Unspoken shame: Russian collaborationism with Nazi Germany during World War II

In recent decades, Russian propaganda has held onto the narrative of the ‘Great Victory’ over Nazism as its ‘Philosophical stone’. This victory is heavily romanticised, depicting fascism and Nazism as embodiments of primal evil, representing all that is negative, while their adversaries are portrayed as champions of light and justice. This narrative has led Russians to staunchly defend the notion of their exclusive role as a nation in achieving this victory, often overlooking the contributions of other nations-members of the anti-Hitler coalition.

Simultaneously, the glorification of this mythical Russian-monopolised ‘Victory’ has enabled the stigmatisation of peoples in Eastern and Central Europe who resisted Moscow’s Bolshevism throughout the entire 20th century. They are indiscriminately labeled as ‘collaborators,’ regardless of the extent of their actual involvement with Hitler. Additionally, various ethnic groups from the North Caucasus—the Karachays, Circassians, Chechens, Ingush—are also accused of collaborationism with the Nazis. Many of these peoples endured brutal Soviet deportations from their homelands for ten years during 1944-45, facing inhumane conditions.

However, behind the accusations Russians make against Ukrainians, Baltic peoples, and Finns for collaborating with the Nazis, there’s a grim truth that Russians often prefer not to discuss. It involves an exceptionally high level of collaboration by the Russian people themselves. Unlike other peoples in the region between Germany and Russia, they were not stateless. Yet, the relentless oppression by Bolshevik authorities over two decades from 1917 onwards led millions of Russians and Soviet citizens to voluntarily align themselves with Hitler.

Furthermore, there’s a clear double standard in how we judge historical figures today. Someone could have supported Germany in World War II but also advocated for keeping Russia’s empire centred around the Kremlin, just without the communists. This is especially true for Russian White emigres. Take, for instance, the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who Putin often quotes, and the Cossack leaders Shkuro and Krasnov.

Historians estimate that the total number of military collaborators from the USSR territories ranged from 1 million to 1.5 million individuals. It’s worth noting that higher figures mostly come from Russian historians. For instance, according to Western researchers, during the entire Second World War, over 150,000 Soviet citizens served in the SS troops, with 50,000 of them being Russians.

Perhaps the most widely recognised entity was the Russian Liberation Army (Russian: Russkaya Osvoboditelnaya Armiya, German: Russische Befreiungsarmee) established in 1943 from among Soviet prisoners of war, hundreds of thousands of whom were held in German camps. The Russian Liberation Army was commanded by General Andrei Vlasov, who had served his entire military career in the Red Army until his capture in 1919. By the end of the war, the army boasted approximately 150,000 fighters.

Furthermore, amidst the Wehrmacht, several other Russian factions operated, often clashing with the Russian Liberation Army due to their divergent political beliefs. While the Russian Liberation Army sought to reshape the Russian state by integrating Bolshevik societal changes, their counterparts from the White emigration sought to restore social conditions from an imperial era. Notable among these factions were the Russian Corps, led by General Turkul in Austria, the 1st Russian National Army, the Varyag regiment led by Colonel Semyonov, and various Cossack units, including the 15th Cossack Cavalry Corps and the Cossack Host. The Cossack Host, initiated in 1943, was later relocated to northern Italy in mid-1944, comprising two infantry divisions and two cavalry regiments. By the war’s end, their ranks had swelled to approximately 18,000 fighters.

One of the rare instances of collaborationist self-rule within the USSR territory, recognised by the German administration, was established on the territory of what’s now modern Russia. Known as the Lokot Republic (German: Republik Lokot, also known as ‘Lokot Volost’, ‘Lokot Republic’), it emerged as an autonomous quasi-state entity in the southeastern occupied region of contemporary Russia under the Nazi Germany’s control. Led by the collaborationist administration of Konstantin Voskoboinik and Bronislav Kaminsky, it lasted from July 1942 to August 1943.

The entity derived its name from the administrative hub of the region – the urban-type settlement of Lokot in the Oryol Oblast (now situated in the Russia’s Bryansk Oblast), which Kaminsky renamed to Voskoboinik. Following the territory’s takeover by Soviet forces, Kaminsky’s administration relocated to Lepel, and subsequently to Dyatlovo.

Under German control, the local Russian militia were granted exclusive rights in the designated area, primarily to combat partisans, a task they carried out effectively. Concurrently, Kaminsky’s political agenda closely mirrored Nazi ideologies, with the local forces engaging in the arrest and extermination of Jews.

The newspaper “Voice of the People,” the official publication of the Lokot district self-government, played a significant role in stoking anti-Semitic sentiments. Additionally, in the Lokot district, a population census singled out Jews into a separate category and led to the confiscation of their property. Under the district’s Labour Code, Jews were documented as part of the so-called “Jewish labour force.” Furthermore, instructions issued by the Department of Justice explicitly prohibited marriages between Jews and other ethnicities, with registrations of such marriages strictly forbidden.

By mid-1943, Kaminsky commanded a militia comprising five regiments with a total of 10,000 fighters. They were armed with 24 T-34 tanks and 36 captured guns. This force, often referred to by the Germans as “Kaminsky’s brigade,” gained recognition for its prowess. In July 1944, it was formally absorbed into the SS forces as the Russkaya Osvoboditelnaya Narodnaya Armiya (Russian Liberation People’s Army) Assault Brigade. Concurrently, Kaminsky was bestowed with the rank of SS Brigadeführer, despite not being a member of German Nazi Party.

These significant facts are systematically disregarded by Russian historians to preserve the enduring Stalinist narrative of the German-Soviet war as the “Great Patriotic War.” Yet, a pivotal question emerges: why did the Russian populace willingly participate in both collaboration and direct voluntary military service alongside the Nazi occupation army? Could this reflect a deeper rejection of the oppressive Bolshevik regime, with its widespread terror tactics targeting entire segments of society? Conversely, how justified is the criticism of collaborationism towards other subjugated peoples of Soviet empire, given the substantial collaboration of Russians themselves?

The Ukrainian Week?  16 May 2024

Source: Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington University

YURIY OLIYNYK, Head of Research Programs at the Non-Governmental Analytical Center “Ukrainian Studies of Strategic Disquisitions”

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