By Valeria Korchagina and Andrei Zolotov Jr. Staff Writer
MOSCOW – Mention the name Vlasov to an ordinary Russian and one word will pop into mind: traitor.
Ask whether history should smile down on Lieutenant General Andrei Vlasov, the Soviet commander who defected to the Germans in World War II, and the ground would be laid for hours of heated debate. Several generations of young Soviet students were taught to hate Vlasov as a traitor who turned his back on the fatherland at a time when defenders were most needed.
These days, the line is growing blurred as evidence mounts that Vlasov may have changed sides in a bid to give his countrymen a better life than the one they had under Stalin.
But the story is apparently not far enough in the past to forgive and forget the man whose life and deeds are still largely seen through a cloud of political agendas and historical cover-ups.
The country’s top military court refused Thursday to rehabilitate Vlasov, who was convicted of state treason and hanged in 1946 after being turned over by the Allies a year earlier.
The appeal of the original conviction was launched by the small monarchist group For Faith and Fatherland.
“Vlasov was a patriot who spent much time re-evaluating his service in the Red Army and the essence of Stalin’s regime before agreeing to collaborate with the Germans,” one of the group’s leaders, suspended Orthodox priest Nikon Belavenets, was quoted as saying in the Gazeta newspaper.
But judges at the Military Collegium were less supportive of Vlasov’s methods of combating oppression at home.
“The truth is that although some argue that he was fighting against the Soviet regime and, thus, should not be seen as a traitor, by doing so he also fought against the state and the people. And this is treason,” said Nikolai Petukhov, chairperson of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court and deputy chairperson of the Supreme Court.
Vlasov was born in 1900 in the Vladimir Region. The son of a wealthy peasant, he was drafted into the Red Army in 1919 and became a career officer. He joined the Communist Party in 1930.
From 1941 until his defection to German Army in July 1942, Vlasov was a key commander in defending Kiev and Moscow. It is unclear whether he was captured, as Western history books say, or surrendered, as Soviet books say.
In any case, he agreed to cooperate with Nazi Germany.
Vlasov was one of millions of Russians who ended up in Germany voluntarily or as POWs during the war. They found themselves caught in a tragic situation – they were suddenly free of Stalin’s totalitarianism but were looked upon as Untermenschen by the Nazis.
Vlasov maintained that he underwent a profound change of heart that left him a dedicated anti-Communist during the days before he went with the Germans. Those days were spent on the Volkhov front after he and his troops were surrounded by Nazis.
Once in Berlin and surrounded by SS officers, Vlasov presented himself as a Russian patriot and refused to wear a German uniform. He wanted to lead an armed Russian force into the Soviet Union, apparently to start a revolt against the Stalin regime and create an independent Russia.
While the Nazi leadership eagerly used Vlasov as a key tool in a propaganda war, they didn’t risk forming an armed Russian force until the end of the war. In the summer of 1943, Vlasov was taken on a tour through occupied northwestern Russia and was welcomed so enthusiastically that the Nazis cut the trip short, sent him back to Berlin and put him under de facto house arrest.
In November 1944, the Germans finally allowed Vlasov to inaugurate his Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia, which proclaimed among its goals “the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny,” civil rights, private property and “honorable peace with Germany.”
However, sufficient proof exists to indicate that military formations under Vlasov’s command were involved in training spies and saboteurs for territories controlled by the Red Army, Petukhov of the Military Collegium said in a telephone interview.
Finding himself at the crossroads of history, Vlasov thought he could become a third force in the battle of totalitarian giants.
Vlasov’s army is viewed by Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn and some historians as an episode of Russia’s Civil War removed in time by a quarter of a century.
“These people who have felt with their own skin 24 years of Communist happiness knew already in 1941 what no one else in the world yet knew: that on the whole planet and in all history there has never been a regime more evil, bloody and at the same time wily and shifty than Bolshevism,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago.”
The memoirs of Vlasov followers, known as Vlasovites, suggest that the general was convinced that if he had a full army, Soviet generals would join him and the Communist regime would fall.
“I will end the war by telephone with [Marshal Georgy] Zhukov,” Vlasov was quoted as saying on several occasions. Zhukov was one of the top Soviet commanders.
But even in the last weeks of the war, when the Soviet Army was already at the German border, only two incomplete divisions led by Vlasov were armed. One of them helped liberate Prague when a popular uprising took place in the city in May 1945. But the Vlasovites left to give way to the Soviet Army.
“Looking into the events surrounding the liberation of Prague in May 1945, when Vlasov’s forces turned against the Germans, we found that the switch was not prompted by orders but came as the decision of ordinary soldiers,” Petukhov said.
The judges, however, did decide Thursday to strike one point from the original verdict – the charge under which Vlasov was found guilty of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. This charge was used frequently during Stalinist repressions. Under current laws, the charge is automatically removed from all convictions made during the 80 years of Soviet rule.
The hearing on Thursday also addressed the cases of 11 of Vlasov’s subordinates in his Russia Liberation Army. They were all denied rehabilitation.