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General Vlasov: Permanent Renaissance
From the Editor – Vasily Andreev’s article on the Russkiy Mir Foundation site opens our discussion on a topic raised by a recent statement from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia on the role of General Vlasov. Perhaps the discussion is beginning somewhat belatedly insofar as the statement has already been commented on by a number of people – representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, political figures, as well as a number of popular and less popular bloggers. Some of the statements have been quite emotional, while others just after the first wave of comments subsided, addressing this topic has become even more necessary, as the issue of how to relate to the subject of General Vlasov’s role in Russian history does not suddenly disappear after the last comment on the church’s statement. have tried to avoid emotion and find a more balanced expression. However, The emotion found in many of the assessments confirms that this issue is not merely an abstract historical problem. So, in arguing about attitudes to Vlasov, we are by and large arguing about how we relate to the history of the 20th century, and we are answering the question “what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’” – a question which, fortunately, cannot always be reduced to simple responses.
“Contrary to the intentions of Hitler, General Andrei Vlasov, with the help of German friends, as head of the de facto and de jure independent Russian Liberation Army, was able to rise up against Stalinist despotism. He is not forgotten in Russia, and today, moreover ... Vlasov in Russia, it seems, is experiencing a true renaissance.” These words were written in 2001 by the eminent German historian, now deceased, Joachim Hoffmann. The “renaissance” continues to this day: another indicator of this can be considered the well-known statement by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia concerning the publication of a book by Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, professor at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. The book is entitled “The Tragedy of Russia. ‘Forbidden’ Subjects in Twentieth Century History.”
This book, which is a collection of Archpriest Georgy’s articles and sermons, attempts to justify Vlasov and turn him into a hero. It has caused widespread resonance in the public and particularly in the media, which in turn has given rise to the adoption of the statement by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Among other things, this statement says: “We are saddened by the bitter disputes, by the non-peaceful and troubled spirit that some opponents of the book have shown.”
However, the Synod’s statement and the open letter by its members to Archpriest Georgy have only heightened passions even further. Both documents were highly controversial. First of all, they in fact fail to distinguish between Vlasov himself and “Vlasovists” who are understood not so much as the general’s supporters or even those who served in the Russian Liberation Army itself as collaborators in general. Meanwhile, Soviet collaboration during the war years was an extremely difficult and ambiguous phenomenon, one that requires close examination, although not in clear “black and white” terms. This is something the authors of the statement acknowledge themselves; nevertheless, they try to give just such an assessment. “In particular, calling General Vlasov's acts a treason is, in our opinion, a flippant simplification of the events that took place,” the document states. Such an approach can be fully applied to the assessment of collaboration in general. Declaring everyone who served in the “volunteer” forces of the Wehrmacht and SS during the war years to be war criminals and traitors to the motherland is the same extreme as to consider them only as “freedom fighters” and against “Stalinist tyranny.” After all, writes Sergey Drobyazko, a contemporary Russian historian, “very different people found themselves in the ranks of the Russian Liberation Army – idealists who sincerely believed in the validity of their own, as they believed it, ‘liberation struggle,’ victims of the Soviet government who were guided above all by a sense of personal vengeance, those who in any situation strive to achieve material benefit and, finally, those for whom the main goal was simply to survive.”
As for the “acts of General Vlasov,” then in legal terms they can be regarded only as treason, but in the historiosophical sense the Vlasov movement under certain conditions could have become a challenge to the Soviet regime, although in reality it became a tool of German propaganda and cannon fodder for the Wehrmacht. After all, the chances that this movement would meet success were objectively dependent only on the will of the German leadership whose attitude toward Russia and whose views on the country’s future remained unchanged throughout the war. So to assert, as do the authors of the document, that the Vlasovists did everything in the name of the fatherland in the hope that Bolshevism would fall and thus lead to a revival of a strong national Russia, that Germany was solely an ally in the fight against the Soviets and that, if necessary, Vlasov’s men would have been willing to provide armed resistance to attempts to partition and colonize the country – all of this seems like wishful thinking.
In fact, the statement by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, just like the work of Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov, is another attempt to “resuscitate” the well-known concept of a “third force,” according to which the Vlasov movement is regarded almost as an independent player in the Second World War with its specific goals and tasks, as opposed to the “godless Bolshevik government” and the Nazi regime, which sought to conquer Russia. At one time, this view was, if not dominant, then prevalent in foreign countries, particularly among the second and third waves of emigration, which is understandable given that there were many former collaborators among the former, and among the latter there were those whose main reason for emigrating was a struggle with the Soviet regime. In addition, the concept of a “third force” was formed at a time when many well-known documents and materials from the era, including those directly refuting it, had not yet been made available for academic use.
One way or another, far from everyone abroad regarded the Vlasov movement as a “third force” in the Second World War, and certainly not all heroized Vlasov and his supporters. Any attempt to argue, as the authors again do in their statement, that among “the Russians living abroad, some of whom were escaped members of the the Russian Liberation Army, General Vlasov was and remains a symbol of the struggle against godless Bolshevism in the name of restoring historical Russia” looks out of place and contrary to fact.
It turns out that the statement by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia has led to results that are diametrically opposite of its declared objectives. Despite all the talk about the need to avoid a “black and white” interpretation of historical events, the authors of the document provide an unambiguous assessment of Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov’s book, as well as the personality and activities of General Vlasov. It is not surprising, therefore, that, despite calls to end the “fierce debate,” the latter has erupted with even greater fury. In this case, however, journalists have poured gasoline on the fire. Many articles in the media have appeared with exclamatory names like “Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Synod Rehabilitates Vlasov.” Meanwhile, talk about rehabilitation in the strict sense of the word is not possible, as such issues clearly fall outside the competence of the church, as do statements and direct appeals to review the criminal case against Vlasov and his associates who, as we all know, in 1946 were condemned to death by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR.
Regarding attempts to reassess the “acts of General Vlasov” and his personality, they were also made even earlier – in the early 1990s, for example, in the wake of the historical and journalistic boom brought about by Glasnost. In those years, however, the desire of certain authors to be apologists for Vlasov was a peculiar form of protest against the well-known practice of “forbidden topics,” as well as the dominance of ideology in historical scholarship. Later, in 2001, the controversy surrounding Vlasov and his followers flared up again after an appeal by members of the organization “For Faith and Fatherland” to the Main Military Prosecutor's Office asking for their rehabilitation, which, as we know, was rejected.
These days, a certain increase in “sympathy” to Vlasov is partly connected to the overall strengthening of an “anti-Soviet trend” in historical journalism practiced in Russia, which is manifested above all in attempts to idealize pre-Revolutionary Russia and the White movement, among other things. Such cases speak of the desire to dot all the “i’s” in the treatment of difficult and controversial subjects from the recent past, not to study and comprehend, but to assess and reassess history according to certain ideological and political attitudes. Such intentions cannot lead to anything good and, moreover, often entail exactly the opposite result, which was demonstrated by the controversy surrounding the book by Archpriest Georgy Mitrofanov and the statement by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
In this regard, the most balanced position seems to be that of the Moscow Patriarchate, which was announced by the head of the department on church and society relations, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin: “In our multiethnic church, which consists of citizens from different states, there are different views on certain historical events. But that does not and will not divide us, because the main thing for us is our single faith and the one body of the Church.” Two years ago, during negotiations on the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, the issue of assessing the personality and activities of Vlasov was left open and did not become a “stumbling block” between the Moscow Patriarchate and the overseas church. Hopefully, it will not become one in the future.