Andrei Vlasov, the Russian Liberation Army, and Operation Keelhaul: A Tragic Diplomatic and Humanitarian Debacle
The aims of the Committee of Liberation of the Peoples of Russia are: the overthrow of Stalin’s tyranny, the liberation of the peoples of Russia from the Bolshevik system, and the restitution of those rights to the peoples of Russia which they fought for and won in the people’s revolution of 1917.
Andrei Vlasov, The Prague Manifesto, November 14, 1944
It’s November 14, 1944, and an armed uprising against Stalinist terror and Bolshevism is in progress. Its participants number well into the six figures and have been formed into an actual army. Its leader is Andrei Vlasov, a former general in the Red Army who had fought the Germans at the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Now he is allied with them, but only just.
Vlasov makes his way to the microphone in a crowded ballroom in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and declaims a manifesto excoriating Soviet communist oppression. He speaks as a pragmatic man of firm convictions and steady purpose, and he gives a bravura performance, a definitive example of speaking truth to power. But he is also a man divided in his loyalties.
Following his capture by the Germans in 1942 during the Siege of Leningrad, he changed sides and fought for Hitler’s Wehrmacht. In May 1945 he will change sides yet again to fight for the liberation of Prague from the Nazis, an act for which his memory is revered in that city to this day.
Media sources such as those in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996, and Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1994, readily convey the immediacy and urgency of Vlasov’s endeavor, while the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994, allows us to go behind the scenes and learn how he and his followers came to grief through the vagaries of diplomatic hair-splitting.
Vlasov might never have even gotten to Germany had he succumbed to Stalinist purges in 1937-38, but he happened to be serving as a military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek in Nationalist China, so he was spared that particular calamity. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, many of his fellow officers had been exiled or killed; there was a leadership vacuum, Vlasov had ambition and talent, and he rose rapidly.
As a captive Soviet officer under German patronage he led a movement that espoused every anti-communist objective a liberal democrat could desire. His Prague Manifesto, quoted above, included fourteen points that sought to redress the deficiencies of Soviet government that adversely impacted its citizens’ civil rights and quality of life. FBIS gives us nine of them in an earlier condensed version, probably from what is known as the Smolensk Manifesto of December 1942:
The Russian Liberation Army (RLA) started out in 1941 as small groups of Russian prisoners of war in German-occupied territories who served the German army in auxiliary roles, sometimes in paramilitary organizations. Hitler was understandably reluctant to arm Russian prisoners in any capacity, but as the war progressed and German losses mounted Vlasov won Himmler’s confidence, and Hitler was persuaded to accept Russians for regular military service.
Some of these soldiers were Cossacks or members of other ethnic groups who had a longstanding aversion to Soviet rule. However, the great majority of those hundreds of thousands who joined the Russian Liberation Army did so for nationalistic, even patriotic reasons. Certainly there was an element of expediency in their decision to serve, but many of them had experience with Stalin’s mercurial brutality, and believed that he had betrayed the promise of the 1917 revolution. They had little to lose by turning their arms against him.
Towards the end of the war, the Russian divisions acquired their own uniforms, insignia, tanks, artillery, even operated their own air force using German jets. They had an anthem, We Go on the Wide Fields, which included the verse, “We’ll fight the Bolsheviks for the freedom of our motherland.” [Мыидемнабой с большевиками Засвободу Родинысвоей.]
There was regular criticism that RLA volunteers were not as militarily effective as regular German troops. This was likely true during the earlier stages of the RLA’s organization, especially in light of the fact that to mitigate the possibility of Russian troops turning on their German sponsors, Hitler dispersed the Russians to areas far from their homeland or broke them into small units until late 1944.
The RLA was especially active in Czechoslovakia, in large part because it was technically outside of the Third Reich and afforded more autonomous operations. The beginning of the RLA’s support for Czech independence lay in the fact that RLA soldiers refused to act on orders from the German High Command when they weren’t issued upon the authority of Vlasov himself. In the following excerpt we find partisan-controlled Prague radio broadcasting breaking news as the Germans were losing control of the beleaguered city, with the RLA described as the saviors of Czech independence:
Units of Gen. Vlasov’s army, fighting on our side against the Germans, have so far disarmed 10,000 Germans in the area west of Prague...
...Attention: Tanks and armored cars of Gen. Vlasov are marked with the Czechoslovak flag and with white stripes on the armor plating. The troops are clad in German uniforms, but the uniforms are marked with the Slav tricolor. In their caps they have a small oval blade with a red center. On their right shoulder they have a small flash with the capital letters of ROA.
Although Vlasov viewed the American forces as liberators, and elements of the Russian Liberation Army managed to surrender to Americans, thus gaining some measure of protection as POWs, much of the RLA was overtaken by the Red Army and captured in German uniforms, which sealed their fate. Less than two years from the date of his 1944 speech Vlasov would be executed in Moscow for treason.
America played an active and decisive role in sending thousands of his brothers in arms to their deaths, and has yet to release key records pertaining to that outcome. Thus we come to the point where we need to consult the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the fate of Vlasov and the RLA.
The Yalta Agreement and Operation Keelhaul
The Yalta Agreement of 1945 affirmed an earlier understanding among the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain that Soviet nationals would be repatriated following the end of World War II. In theory this seemed a reasonable concession; in practice, Soviet law equated surrender or wartime collusion with treason, a capital offense. The Soviet Union also considered persons from diverse ethnic groups and regions as citizens, although those people customarily acted with a great deal of autonomy as émigrés living on the frontier; one example would be the Cossacks.
On September 15, 1944, we find this cautionary directive regarding repatriation from U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull to the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averill Harriman:
The Department realizes that the matter is an extremely delicate one involving as it does: 1. This Government’s treaty rights and obligations with regard to its own nationals in enemy hands and to persons taken by it as enemy prisoners of war, 2. The nationals of an Allied Power some of whom may resist return to the control of that Power and, 3. The possibility of reprisal against American nationals in enemy hands.
So it appears that the U.S. government was sensitive to Soviet nationals who did not want to be repatriated, but was nonetheless prepared to send them back to protect its own POWs under Soviet control, and to honor its treaty obligations. At the end of the war when the USSR insisted on its rights under the Yalta Agreement, that is just what happened. But it was not pretty or neat; in fact, it turned horrendously violent. Further along in the correspondence, we have this, from Harriman to Hull:
Meanwhile I would appreciate further enlightenment as to the exact nature of the policies established by the Combined Chiefs of Staff which is not clear to me from the Department’s telegram. Does this mean that the Combined Chiefs of Staff propose to have Russians taken as German prisoners delivered to Soviet authorities against their will. If so what is the meaning of their statement that the purpose of their policy is to avoid risk of reprisals.
We finally find a policy statement by the British Foreign Office declaring that foreign nationals will be repatriated, willingly or not, and that the Geneva Convention cannot save them from their own government:
Macmillan’s office has informed us that information has been received from British Foreign Office stating that despite terms of Geneva Convention it is not possible for a soldier captured by his own forces while he is serving (willingly or unwillingly) with enemy forces to claim protection of Convention vis-à-vis his own Government.
As was feared, to ensure its demands were met, the USSR retained a number of Western prisoners of war in Manchuria and in Eastern Europe. The result was that large numbers of Soviet prisoners of war, refugees, and ostensibly foreign nationals were forcibly sent to the Soviet Union by British and American soldiers. This included the great majority of the Russian Liberation Army. This is Realpolitik with a vengeance:
For the above reasons Dept. is of the opinion that the members of Vlasoff’s army or any other Soviet citizens captured while forming part of German military organizations should be turned over to the appropriate Soviet authorities in accordance with arrangements already in effect to repatriate Soviet nationals.
Everywhere that forced repatriation was initiated, the despairing Russians took matters into their own hands, extending to such drastic measures as mass suicides. The following is from the investigative report of a riot among Russian prisoners at Fort Dix, in New Jersey.
Contrary to [Soviet] General Golubev’s allegations that these POWs wished to return to the Soviet Union, this investigation has definitely revealed that this disturbance was caused by these POWs because of their reluctance to return to the Soviet Union and that the three who committed suicide did so for this reason. The POWs interviewed in this investigation stated that they intended to commit mass suicide by provoking the use of force on the part of the American authorities.
Suicide was even more common in Europe. In some cases the Russians insisted they were de facto German soldiers and thus POWs under the Geneva Convention. So they were duly returned to partitioned Germany, and the Soviets got them anyway. The following is a particularly egregious example of the lengths to which American forces were themselves forced to go to compel repatriation of Russian POWs:
In applying the policy of forcible repatriation there has been a number of unpleasant incidents involving violence such as the forcible seizure by our troops of 100 Russians at a church service resulting in serious injuries on both sides. A considerable number of suicides by Russians in this category apparently are also taking place.
The Russian POWs also tried appealing to the International Red Cross on humanitarian grounds as refugees seeking political asylum. That didn’t work either; back they went to Mother Russia:
America’s role in this dilemma was aptly characterized by the government as Operation Keelhaul, named for the naval punishment involving prisoners being submerged beneath a ship and dragged by lines from one side (or end) to the other. There are few public references to Operation Keelhaul available in official documents. Some of them can be found in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994, in the context of a court challenge based on the Freedom of Information Act:
And so we find that a sizeable number of individuals, including Andrei Vlasov, were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union, tried before military tribunals and either executed or sent to forced labor camps. Vlasov’s fate is described in the cold language of a diplomatic telegram:
Members of the RLA who wound up in forced labor camps discovered that their experience working in Germany’s wartime industries proved invaluable for building the USSR’s nuclear weapons, so in a sense America sowed the seeds of the arms race in its enemy’s garden:
Some lucky few Russians managed to stay in the West. We learn in JPRS that veterans of Vlasov’s army remained militant even in exile, and found ready means to antagonize the Soviet Union:
We’ll close with a passage from One O'Clock in the Afternoon, Your Excellency, a historical novel based on the Vlasov movement written by Arkadiy Vasil'yev, courtesy of JPRS where you can read it in its entirety. If you look at the names in the diplomatic communiqué of August 2, 1946, above, you’ll see that some of them match the excerpt below:
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