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.

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