Vlasov wasn’t just a random commander whose only distinctive quality was being willing to jump ship to the German side. In the mess that was the Soviet officer corps, before the bloody crucible of the Wehrmacht pummeled many of the incompetents out of the ranks, Vlasov was one of the most capable. Indeed, when he took command of the 99th Rifle Division, he turned a pretty bog-standard unit into what Semyon Timoshenko called the best division in the Soviet Army in nine months.
Vlasov’s problem was that in the first year of the Great Patriotic War, he was squarely in the middle of several utter disasters, many of which could be directly attributed to Stavka. Vlasov held the very unfortunate command of the 4th Mechanized Corps in June 1941, part of Kirponos’ Southwestern Front- an extremely unready formation that, along with five other mechanized corps, participated in the abysmal disaster that was the Battle of Brody.
A counteroffensive insistently ordered by Zhukov despite Kirponos’ pleading about its impossibility, Brody was one of the most crushing defeats of any force in the entire war. Vlasov’s corps, the strongest of the six, was pretty much annihilated- by 12 July, it was down to 65 tanks from a starting strength of 979. The corps’ remnants, now fighting on as infantry, was soon encircled and annihilated in the right bank Ukraine, and the unit was officially disbanded on August 1941.
Vlasov’s next posting was right in the middle of another developing disaster- the 37th Army, one of the six armies holding the Kiev sector against Army Group South. There, the 37th Army gained the dubious distinction of being part of the largest single pocket of history. Under Vlasov’s direction, parts of the army managed to break out before the German pocket fully solidified. Most of the unit was destroyed and near the end of September officially disbanded.
However, even that disaster that befell the 37th Army was a quite successful defense by the Soviet standards of the time, where the Germans were handing Stalin the red ruins of his army all across the front. Vlasov was now sent to command the 20th Army, freshly reconstituted after its annihilation in the Vyazma Pocket. He commanded the army through the second phase of the Battle of Moscow, with success. With his name followed by glowing praise on the Pravda and a brand new Order of the Red Banner glistening on his chest, Vlasov went to a new command- the 2nd Shock Army in the Volkhov area.
Vlasov’s army was the spearhead of the Lyuban Offensive Operation, intending to break the siege of Leningrad. The 2nd Shock Army advanced across the Volkhov river and penetrated seventy kilometers forward from their starting position, but support proved insufficient against strengthening German defenses and the offensive stalled. Vlasov requested permission to withdraw out of the salient he had formed, and was ordered to hold position, no matter what.
That didn’t work out. Germans counterattacked against the salient, broke through the Soviet positions, and cut Vlasov off. His attempt at breaking out was unsuccessful, and Germans wiped out the 2nd Shock Army at Myasnoi Bor. Vlasov was captured, and after a short while in German custody, turned his colours.
Vlasov’s hatred of Stalin for his disastrous mismanagement of the military situation led German intelligence officers to seek his cooperation in heading an army of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) committed to fight against the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet POWs were already serving as auxiliaries to the German army in noncombat roles, many of them doing so simply to stay alive. Vlasov worked out a political program for a non-Communist Russian state, but this concept flew in the face of Adolf Hitler’s policy of subjugating and colonizing the Soviet Union. Although German intelligence officers proceeded to create the Russian Liberation Army (ROA), Hitler refused it any combat role, and it became a device only to encourage Red Army desertions.
German Schutzstaffel (SS) Chief Heinrich Himmler met with Vlasov in September 1944 and promised him a combat role. Himmler also arranged for the creation of the multiethnic Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia (KONR), which was announced in Prague that November. Two divisions of the ROA came into being, one of which was sent along the Oder River in mid-April 1945 but retreated before the Red Army. The “Vlasov Army” then changed sides. Cooperating with the Czech Resistance, it helped liberate Prague and disarmed 10,000 German soldiers, hoping to be recognized by the Western Allies.
At the end of the war, Soviet authorities demanded Vlasov’s return in accordance with repatriation agreements reached at the Yalta Conference, and on 12 May 1945, U.S. units handed him over, together with other ROA prisoners of war. On 13 August 1946, the Soviet Supreme Court condemned Vlasov as a “German collaborator” and an “enemy of the Russian people” and imposed the death penalty on him the same day.
Now, the question. Why?
There are three prevailing theories. The traditional Soviet claim is that Vlasov’s betrayal was primarily motivated by self-interest: a cold, calculating move made by a man who saw a chance to grab at power and took it. A second possibility is that Vlasov was simply infuriated- spiteful, even, at being hung out to dry at Lyuban, and desired vengeance.
Both of these are entirely feasible- I would like to emphasize that the only claims about his motivation that we know Vlasov made, he made while working with Germans, and since Soviets hung him for a traitor in 1946, we can’t exactly ask him. Therefore, anything I’m going to say, and anything anyone can tell you about Vlasov’s motivation, is pretty much an educated guess.
But I myself am partial to the third and most mainstream theory- that when Vlasov stated his anti-Communism and desire to free Russia from Stalin’s grasp, he wasn’t lying.
Most people grow up with at least some sense of loyalty to their countries- treason doesn’t come easy to most people. Vlasov’s situation seems exceptional- not that long ago, during the First World War, it would have been incomprehensible that a captured Russian army commander may write a memorandum to the Kaiser himself asking to be allowed to form an army of Russians so that he might fight against other Russians.
That this happened in the Second World War means two things- either the person is exceptional, or the situation is. But the person isn’t exceptional. Vlasov wasn’t the first Soviet commander to turn his colours in prison, he wasn’t the last, and he sure as hell wasn’t the only- when his ‘Russian Liberation Army’ became a reality in 1944, of the 51 officers commanding a regiment or above, 23 were Soviet defectors(the rest Russian emigres). Well over one million Soviet citizens defected to the German side- such a thing would have been incomprehensible at any other time.
So, if the person isn’t exceptional- the situation has to be.
The prevailing theory, and the one I agree with, is that Vlasov had grown disillusioned with the government he had served. After living through a series of disasters said government presided over, culminating at Lyuban, Vlasov was simply fed up with the Soviet regime- and unfortunately for him, he didn’t exactly have an awful lot of options if he wished to turn his efforts to its destruction.
And thus, one fateful day while imprisoned in Vinnytsia, he had a thought and came to a decision that would eventually lead him to a long drop off a short rope- a tragic but not undeserved fate for a man who in all likelihood had noble reasons for a loathsome act. He certainly didn’t prove half as lucky as his German counterpart- his fellow traitor Walther von Seydlitz-Kurbach, who eventually got repatriated to West Germany, somehow managed to be pardoned by the country he betrayed, and died of old age in 1976.
And when it came to describing the Soviet hero turned German collaborator, I wish to leave the final words to Mark Elliott:
Some have characterized Vlasov a vile collaborator; others have seen him as a Russian national hero. Neither description quite fits. Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, given to drink and fits of fatalism and inertia in captivity, lacked the sterling character deemed essential for a martyr. On the other hand, the ROA chief was anything but a Nazi — he caused his German supporters discomfort with his strong Russian nationalism and his personal refusal to lend his voice to the prevailing, official anti-semitism. He possessed neither a Quisling’s moral blindness to questions of patriotism nor a Joan of Arc‘s penchant for self-immolation. He came closer to the mean of most humans, aptly personifying the nightmarish predicament which confronted millions of the Eastern Front’s victims. Vlasov, like multitudes of other helpless Soviet citizens, was cruelly pulverized between the enormous and unfeeling millstones of Nazism and Communism. Shuffled about Europe’s wargame board, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, Vlasov was a pawn in the epic struggle just like the lowliest POW or forced laborer. He fantasized a Russia minus Marx, and though his failure was complete, he still came closer than any other Russian since the Civil War to fulfilling that dream.
Mark Elliott, “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service,” Military Affairs, Apr. 1982
Andreyev, Catherine. Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Movement: Soviet Reality and Émigré Theories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Elliott, Mark. “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service.” Military Affairs 61 (April 1982): 84–87.
Steenberg, Steve. Vlasov. Trans. Abe Fabsten. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
Strik-Strikfeldt, Wilfried. Against Stalin and Hitler: Memoir of the Russian Liberation Movement, 1941–1945. New York: John Day, 1973.