Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Another Russian View: General Vlasov and Us

From the Editor – We continue our discussion of the extraordinarily controversial figure of General Andrei Vlasov, a discussion which began on the Russkiy Mir Foundation website with the publication of Vasily Andreev’s article “General Vlasov: Permanent Renaissance.” In his article Alexei Eremenko attempts to answer the question as to why Vlasov’s name once again rattles the minds of journalists and historians after a period of seemingly complete oblivion.

In September General Vlasov became the subject of a new public discussion, which periodically passed into squabbles and scandals. At first glance, there is nothing new here, although if one thinks about it, it really is quite strange. Why the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia raised the issue of Vlasov is not difficult to understand, but what is far more curious is that a wide swath of Russian society also began to discuss it enthusiastically – even with the economic crisis at the doorstep and Americans abandoning missile defense, for example. Why are we so concerned about the events of sixty years ago?

Of course, Russia is a country with an unusual history, and many events from the past hold an undying relevance for us. This argument, however, while just in itself, ultimately explains nothing. In principle, we perceive the past only when it correlates with what is happening now, when characters and events from the past take on parallels, albeit imperfect, to what is happening in the present. This unconditioned historical perception reflex simply does not happen any other way. But then the million-dollar question: what in the life of General Vlasov is relevant to us today?

Vlasov is important for two reasons. First, he was a dissident – one in a long series that began with Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Avvakum and went right on down to Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Secondly, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia is absolutely right: his acts cannot be given an unambiguous assessment and can only be assessed through an obligatory “but.” With our level of public debate this is, unfortunately, like a red rag in front of a bull. Inevitably, in trying to leave only one dimension – or hero, or villain – we ignore the obvious fact that reality is slightly more complicated.

There is, however, another consideration, which cannot simply be dismissed. Vlasov took an oath and violated it. It is a dubious step to take during peacetime, but during the largest war in history it is a crime punishable under the laws of war, which is exactly what happened. From a legal standpoint there is nothing to discuss in particular, but we, that is modern society, are still occupied by something other than this most obvious aspect of the Vlasov story.

The dictatorship of the proletariat had many weaknesses – on the ideological, social, and national levels. Many of these problems persisted after the war, eventually causing the death of the Soviet Union. Some of the consequences we continue to feel to this day. The figure of General Vlasov, despite all the efforts of the official ideology to present a given period of Russian history as a triumph of patriotic unity (is this not a typical feature of any official newspaper?), does not allow us to forget that our main problems have not disappeared and are more relevant now than ever. Even war is powerless to undo certain things.

Vlasov, de facto, was fighting against the identity of the state and country or, rather, was trying to speak against the government while defending the people. In this sense, his story should not be compared with the pro-Nazi liberation movements in the Soviet republics, but rather with the Civil War that he, despite all the eventual utopianism, was trying to build in place of World War II.

Whereas it would have been possible to brush off from the Banderists or the forest brothers as if from “foreigners,” it was difficult to do the same when it came to a Russian combat general who preferred Hitler to the Soviet authorities. Sincerely or not – we do not know – although this is not so important now, Vlasov and the Russian Liberation Army in any case have become symbols of discontent with the Stalinist regime (whether this is justified or not is, again, a separate matter).

At the same time, Vlasov’s dissidence was poisonous and harmful. For the short period of 1941-1945, the country and state did indeed merge, and attempts to fight against the leadership brought about objective harm to the most ordinary of people that the general wanted to save from the “Bolsheviks.” Substituting the foreign war with a civil war was impossible, and good intentions led to where they normally lead. Caught between patriotism and his dislike of the Bolsheviks, Vlasov fit with remarkable accuracy the archetype of the tragic epic hero who is doomed because he is unable to do the right thing: whatever you do, everything will be bad.

Sixty-five years later the naivete of the Vlasovist hopes is, of course, obvious. But the main thing for us is not that hindsight is 20/20 but rather the fact that the problems that brought Vlasov and his men to despair, as before, continue, albeit in a slightly different form – social injustice, the manipulation of public consciousness and, most important, an internal war for supremacy between the government and the public. Should the people serve the state or the state the people? As before, the answer in Russia is not clear.

It is precisely the problems of 2009 that force us to passionately discuss what, in general, was not the most significant episode in the Great Patriotic War – the Vlasov movement. Today it is enough to even slightly apply an ideological “photoshop” (in any direction) so that this history can be seen as a reflection of today. Disciples of strong power see an absolute sinner in Vlasov, but those who grumble at the leadership are ready to accept the general as a martyr almost in the spirit of Saints Boris and Gleb. Both look skewed, and a more balanced approach appears only when the public and the authorities are no longer strangers to each other and are able to establish normal life in the country. So far this heavenly time has not yet come, and Vlasov, as before, will continue to be adapted to fit one or another point of view. People’s mouths will foam and spears will break.

A Russian View: 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.”