During World War II, not long after Germany attacked the Soviet Union, a Soviet general (Vlasow?) and his entire army deserted to the German side and fought with the Nazis against the Allies. After Germany surrendered, the general and his army requested asylum, knowing they faced certain death if they were delivered up to Stalin. Eisenhower adamantly refused their request despite the pleadings of his own officers, and the general and his troops were sent to their deaths. I would like to know the general’s full name, the facts surrounding his desertion and his service with the Germans, and the manner in which he and his men met their fate. –Arnold Bauer, El Cajon, California

The man’s name was Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov, and we’ll get to his story in a minute. First you need to grasp the enormity of what happened to Soviet soldiers captured by the Nazis during World War II. Between five hundred thousand and a million Soviet POWs either volunteered to fight alongside Nazi troops against their former comrades or were coerced into doing so. Another six million Soviets, many of them POWs, were forced into German slave-labor battalions that manufactured war materiel. At the end of World War II, a total of about two million Russians came under the control of advancing American and British forces, many of whom had contributed (voluntarily or not) to the German war effort. Those in charge understood that Stalin considered these people collaborators or traitors, and in truth many of them did see the Soviet system as a hateful cancer on Mother Russia. Yet the western Allied forces–under supreme commander Eisenhower–repatriated virtually all the Russians to the Soviet Union, in some cases forcibly, knowing full well they were sending them to their doom.

Vlasov was little more than a pawn in this appalling drama. He was a decorated Soviet general who’d played a key role in the defense of Moscow and of Kiev. He and his army didn’t desert; they were captured in 1942 after being encircled by the Nazis. Vlasov was embittered by the experience–he blamed the excesses of Stalin’s police state for the inefficiency of the Russian army, and soon came to fault the regime for all the disasters that had befallen the Soviet Union. When his German captors suggested that he urge Soviet troops–POWs and otherwise–to oppose Stalin, he agreed, persuading himself that the Nazis could offer him his best hope of deposing the communist dictator. The charismatic general wanted the Germans to create a Russian provisional government and a Russian army of liberation that he would lead in the struggle to free the motherland. An anti-Bolshevik leaflet written by Vlasov was dropped by the millions on Soviet forces, and thousands of men deserted.

But that liberation army never got off the ground. Though Vlasov’s wardens were more than willing to work with him, Hitler and other senior Nazi leaders regarded the Russians (along with all other Slavs) as subhuman, and furiously opposed the creation of a freestanding and possibly treacherous Russian army. Instead, most Russian units were salted in among regular German forces and commanded by German officers. (A notable exception: The rabidly anti-Stalinist Cossacks, who greeted the Nazis as liberators, fought independently and mercilessly under both German and Russian commanders.) Only late in the war did the desperate Nazis agree to the mustering of two Russian-led divisions under Vlasov’s command.

After D day thousands of Russian troops, posted with German forces all over the western front, were captured by U.S. and British armies. Though Stalin refused to admit to the existence of Soviet turncoats, at the Yalta conference in February 1945 he demanded that all captured Soviet nationals be repatriated whether they were willing or not. Recognizing that they needed Stalin’s cooperation to obtain the release of their own POWs held in camps near the eastern front, the other Allied leaders secretly agreed.

Following the Nazi collapse in May 1945, Vlasov and his men (as well as the Cossacks) surrendered to western Allied forces in hopes of escaping Stalin’s wrath. But in obedience to the Yalta agreement, U.S. and British commanders turned most of their captives over to Soviet troops, in some cases using deceit or beatings when the Russians resisted. Some of the prisoners committed suicide, others were shot shortly after being taken into Soviet custody, and still others (including Vlasov) were executed after perfunctory trials. The remainder vanished into Soviet forced-labor camps, forgotten by the rest of the world until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told their story more than 20 years later in The Gulag Archipelago.

Some say Vlasov and the other Russians who collaborated with the Nazis aren’t worth crying over–they were traitors, after all. But I’d say they deserve a little sympathy. They could fight for either Hitler or Stalin, and life offers few choices more dismal than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.