On August 1st of each year, a strange memorial is held in an affluent New York State town not far from Manhattan. On the grounds of the Russian Orthodox Convent is a memorial dedicated to General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Army. He was hung by Stalin's regime on that date in 1947. The ceremonies are in praise of Vlasov's efforts to topple Stalin and his cohorts. The story of how Vlasov became one of the most hate names during the Soviet regime is almost always omitted from histories of the Second World War. Yet he and his RLA (the Russian initials are ROA) could have made a major difference on the Eastern Front during World War Two.
Vlasov joined the Red Army in 1919 during the Red-White Civil War in Russia . His promotion through the ranks to General followed. In 1938 he was assigned to China to act as a military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek until the following year. This turned out to be a blessing as he was "out of sight, out of mind" during Stalin's purge of the Red Army officer corps during which many were executed or sent to the Gulags, often cited as one reason for the poor prformance of the USSR in the early months of the War. When Hitler invaded the USSR, Vlasov was in command of units of the Red Army in Kiev. Even though Stalin had refused permission to withdraw, Vlasov led 15,000 troops to escape before the city was encircled by German forces. Almost half a million Red Army soldiers were captured and casualites exceeded 700,000, the largest defeat in Red Army history Having escaped, Vlasov was congratulated by Stalin and given a command during the defence of Moscow. After the German forces were defeated, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for his efforts, one of the highest medals of the Soviet state.
Stalin decided that the seige of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) had to be broken and gave command of the relief army to Vlasov. Unfortunately, to get to Leningrad the army had to cross the Pripet Marshes, a vast area of wetlands in western Russia that limited travel of military equipment to a few isolated corridors. German invasion forces went around the Marshes on their way east but Vlasov's orders took him along the few routes that crossed them. This made it easy for the Germans to destroy his army, which they did. As he had in Kiev, Vlasov asked Stalin for permission to retreat to save his army. Stalin denied the request. Vlasov and the remains of his force were captured and Vlasov himself imprisoned by the Nazis.
While in a German prison, Vlasov came to view Stalin as a tyrant, one who had made huge mistakes in the campaign which had cost many lives. Nor was Stalin a popular leader, having killed or sent to the gulags millions of those he viewed as a threat. The deliberate starvation of the Ukraine (the "Holodormo") saw the death of over six million souls and other ethnic groups had been forced to relocate to remote locations. Vastly exceeding Hitler, Stalin may have killed as many as 20 million or more. The Red Army had lost a substantial part of its command structure. If one wanted to find those opposed to the Soviet regime it was not difficult. With a little prompting from the Germans Vlasov agreed to create a Russian army that would fight alongside of the Germans. The Russian Liberation Army was not to be a Nazi force nor would it fight against any but the Soviet forces. It was an anti-Communist army dedicated to removing Stalin and his ilk from power.
With German consent, Vlasov crisscrossed Germany and occupied Russia speaking to Russian POWs asking them to join his crusade. The POWs were given permission to attend a massive rally in Berlin to hear Vlasov speak, travelling to and from the meeting independently. Films of that event show a massive audience of POWs listening to his talk. Leaflets were circulated urging the POWs to join the army to liberate Russia and were also dropped on Red Army positions to encourage desertion. Over a short time, roughly one million responded to the call They were equipped with uniforms and equipment by the Germans but not allowed to join the fight.
There was a major problem. Hitler wanted large portions of western Russia for his "Lebensraum", the expansion of Germany by colonization which was to provide a buffer against future Russian aggression. An independent Russia, which was Vlasov's goal, was certainly not favoured. Hitler and his racial advisors viewed Slavs as "Untermensche" ("sub-humans"). Although German field officers used Slavs as both support personnel and in combat this was contrary to Hitler's racial views. So while efforts to create the RLA proceeded and men trained there was no clear idea of how this new army would be used, if at all. It remained in a state of limbo as the German retreat in the East commenced and continued. The Wehrmacht desperately needed reinforcements; Vlasov and the RLA were more than willing to fight the Red Army but the limbo continued. The troops that might have not merely fought the Red Army but perhaps encouraged an open revolt against Stalin were left to stagnate.
Finally, in February 1945, the RLA saw its first - and only - action against the Red Army in Czechoslovakia. Defeated by an overwhelming force, the RLA retreated to Prague. The Prague Resistance had revolted pitting Czech citizens against German SS units. The RLA joined the Resistance against the Germans. There are conflicting reports of anti-Semitic behaviour by the RLA during the Prague Uprising and earlier statements by RLO leaders that remain contentious to this day.
The Red Army captured Vlazov later in 1945. He was sent to the Lubyanka
Prison in Moscow, tried and executed as a traitor the following year.
The German army was not limited to German soldiers. Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, Romanians, Italians, French, Hungarians and other nationalities had volunteered to serve on the Eastern Front in small and large numbers. They were not classed as Untermensche. Prejudice, be it based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual preference is still with us. Often, it seems to peak before it then isolates and destroys those who hold it. Unhappily, it too often leads to prejudice by its victims against those who victimized them as the cycle continues generation after generation. It is not restricted to any location as it surfaces in every continent. In its most virulent form, it can lead to brutality and wars; in it's milder form it creates job and social discrimination such as we now see with First Nations Canadians. Might Hitler have defeated the USSR if Vlasov's RLA had been allowed to fight the Red Army? Perhaps. Certainly it would have delayed the Red Army victory, for weeks, months, or even years.
We humans have never learnt that cutting off one's nose to spite one's face is not a winning idea. Our new world needs diverse talent from every source. One reason for Canada's favourable status in the world today (most respected, best place to live, most livable cities, and other accolades) is our program of multiculturalism, the goal of which is to give equal opportunity to every Canadian, regardless of where they or their parents were born. We still a long way to go...