Subject essay: James von Geldern
From a German prisoner-of-war camp near Smolensk in the early winter months of 1943, General Andrei Vlasov issued a summons to Russian soldiers to join him in his battle against the Communist defilers of Russia. Vlasov, a hero of the Battle of Moscow, son of a peasant who had risen rapidly through the Red Army ranks during the Civil War, a party member since 1930, represented the first generation of Soviet military leaders. He joined the army from the university, showed great courage during the war, showed great talent after the war as the Red Army resumed peacetime functions, and reached command status when the purges of 1938 wiped out the highest ranks of the army. He was lucky enough then to be in China, serving as Soviet Military Advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek, and on his return he was given command of a division. Always he showed himself a brilliant organizer, brave in battle. He stood the test of Moscow in 1941, and was dispatched north to the Volkhov Front to hold off the German armies attempting to surround Leningrad. And like so many of his comrades, he was captured when the confused leadership abandoned his army without food, supplies or relief.
The millions of Russians who fell prisoner in the first year of the war were in a horrible situation. German contempt for Slavs, above all for Russians, was so vicious that they were allowed to starve and die in filthy prison camps. Stalin, who had declared retreat a crime, branded them as traitors. People as well-informed as the upper ranks of the army knew that the party leadership had failed miserably in the first months of the war, and the bloody purge of 1938 could not have failed to alarm them. Thus calls to join the forces of the Russian National Committee headed by Vlasov appealed to many, not only prisoners who saw relief from their ruinous condition, but Soviet troops who deserted across enemy lines. At one point, Vlasov had recruited ninety generals and over 900,000 soldiers.
Hitler’s fear of armed Slavic forces behind his own lines prevented Vlasov from creating an effective army. Although isolated detachments of Russian and other Soviet deserters were formed under the title Ostbataillone, Vlasov’s troops were not armed or given a unified command. It was not until the summer of 1944, when the outcome of the war was foregone, that the KONR – Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia was formed, and under it an army (sometimes called the Russian Liberation Army). Its inaugural meeting took place in Prague in November 1944, where it issued a manifesto identical to the Smolensk manifesto of 1942, allowing as well for full rights for all Soviet peoples. As before it preserved the gains of the October Revolution, rejecting only the perversions of Stalinism. It was not until spring 1945 that the KONR Army became an effective fighting force. Ironically, the fiercest action seen by the Vlasov forces took place in Prague on May 6, two days before the German surrender, when they turned against their captors and helped the Czechs clear Prague of the Germans. By agreement, the Americans to whom Vlasov troops surrendered turned them over to the Soviet Army, who quickly executed many, and imprisoned the rest. Vlasov himself was taken prisoner, executed finally in August 1946. Bitter though their fate was, it was little worse than other Russian prisoners-of-war, who themselves were shipped straight to prison camps upon repatriation.