As Gorbachev consolidates his power in the Soviet Union, there are signs that glasnost may be beginning to have a liberating effect upon Soviet historiography. Names and topics that have long been taboo are beginning to creep into print. Not so long ago, a senior historian writing in the pages of Pravda admitted that Leon Trotsky was not the enemy of the Revolution and socialism that he had been described as being for the past sixty years, and went on to give a not uncritical account of his ideas and to praise him for “not breaking, as many others did, before Stalin’s dictatorship.” In August, in the official newspaper of the Communist youth organization, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a five-column article by the military historian V.M. Kulish attacked the myths surrounding the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, pointing out that it was not a defensive ploy, as Party doctrine has held. Instead it was a naive attempt by Stalin to make a permanent alliance with Germany, which succeeded only in giving Hitler a free hand in the West and then making the Russian campaign a one-front war, with dreadful consequences. Commenting on this, and on Kulish’s further charges that Stalin’s obsessive hatred of the German Social Democrats and his orders to the Communists to attack them rather than the Nazis helped bring Hitler to power in 1933, Frederick Starr wrote in The Washington Post, “The Kulish article attests to a new readiness in Moscow to pull even the most horrifying skeletons from the national closet.”
One will be more inclined to agree with this when Soviet scholars dare to attack the most jealously guarded of the historical myths of World War II, that of the invincible solidarity of the Soviet people and their leadership in the face of Nazi aggression. This was given its classic formulation by the propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, when he wrote in a 1941 article called “There is No Fear” (later reprinted in the British series “Russia at War” in 1943): “This war is no civil war. It is a national war for Russia (that is, for the Soviet Union). There is not a single Russian who is against us, or who would support the Germans.”
Read in Germany, that statement would have been greeted with derision. The fact of the matter was that in the course of the Russian campaign the almost incredible number of 5.24 million Russian officers and men surrendered to the Germans (of whom, by German calculations, more than three million died in camps), that in 1943 hundreds of thousands of Soviet subjects were serving the Germans as volunteer workers or in military units, and that during the war’s last years numbers variously estimated but probably exceeding a million men were being organized by former Red Army generals and staff officers into an army that hoped to overthrow the Stalin regime. This was the ROA or Russian Liberation Army, also called the Vlasov Army, after its leader, Lieutenant General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, a heroic figure in the defense of Moscow in 1941.
These facts the Soviet regime has, for the past forty years, attempted to smother, by silence, denial, and vilification. When Vlasov and his associates were executed for treason in 1946, this was announced in a twenty-seven-line article in Izvestia in which their military titles were not even mentioned, and, as if to discourage identification, Vlasov’s name promptly disappeared from the Soviet Military Encyclopedia. These tactics were unsuccessful. In his memoirs, General Petro G. Grigorenko alludes to the way in which discussion of the Vlasov affair continued in the Red Army in the Fifties. Former associates of Vlasov, like the German Captain Wilfried Strik-Strikfeldt and informed observers like the interpreter and middleman Sven Steenberg, began to publish books about his ideas and aims. Finally Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn brought the fate of Vlasov and his followers to world attention in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago. The Soviet government then launched a campaign of unmitigated abuse against these writers and Vlasov himself. The chief of the military historical section of the Department of Defense and corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Lieutenant General Zilin, went so far as to accuse Vlasov of lack of military talent, cowardice, and treason against the state even before his capture by the Germans. He excoriated those who defended him, while at the same time reaffirming the myth of solidarity in the most extravagant terms.
In view of all this, it is clear that letting this particular skeleton out of the closet will be a painful business. But the very possibility invests the three most recent books about Vlasov with a particular interest. Joachim Hoffmann’s study, a product of the Freiburg Research Center for Military History’s long interest in volunteer formations in the German army in World War II, is the most comprehensive account to date of the Vlasov movement as a military organization. with circumstantial details concerning recruitment, training, organization, and deployment, and a description of its abortive operations in the last days of the war and its capture and final disposition. Sergej Fröhlich was a Baltic-German engineer from Riga, with Soviet citizenship and a commission in the Latvian army, who transferred to the German army in 1942 in order to serve as a liaison officer to Vlasov, with whom he established a close and friendly relationship. His memoirs tell us a good deal about the complicated relationship between Vlasov’s personal objectives and Germany’s wartime eastern policy, a story that is already reasonably well known thanks to Alexander Dallin’s masterly account in the second edition of his German Rule in Russia: 1941–1945. But their strength lies in the intimate picture they provide of Vlasov’s personality and the nature of his life in wartime Germany.
Catherine Andreyev’s account emphasizes the political aspects of the Vlasov movement and the extent to which its ideas and its declared objectives were and remain a threat to the Communist regime in the Soviet Union. In addition, both Hoffmann and the prominent German historian Andreas Hillgruber in his introduction to Fröhlich’s memoirs argue that it is not the Soviet Union alone that has reason to be embarrassed by full disclosure of the Vlasov story. Following Solzhenitsyn, they bitterly criticize the British and United States governments for having surrendered Vlasov and hundreds of thousands of his followers to Soviet imprisonment and death.
Andrey A. Vlasov was born in 1900, the youngest of thirteen children in a peasant family in Nizhni Novgorod, and, according to his parents wishes destined for a career in the church. The Revolution put an end to that possibility and, when Vlasov enrolled in an agricultural college, the onset of the civil war terminated that course too. In 1919, he was conscripted into the 27th Rifle Regiment, where he proved such a good soldier that he was soon sent to an officer-training school. As a platoon commander, he fought against the white armies of Denikin on the Don and Wrangel in the Crimea, and by the end of the civil war was commanding a special detachment in the Ukraine with the mission of suppressing anti-Bolshevik and bandit gangs operating in the area. By now, he had made up his mind to remain in the army, and for the next twenty years he had a series of staff, school, and training assignments in which he acquitted himself so well that he advanced quickly in rank and responsibility. In 1938, he was deputy commander of the 72nd Division, from which he moved to a position on Marshal Timoshenko’s staff and from there to a politically sensitive assignment as chief of staff to the Soviet military adviser in China and, for a time, chief military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Upon his return, he was given command of the 99th Division, which was notorious for its lack of homogeneity and, because of this, its insubordination and internecine brawls, and he retrained it so quickly and efficiently that Timoshenko was soon calling it the best division in the army.
When the German invasion of Russia began, Vlasov quickly demonstrated that his talents were not purely administrative or pedagogical, and as a fighting general, popular with his men although a strict disciplinarian, he was soon being compared with Suvorov. Against General von Rundstedt’s offensive in the Ukraine, he conducted a brilliant holding action, fighting his way out of repeated encirclements. In the fighting around Moscow, he commanded the 20th Army and was subsequently singled out by Soviet Informburo as one of the commanders who had made an outstanding contribution to the defense of the capital. In the Soviet counterattack in December, his troops and Rokossovsky’s 16th Army fought their way to the Istra River and to Volokolamsk, and in January 1942 his army spearheaded the drive to surround the Germans in the Mozhaisk-Gzhatsk-Vyazma region. In the same month, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.
His luck now ran out. Appointed in March 1942 as deputy commander of operations on the Volkhov front that were planned by Stalin himself to relieve pressure on Leningrad, Vlasov found himself in a situation in which the chain of command was confused and the troops ill-trained and ill-supplied. In March his Second Shock Army came under heavy pressure from the Germans and, because general headquarters was unresponsive to appeals for speedy reinforcement, was encircled and gradually pounded to pieces. In June Vlasov ordered his men to escape as best they could. He himself was captured on July 12, 1942, and sent to a German holding camp in Vinnitsa.
It was here that he received a visit from the German Captain Strik-Strikfeldt, chief interpreter to the commander of Army Group Middle, General von Bock, with an additional assignment to the “Foreign Armies East” section of the Supreme Army Command. Strickfeldt had been agitating for some time for the creation of an anti-Communist Russian Liberation Army and had won the enthusiastic support of the Chief of the Army Command, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. He now asked Vlasov to assume the responsibility for raising and commanding such a force.
Because he accepted this offer, Vlasov has been called a traitor by Soviet historians and an opportunist by others who have written about his career. In considering such charges, one should remember that for the failure of Stalin’s personally botched Volkhov campaign a scapegoat would have to be found, that it was inevitable that Vlasov would be chosen, and that, in any case, his surrender to the Germans had effectively terminated his professional career and his rights as a Soviet citizen. Return to his country in any circumstances would mean long imprisonment, if not immediate death.
In addition, his decision was probably influenced by his growing estrangement from the Soviet system. Vlasov had never interested himself in politics, but it was impossible to live in the Soviet Union without being touched by it. In the Thirties he had seen the careers of many of his army comrades ended by charges of political unreliability. The great purge of the officers involved in the alleged treason of Marshal Tukhachevsky was in its earliest stages when he went to China. That he was allowed to go shows that he was not among those who were to be charged with complicity; and later claims that he had participated in “The Trotskyite Conspiracy with Tukhachevsky” were clearly fabricated. By the time he returned, however, thousands of highranking officers had been arrested and shot, and it is not unlikely that Vlasov was shaken by the damage that this had done to the morale and efficiency of the Red Army, and that his faith in the regime suffered in consequence.
Moreover, as a son of peasants, he had a sense of what the mass of the population had suffered from the system, for his parents had not only lost their land but come very close to dying from starvation. Those closest to Vlasov agree that he was inspired by an idealistic desire to lift the burden of Stalinist tyranny from the backs of his people and to return to the true ideals of the Revolution but that he was aware that the system was invulnerable to internal pressures and could be toppled only by attack from without, preferably by Russian troops who would be received as liberators. When he learned of the vast numbers of former Red Army soldiers who were held in German camps or serving as volunteers with German units, he saw himself as the crystallization point of such a force.
However one may judge his motives, it is impossible to acquit Vlasov of a fundamental lack of realism. After discussions at Vinnitsa with representatives of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) and the Army Command, Vlasov was put in the hands of officers from Army Intelligence and Army Propaganda who became his advisers and handlers and who established a training center for him at Dabendorf. There, as Hoffmann describes in detail, plans for the future Russian Liberation Army were fleshed out and recruits indoctrinated for leadership positions in the new army. The German officers were advocates of a new eastern policy to replace Hitler’s negative imperialism, which condemned all the Slavic peoples to servitude or worse, and was therefore, they were convinced, self-defeating. They hoped that if enthusiasm developed for Vlasov and his ideas among the Russian volunteer units and the so-called Eastern Troops that were composed of Russian prisoners of war, the Führer might be persuaded to change his course. Some of them, like Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg of the OKW, who had, with Strikfeldt’s superior Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, authorized the establishment of the camp at Dabendorf, may have had dreams of a successful movement that would not only liberate Russia from Stalin but liberate Germany from Hitler as well; some of Vlasov’s strongest German supporters were executed in the wake of the failed Attentat of July 20, 1944. Others were doubtless interested only in using Vlasov as a weapon to stimulate new Soviet desertions. The effect of all this on Vlasov must have been bewildering but encouraging. As Catherine Andreyev writes:
His meetings with German officials and officers who understood to some extent the situation in the Soviet Union and who appeared to sympathise with Russian aspirations, probably strengthened his hopes that a solution which would improve the lot of Russians and their country was a possibility…. Vlasov was used to the USSR where the system of control was so pervasive that it would have been very unwise to criticise official policy without higher authorisation. Consequently, when German officers were openly hostile to Nazi policy, Vlasov concluded that this must echo some directive and that policy could be altered.
Indeed, he seems to have believed that, when his force was in readiness, he would be allowed to work in an autonomous fashion, with German support but without German control. Thus when his force was finally formed, its members wore German uniforms but took the oath not to Hitler but to the Russian people, and in his speeches and declarations Vlasov always carefully avoided subscribing to anti-Semitism or other Nazi articles of faith. He may have even hoped that in the long run all of this would be understood, and approved, by the Western powers as well.
It was, of course, Adolf Hitler who made all of this illusory. In July 1941, the Führer was reported to have said, “Russia is our Africa and the Russians are our Negroes,” and his view did not change as the war progressed. Attempts to persuade him that a Russian liberation army might promote German interests came to nothing. “What do we need with these swamp creatures?” he said scornfully. Hitler was shrewd enough to see the dangers of encouraging a movement that might turn against its sponsors, and in June 1943, in a conference with General Keitel of the OKW and the Army Chief of Staff Zeitzler, he declared, “We will never build up a Russian army. That is a phantom of the first order.” Vlasov’s movements were curtailed and his highly successful trips to the occupied territories to spread his principles stopped. In September 1943, in what was a blow to the whole liberation idea, most of the Osttruppen, which Vlasov’s sponsors had hoped to amalgamate in his army when it was authorized and formally constituted, were, by order of the OKW and against Vlasov’s unavailing opposition, sent to the western front, where many of them, a few months later, were captured by British and American invasion troops.
There is no doubt that after this setback Vlasov’s hopes began to wither. In the villa that had been provided for him on the Kiebitzweg in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem, he now spent less time reading Wehrmacht reports and studying maps than he did on card playing and drinking vodka. “When I didn’t want to drink any more,” Fröhlich writes, “Vlasov always said, ‘What! You don’t want any more! You must! For the cause!”‘ He began to crave company and was ready to entertain anyone who knocked at the door:
Since he suffered greatly from loneliness, it happened repeatedly that he himself opened the door or commanded from the window, “Let him in!” Many pretty women found themselves among those admitted. I understood this attitude. Vlasov surely had a presentiment of the imminence of his tragic end and was thankfully accepting what life still had to offer.
From what might have been complete disintegration, Vlasov was saved unexpectedly by Heinrich Himmler. The SS chief had been one of the strongest supporters of the Untermensch approach to Eastern affairs and had always been scornful of Vlasov and his supporters. But as the shadows of defeat became more palpable, he began to listen to those among his subordinates who urged the raising of new forces among the Eastern peoples, like the Balts and the Ukrainians and the Balkan Muslims. In July 1944 the SS Standartenführer Gunter d’Alquen, who had long regarded Nazi Eastern policy as disastrous, finally persuaded Himmler to meet with Vlasov. Because of the repercussions of the attempt on Hitler’s life, the meeting did not take place until September 16, but when it did the SS chief seemed to be impressed by the Russian leader and, at long last, gave him the authority he had been waiting for, to establish the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (KONR) and to publish its program and principles, and to raise a force of two divisions, and possibly later a third (Vlasov had hoped for ten) for employment in the field.
However heartening this agreement may have seemed at the time, its provisions were belied by the military situation. The entire eastern front was disintegrating, and, as Andreyev points out,
It was clear that KONR had been launched too late, especially since the population of the occupied territories, whose support would have been so valuable, and on which Vlasov had placed such great hopes, had now returned to Soviet jurisdiction.
The organization and fitting out of the two authorized divisions were energetically pursued, despite shortages of materiel and munitions and logjams created by German officialdom, and by March 1945 they were engaged on the Oder front.
But by this time everything was in flux. After a series of bewildering marches and countermarches, faithfully described by Hoffmann, and a dramatic volte-face in May when Vlasov’s First Division intervened in the Prague rising on the side of the Insurgent Czechs, driving the Germans out of the city (an operation designed to impress the Western Allies with their fundamental opposition to Nazism), the Vlasov army came to the end of its resources. The Second Division, which was in Austria, surrendered to the Americans; the First Division, when refused permission by the American commander at Schlüsselburg to cross into the American zone of operations, was ordered by their commander to dissolve and seek safety as well as they could. Half of the division of 10,000 may have succeeded in crossing the American lines; the rest fell into Soviet hands.
This was Vlasov’s destiny also. His associates in KONR had advised him, as the situation worsened, to take a plane to a neutral country (Spain, perhaps, since Switzerland was unlikely to let him in), where he could continue to work for the cause. He had refused, saying he preferred to share the fate of his men, and this he did, being captured by the Soviets on May 12, 1945, as he attempted to make his way, with the First Division Commander Bunyachenko and others, to the American zone.
After that, nothing was heard of the commander of the Russian Liberation Army until August 2, 1946, when Izvestia announced that he and eleven others had been tried for treason, found guilty of being German agents and of carrying out terrorist activities on Soviet soil, and executed by hanging. It may be that the long delay between capture and execution was caused by Soviet hopes that they could extract a politically useful confession from the prisoners and hold a public trial. If so, they were disappointed. According to a friend of Grigorenko, who was in a position to know:
The Vlasov men spoiled the whole plan by refusing to confess to treason against the motherland. All of them declared that they had fought against the Stalinist terrorist regime and therefore were not traitors—but Russian patriots. They were tortured to no avail. At that point it was decided to “attach” a friend from the past to each of them. I “worked” with an old friend of mine…. Our one assignment was to persuade Vlasov and his companions to confess to treason without saying anything about Stalin. For such a confession they were promised life. A few of them wavered, but most, including Vlasov and Trukhin [Vlasov’s chief of staff] did not…. There was no open trial. They were tortured for a long time and hanged when halfdead. How and by what they were hanged I will not even tell you.
The fate of Vlasov’s followers was no less horrible. There was little difference between those who were captured by the Russians and those who made their way into the American zone or were captured in Normandy by the British. In his introduction to the Fröhlich volume, Andreas Hillgruber says astringently that the reason why the Vlasov story was so little known in the West at the end of the war and immediately thereafter was that it was suppressed in order to hide the fact that “the English and Americans, in violation of international law and without any sense of humanity, handed the remaining Vlasov soldiers over to the Soviet Union where a dreadful fate awaited them.” Hoffmann comments caustically upon the pathetic eagerness of the British Foreign Office to appease the Soviets, which led them to surrender 1,430 Russian officers who had never been Soviet citizens.
These charges, and Solzhenitsyn’s remark in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago that Churchill’s surrender of a Cossack corps of 90,000 men and “many wagonloads of old people, women, and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers” was “an act of double-dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy,” are not, when one consults the diplomatic record, easy to answer, and it is painful to read Hoffmann’s descriptions of the way in which the surrenders were sometimes accomplished. Desperate prisoners tried to kill themselves to escape deportation and Allied soldiers drove them into the trucks with clubs. There were good humanitarian and legal reasons for not satisfying the Soviet demand that all of its nationals be handed over. The original American position was that, if a Soviet citizen who was captured in a German uniform maintained that he was a German, the US government would treat him as such and give him the protection of the Geneva Convention (of which the Soviet Union was not a signer). It was only people who claimed Soviet citizenship who would be returned, whether they wanted to be or not.
Unfortunately, the US government, not without strong misgivings on the part of Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Attorney General Robert Jackson, yielded to arguments of necessity advanced by the British. Nicholas Bethell, in his book The Last Secret: The Delivery to Stalin of Over Two Million Russians by Britain and the United States, has pointed out that there was much soul-searching inside the British government too, and that Lord Selborne, the minister of economic warfare, was not alone in protesting against a policy of sending people to certain death. But when the matter was first raised in the fall of 1944, with respect to Russians captured in France, the Foreign Minister Anthony Eden said, “We cannot afford to be sentimental about this,” pointing out that Soviet troops would soon be capturing camps in eastern Europe in which there were British and American prisoners, and one could not risk a Soviet refusal to send them home by hesitating to repatriate the Russians captured in Normandy.
In February 1945, the matter was regulated at Yalta by agreements to cooperate with Soviet authorities in identifying “liberated Soviet citizens who may reach [the West]” and providing transportation for their return to the Soviet Union, the implication being that this would be done irrespective of their wishes. After that, protests against the repatriation policy could be answered by saying that any change of policy would be considered as a treaty violation by the Soviets and might invite a larger treaty violation by them. This was all very logical and in accordance with the principles of Realpolitik. The trouble was that, as Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in the introduction to Bethell’s book, in the last analysis,
The western Allies were determined, above all, not to exasperate Stalin, and Stalin was determined, now as in the Great Purge, to lay his hands on all those Russians who had so far eluded him. To gratify him the western Allies sacrificed…the strict terms of the Yalta Agreement itself [by handing over thousands of Russians who had never been Soviet citizens], and the distinction between treason and political dissent.
The Vlasov movement, then, came to an end in the Lubyanka or in the prison camps. But perhaps not completely. In the fall of 1944, when it was already apparent that failure was not unlikely, the general decided that it was essential to leave a record of the movement’s ideals and objectives, so that they might not be misrepresented by its enemies and might stimulate reflection by posterity. The Prague Manifesto of November 1944 was to provide such a record. Beginning with the words—
Fellow-countrymen! Brothers and Sisters!
In this hour of great trial we must decide the fate of our Motherland, our peoples and ourselves,
—this document attacked the Bolshevik party for betraying the Revolution of 1917 and the peoples’ aspirations for “justice, for the general welfare and for national liberty” and for depriving
the people of the freedom of speech, the freedom of conviction, the free choice of a place of residence and the right to travel, the freedom to chose their work and the opportunity for everyone to take his place in society in accordance with his abilities. They have replaced these freedoms with a regime enforced by terror, party privilege and arbitrary treatment of the individual.
It continued by calling for the overthrow of “the tyranny created by Stalin” and “the creation of a new free popular state system without Bolsheviks and exploiters,” and then laid down fourteen principles that should guide the formation of the new political system. These included measures to strengthen the position of the family and of marriage, genuine equality for women, abolition of forced labor and of the collective farm system, the establishment of the inviolability of private property, and the destruction of the regime of terrorism and coercion.
In her discussion of this document, Andreyev points out that its text has never appeared in any Soviet history of the war and adds that “the implication is that the Soviet authorities still have something to fear from the legacy and ideas of the Russian Liberation Movement.” This is probably true. If there is a determined continuation of that rummaging around in the national closet of which Frederick Starr wrote in The Washington Post, the Prague Manifesto is sure to pop out, along with the story that Solzhenitsyn described as “a phenomenon totally unheard of in all world history: that several hundred thousand young men, aged twenty to thirty, took up arms against their Fatherland as allies of its most evil enemy.”
November 24, 1988