious evidence and such deep confidence, in Nürnberg,’ he wrote, ‘the fundamental principle of the National-Socialist doctrine about the spiritual unity of the Leader and his people (das Führerprinzip) is brought to life, is incarnated, so that being there and not seeing this, means understanding nothing. […]
The man who turned the wheel of history is Adolf Hitler.’
There were rumours Voitchehovsky was in contact with German intelligence agencies. The police in Belgium kept him under surveillance. The country was trying to stay neutral in the face of the looming Second World War. It was only when Nazi tanks rolled into Belgium on 10 May 1940 that panicking authorities began to round up potential collaborators.
Plenty of White Russians ended up in prison during the eighteen days of fighting before the Germans took control. To the exile community’s surprise, Voitchehovsky was not one of them. He had managed to stay out of sight in Brussels long enough to avoid the handcuffs.
He re-emerged to find a Belgium struggling to cope with surrender and jackboots marching everywhere and Achtung! Jawohl! Heil! in the air. A new Nazi infrastructure got imposed on the defeated country. The Gestapo decided to organise the White Russian community under the control of a single figure, answerable to Berlin.
They chose Voitchehovsky.
Life During Wartime
He established the Comité d’Entr’aide russe en Belgique (aka the Russische Selbsthilfsausschuß in Belgien) at rue Defacqz 71 and began to throw his weight around. All the old generals who’d fought in the Russian Civil War found themselves sidelined or ignored. Voitchehovsky was suspected of passing lists of names of ‘unreliable’ Russians to the Nazi authorities. Some vanished into prisons or concentration camps. He denied the accusations but few believed him.
The existing galaxy of Russian exile organisations got shut down or forcibly incorporated into the Comité d’Entr’aide russe. Even Ukrainians and other exiles were told to register. There were propaganda exhibitions; a huge rally in 1943 with Flemish and Walloon collaborators, including Rexist leader Léon Degrelle; and recruiting drives for General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army.
Voitchehovsky never lost his faith, even as the war turned against Germany. After the assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, he wrote a letter to Berlin damning the conspirators as ‘criminal madmen‘ and reaffirming his support for Nazism.
A few weeks later he was dead.
He died in the early hours of 1 September. Allied troops entered Brussels two days later. Who pulled the trigger is still a mystery.
It’s a fair guess that Voitchehovsky was preparing to leave Brussels when he and his bodyguard Aleksej Litvinov were gunned down. Blackout streets, dim light from an open door, a burst of submachine gun fire. German troops were already pulling out and Voitchehovsky was probably planning to join them.
But who shot him? The Belgian resistance seems the obvious candidate but they never took responsibility, even decades afterwards, despite being normally only too happy to publicise dead collaborators. Some suggest the Nazis killed off Voitchehovsky because he knew too much but it’s difficult to see exactly what he could have known to justify this secret assassination that left no traces in any files, memoirs, or interrogations.
It’s possible that members of the White Russian community used the chaos to kill off Voitchehovsky in revenge for his bullying during the occupation or his clamed passing of names to the Nazis. After the war some White Russians would claim Voitchehovsky was shot with his own submachine gun by a man dressed in the uniform of General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army. It’s never been proved and, if true, raises more questions than answers.
Other options include personal grudges, someone looking to get their hands on something Voitchehovsky possessed (files? money?), or a random act of violence as Nazi Brussels collapsed.
No-one can be surprised that a collaborator the Germans secretly regarded as an untermenschen and who managed to alienate the very people he was supposed to represent ended up with a chestful of bullets in the dying days of a war. Ambition kills more than it serves.
If you have any information about Voitchehovsky or theories on his death then get in touch.
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