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Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov (Sept. 1, 1900 - c.1945) was a Soviet general who, captured by the Germans in World War II, raised an army of Soviet prisoners of war and fought against the Red Army. Seized by the Soviets at the end of the war, he was executed as a traitor.

Vlasov was born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1900, the son of a wealthy family that nevertheless sympathized enough with the Bolsheviks to avoid summary execution during the Russian Revolution. At 19, he was drafted into the Red Army; in 1930, he joined the Communist Party just as Josef Stalin was consolidating his hold on the party apparatus.

Described by historians as charismatic and possessed of a good mind for strategy, Vlasov -- a major general by his early 40s -- bravely commanded the Soviet 34th Army in the unsuccessful defence of Kiev in 1941. Vlasov's efforts slowed the Germans considerably but the Red Army simply wasn't ready to resist the Wehrmacht. The following year, however, Vlasov commanded the 20th Army in the defence of Moscow; with the aid of General Winter, Vlasov and his fellow commanders drove the Germans back several hundred kilometres. Vlasov himself was promoted to lieutenant general, awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner, and given a new command.

That's when things started to go wrong. Vlasov's new army was the 2nd Shock Army of the Volkhov Front (a Soviet "army" was equivalent then to a Western corps of several divisions, and a "front" equivalent to a Western army of several corps), which battled the Germans near Leningrad in spring, 1942. Leningrad would be besieged for 900 days by the time the war ended, but the Volkhov Front's job was to keep a desperate supply line open.

Vlasov, who was the front's deputy commander in addition to having his own forces, wasn't in the fight for long. His 2nd Shock Army was surrounded and crushed by the Germans by the summer. According to Vlasov (in a declaration released by the Germans, so you have to take it with a grain of salt, though it's certainly in keeping with the historical record) the defeat resulted in large part from confused orders from the Stavka (high command in Moscow) and the influence of the Red Army's political branch over its combat commanders.

Another account (by Marshal Kiril Meretskov) has Vlasov as a careerist and a coward who abandoned his troops but not soon enough to escape capture. That was the official Soviet version.

Whatever the reason, General Vlasov himself was nabbed by the Germans and interned in a camp for captured Soviet officers.

Now, consider Vlasov's position. Josef Stalin had long since declared that surrender was akin to treason: in his view, no Soviet soldier should be taken alive. Liberated Soviet prisoners were assumed to have collaborated with the Germans; they had to pass interviews with the NKVD and the SMERSH anti-espionage agency before even being considered for reassignment to shtraf (punishment) battalions, where they'd probably be used to clear minefields by walking into them blindly, with the promise of redemption through blood sacrifice.

Stalin, who'd surely kill you, or Hitler, who might not?

Vlasov wasn't hard to convert to the German cause. Captured in August, by September he had issued three anti-Stalin manifestos, describing his version of the 2nd Shock Army's surrender. He detailed political interference with the operations of the Red Army (verifiably true), the disasters caused by Stalin's purges of the Red Army's officer corps in the late 1930s (verifiably true), and the "Jewish-Bolshevik" alliance with "Anglo-American capital" and that alliance's instigation of the war (well, no).

He also produced a preliminary declaration of principles for a new Russian constitution to be approved by the "Smolensk committee" of post-Bolshevik Russian leaders, which he himself would head. He hoped, in essence, to set himself up as a third force between the Nazis in the west and the Bolsheviks in the east; Alexander Solzhenitsyn would later write that Vlasov was trying to raise a new army of White Russians to fight the Reds 25 years after the Russian Civil War ended.

Adolf Hitler personally kiboshed that plan after the manifesto had been published and ordered that Vlasov be restricted to propaganda activities. He had no intention of setting up a separate Russian state, even as a puppet; the Reich was to have direct control from at least the Bay of Biscay in the west to at least the Urals in the east.

Despite Hitler's order, Vlasov appealed to the Nazi command to let him raise an army from among the Soviet soldiers in German custody, intending to gather a million men to fight alongside the Wehrmacht against the Bolsheviks. Hitler and Wilhelm Keitel, the German army's supreme commander, turned him down on the grounds that the Soviet prisoners' loyalty was far from certain, and also that it would be sticky to have dismissed all Slavs as sub-humans and then let them fight even part of the Germans' war for them.

The general was assigned to train anti-Soviet propagandists at the Dabendorf camp near the eastern front, which he did for nearly two years. The Germans did form battalions of anti-Bolshevik Soviet citizens, the Ostbattaliones, though they were under German commanders; among Vlasov's tasks was to teach the propagandists how to recruit for the Ostbattaliones from among prisoners of war. Those who joined up became known as Vlasovtsy (translatable as "Vlasovites" or "people of Vlasov"), though he was not their commander.

It was only as the end of the war came into sight in November, 1944, that the desperate Germans allowed Vlasov to inaugurate his Committee for the Liberation of the Russian Peoples and its fighting force, the Russian Liberation Army. The army gathered the various ethnic-Russian Ostbattaliones into one division and, eventually, a second understrength one.

Vlasov's army fought the Red Army on the eastern front, but they were underequipped and undertrained and their impact was negligible. As the Soviets closed in on Berlin, Vlasov marched his men southeast, toward Prague, hoping somehow that the Soviets would be satisfied with the prize of the German capital and leave him alone in a new Czechoslovakia.

In the event, with the Germans' doom clearly coming, Vlasov's army turned on the Nazis in Prague and helped the Prague Uprising against an occupying SS division. It was far too little, far too late.

In a final attempt to save their lives, Vlasov -- like many, many German commanders -- marched his desperate men west, hoping to surrender to the Americans or possibly the British, anything to stay out of Soviet hands. Stalin, however, had extracted an agreement at Yalta that any captured Soviet citizens would be returned to the Motherland, whether they wanted to go or not.

On May 15, 1945, the Allies handed Andrei Vlasov and his surviving staff to the Soviets.

On Aug. 1, 1946, Radio Moscow reported that they had been tried for treason, sentenced to death, and executed by hanging. It's unlikely that Vlasov's end was as easy as that.

Fifty-five years later, a Russian military tribunal considered formally "rehabilitating" him, cleansing his name in the historical record. Aside from expunging his conviction for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda (which is routine for those convicted of the offence during Stalin's rule), the tribunal upheld his convictions, on the grounds that although Vlasov believed he was fighting the Soviet communist regime, an activity no longer considered to have been criminal, his actions also amounted to unforgivable treason against the state itself and the Soviet people.

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