By Sean Guillory
Studies on Andrei Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Army often double as political statements on the Soviet Union, its character, history, and legacy. Where one situates Vlasov vis-?-vis the regime is a comment on whether Vlasov was a traitor, collaborator, or patriot. Whichever of these labels are attached to him also reveals one’s position on Soviet Communism. As Catherine Andreyev states in her reevaluation of Vlasov, both his supporters and detractors instrumentally employ Vlasov’s Army as a polemical tool.
How can the history of one person be a statement on an entire social, political, and economic system? To be sure, Vlasov is not alone in this regard. The list of historically controversial figures that lived and died under Soviet rule is undoubtedly endless. But the question isn’t so much the attempt to historically uncover or rehabilitate the “true Vlasov” and where he stood in regard to Stalin, WWII, and the Nazis. In many ways there is no “true Vlasov” to uncover or rehabilitate. A more important question is why do figures like Vlasov continue to be politically charged in the present and what does that say not only about the present, but also how we relate that present to the past?
It is this question that hovers over Michael Averko’s article on Vlasov. Averko calls for a more nuanced historical account of the man Anderi Vlasov that recognizes him as “Russian patriot, whose frank views went against Nazism.” But his argument suggests much more. Averko’s piece also implicitly opens up a debate as to why such an account has yet to be accepted in post-Soviet Russia. Thus Averko’s article is as much about history as it is about memory. It is my hope that the presentation of Averko’s “Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy” (on this blog) will open up a debate about Vlasov that can lead us beyond polemics.
As Averko notes, Russians seem to have made their historical peace with the Whites. In 2005, the remains of White General Anton Denikin were returned to Russia and reburied with full military honors. Very recently, another White General, Vladimir Kappel, was reburied with similar honors. Even the royal family has benefited from a reevaluation of their memory. Last September, the remains of Nicholas II’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna, (who died 78 years ago in exile in Denmark), were brought back to St. Petersburg for a royal burial alongside the other Romanovs. And who could forget that in 1989 “bloody” Czar Nicholas II and his slain family were not only reburied, but also consecrated as a saint (again along with his family) by the Russian Orthodox Church. It appears that memory can bleach all blood stains white.
Yet some wounds are too fresh to close. While Averko writes, “a growing number of Soviet era Russians seem to be acknowledging that there’s more to the Vlasov Army than what they were raised on believing.” However, this acknowledgment is hampered by the fact that WWII continues to haunt the Russian political landscape. If the 60th anniversary celebrations, which were conducted in full Soviet regalia, were any indication, the war is a node in which present day Russia can reconcile many demonic events and figures of its Soviet past. But not so with those deemed traitors of the Motherland, even if that Motherland was at the time Soviet. While Stalin gets nostalgic TV serials in his name (along with him reading biblical texts and psalms and expressing regret at his deeds), figures like Vlasov remain damned in the public consciousness. To many Soviet born Russians, the Vlasov Army continues to be a “negative entity.”
“Dead bodies have enjoyed political life the world over and since far back in time,” reads the opening line of Katherine Verdery’s The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. The act of exhuming and reburying historical figures follows the rise and fall of political regimes. Modern political systems, despite their paeans to law, science, and rationality, still require legitimacy. One way this is done, Verdery argues, is though the decomposed flesh of those long dead.
Thus the main question for me is: if post-Soviet Russia can reconcile its present with the Romanovs, Denikin, Kappel, and Stalin, what will it take to reposition figures like Vlasov? And, more importantly, at what historical and political cost?
Andrei Vlasov’s Legacy
Draza Mihailovich, the anti-Communist/anti-Nazi World War II era Serb Chetnik leader, was a much maligned individual among Yugoslav Communist officialdom and some other left wing circles. During World War II, Russia had a similar figure in Andrei Vlasov. Both met the same fate of execution by their respective Communist enemies. Thanks to academic efforts like David Martin’s “Patriot or Traitor: The Case of General Mihailovich” (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Ca, 1978), the Chetnik leader’s legacy has been more properly acknowledged. Vlasov has his supporters as well. Yet, there remains a good great deal of ignorance of what he was and wasn’t, thereby making his legacy a matter of contentious debate (the same is true of Mihailovich).
How post Communist states treat nationalist and anti-Communist movements is a reflection of not only how they view the past, but also the politics of memory and history in the present. For example, present day Ukraine has been debating whether to positively acknowledge the World War II role of the anti-Soviet West Ukrainian (primarily Galician based) Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA)/Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). On the other hand, contemporary Russia hasn’t given any thought about honoring the Andrei Vlasov led army of anti-Communist Russians during the same war.
This contrasts with how Russia now views the Russian Civil War era Whites. In contrast to the Soviet period: in Russia today, it’s not so uncommon to see the Whites portrayed as Russian patriots, with a different ideological outlook from the Reds. This change is understandable, given the large scale misery which plagued Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.
For many Soviet reared Russians, the Vlasov Army (formally known as the Russian Liberation Army) remains a negative entity. This is noted in the numerous discussions I’ve had with some of them. Unlike the Whites of Denikin, Wrangel and Kolchak, the Vlasov Army is often viewed as a traitorous ally to the hated Nazi aggressor. In the spirit of a freer post Soviet Russia, a growing number of Soviet era Russians seem to be acknowledging that there’s more to the Vlasov Army than what they were raised on believing.
Unlike the UPA/OUN, the Vlasov Army was never involved in any war crimes (like the mass killing of civilians). Vlasov’s forces did little fighting against the Red Army. Like the UPA/OUN, the Vlasov Army fought the Nazis. For much of the war, the Vlasov Army was a bottled project that was debated between Russia hating Nazi ideologues and anti-Soviet/pro-Russian realists within the Wehrmacht. The latter was represented in part by ethnic Germans, who served in the Imperial Russian Army and allied themselves with the Whites during the Russian Civil War.
The anti-Russian Nazi ideologues included Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg. The Baltic German born (in Estonia) Rosenberg went against the grain of his fellow ethnic Germans with Imperial Russian ties. This anti-Soviet/anti-Russian versus pro-Russian/anti-Soviet debate carried on into the Cold War, as shown by the activity of the American based Captive Nations Committee. In 1959, that organization (made up largely of Galician Ukrainians) succeeded in getting the US Congress to approve a holiday known as Captive Nations Week, which recognized every Communist country as being captive with the exception of Russia.
Make no mistake about it, Andrei Vlasov was a Russian patriot, whose frank views went against Nazism; thus shelving his movement from Nazi support for much of the war. He made it clear that he wanted to see a strong Russia with the desired overthrow of Stalin. The Nazi hierarchy’s plan for Russia was antithetical to Vlasov’s agenda. Whereas some states like Croatia would exist in name, others like Russia were slated as lebensraum zones for the Third Reich. Vlasov periodically infuriated the Nazi ideologues with his stated Russian patriotic outlook.
Prior to his capture by the Germans in 1942, Vlasov was seen as a highly regarded Red Army general on the rise. After his incarceration, there’s ample documentation showing how he refused to accept Nazi ideology and the notion of fighting the Western allies of the USSR. Some Russian prisoners of war were sent to the Western Front to fight on the Nazi side. Vlasov had zero control over their positioning. The same holds true of the SS Kaminsky Brigade which was primarily situated in Byelorussia. Numbering anywhere between 2,000-10,000 (the lower figure being the more likely correct number), that SS unit participated with the Nazis in crushing the Polish resistance during the Warsaw Uprising (at its peak, Vlasov’s personnel are said to have numbered anywhere between 60,000 and several hundred thousand). Shortly after the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis dissolved the Kaminsky Brigade (killing its leader Bronislav Kaminsky in the process). Some of the Russians in that brigade ended up in Vlasov’s army. While serving under Vlasov, none of them were found to have committed any war crimes of note.
Some Russian prisoners of war were co-opted into joining the Vlasov Army (this involved the offer of better living conditions). At the same time, there’s no denying an anti-Stalinist mindset among many Russians of that period.
Nazi cruelty towards a number of Slavic national groups was inclusive of Russians. This stupidity prevented the Nazis from winning over many would be allies. It’s no small wonder why the Vlasov Army “turned” on its Nazi “ally” at the end of the war. Following their defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis became desperate. Before letting Vlasov’s army loose, the Nazis tried to get something out of Vlasov in return. The negotiated compromise (involving Vlasov’s German handlers) was a signed statement by Vlasov which stated an opposition to Stalin and Jewish involvement with in the USSR. In cyberspace, one can find this noted without mention of the pressures put on Vlasov to accept Nazi ideology. Outside of that declaration, Vlasov wasn’t known to have made any anti-Jewish statements. One of his right hand men, was a Jew with orthodox Marxist sympathies by the name of Lev Zykov. Vlasov’s main biographer Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt (a Baltic German, who served in the Imperial Russian army) recalls an ethnically tolerant Vlasov, who went against the grain of Nazi ideology and had factually challenged the anti-Jewish propaganda of Nazi ideologues (see page 191 of Strik-Strikfeldt’s referenced book at the end of this article).
For some, quoting Strik-Strikfeldt and others allied with the Nazis is especially problematical. From time in memorial, individuals have served the military of numerous regimes of questionable reputation. Many of the involved didn’t accept everything about their respective governments. This applied to the Wehrmacht as it did to the Red Army. The understandable skeptics of Vlasov should note that he wasn’t responsible for the murder of millions of Russians and non-Russians like Stalin.
Towards the end of the war, Nazi “Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” Joseph Goebbels wrote of the Nazis’ bungling the use of Vlasov’s ideals (see pages 347-348 of Louis P. Lochner’s “The Goebbels Diaries“, Doubleday & Co., NY, 1948). Then again, the Nazis wouldn’t have been Nazis had they taken advantage of the anti-Stalin feeling among millions of Soviet citizens. This leaves open the matter of Vlasov possibly being na?ve in trying to work out a deal with the Nazi invader. The pro-Russian/pro-Vlasov contingent within the Wehrmacht gave him hope. Not every German serving the Wehrmacht was a Nazi, much like how every Soviet citizen wasn’t part and parcel to all of Stalin’s policies.
Sven Steenberg and others have written about the near end of the war attempts to unite Vlasov’s forces with Mihailovich’s Chetniks (see page 190 of Steenberg’s referenced book at the end of this article). The late timing of this plan prevented it from happening. Nazi forces were on the run, with the Soviets having a massive momentum. Prague was the final scene of European theater World War II combat. The Vlasov Army liberated that city from the Nazis. Shortly thereafter, Vlasov’s personnel were hunted down by the victorious allies. Captured by the Americans – Vlasov was turned over to the Soviets, who executed him.
There’s a good number of primary and secondary source material available on the topic. Here’s a brief listing:
I. Reitlinger, Gerald – THE HOUSE BUILT ON SAND– Viking Press, New York, 1960
II. Steenberg, Sven – VLASOV– Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970
III. Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried – AGAINST STALIN & HITLER– The John Day Company, New York, 1973
IV. Thorwald, Jurgen – THE ILLUSION– Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1975
Historians Kirill Alexandrov and Catherine Andreev have more recently published material on the Vlasov Army.
I want to formally thank Sean Guillory for posting this article at his internationally renowned site. History and politics aren’t hard sciences and are therefore often open to different interpretations. Guillory’s site reflects an eclectic spirit, where varying views can intermingle with each other in an informal, but erudite environment. I sincerely hope that some others will catch on to this spirit.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.In addition to Sean’s Russia Blog, his commentary has appeared in the Action Ukraine Report, Eurasian Home, Intelligent.ru, Johnson’s Russia List, Russia Blog, Serbianna, The New York Times, The Tiraspol Times.