VIENNA – As Russians prepare to mark the 61st anniversary of the Soviet victory in what they call the Great Fatherland War, a Moscow scholar has urged that citizens of his country pay more attention to something most would prefer to forget: the massive amount of collaboration by Soviet citizens with the Nazi invaders during that conflict.
Unless Russians do so, Anatoliy Tsyganok argues in an article posted online May 4th, this “blank spot” will continue to fester, giving rise to myths of various kinds that will only make it more difficult for the country to come to terms with its past and build a better future.
“Among all those countries which fought in World War II,” the military historian points out, “the very highest percentage of political and military collaborationism was found among citizens of the USSR,” with some 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet citizens serving in German-controlled military units alone.
That figure is roughly four times larger than the total number of citizens of eastern and south-eastern European countries who fought for the Germans, and it is roughly ten times as many as the 145,000 people from the countries of western Europe who fought in German uniforms.
But in addition to such individual collaboration, Tsyganok points out, there is also the issue of collaboration by portions of institutions like local governments and the Russian Orthodox Church, by part of the Russian emigration, and by some members of particular social and ethnic communities as well.
One of the reasons that this phenomenon needs to be studied, Tsyganok argues, is that the motives of those who “collaborated” varied widely, with some viewing the Germans as “saviours” or “allies” against the Soviet regime but many taking part either because of German compulsion or because of a desire to save themselves.
Especially at the beginning of the war, the Moscow scholar continues, many people surrendered to the invading Germans not because they wanted to fight against the Soviet system but rather because they “calculated that it would be better to surrender and be a prisoner rather than die for the Bolsheviks who had sent their relatives to Sakhalin.”
Collaboration by religious groups also had a variety of causes, he says. By the time of the invasion, he notes, there were only 500 churches left within the 1939 borders of the USSR. (There were 3700 more in areas Stalin had annexed after that time.) And many religious figures simply welcomed the chance to be able to profess their faith.
Other religious figures, in contrast, clearly welcomed the chance to fight against what they and many of their parishioners viewed as the “godless” Soviet regime. And a small number of those connected to religious organizations may have shared some of the views of the Nazis about Jews and other groups.
All this needs to be sorted out, Tsyganok says, and that requires both greater research and public attention and a willingness to recognize that the history of that period was more complicated and contradictory than the current national narrative on offer suggests.
Unfortunately, however, relatively few Russian scholars have focused on this subject – Tsyganok himself is forced to rely on underground German accounts – and very few Russians want to talk about something that they clearly believe can only cast a shadow on the one event most Russians view positively – World War II.
But the Moscow historian suggests that Russians need to remember that they were far from alone in collaborating with the Germans and to consider the experience of other countries, such as France, in considering how best to handle what remains one of the most sensitive subjects in Russian history.
“If only 10 percent of the population [of the Soviet Union] co-operated with the [German] occupiers,” Tsyganok concludes, “then clearly this complex theme must receive not only a military and historical airing but also many other forms of discussion as well”
Russians urged to reflect on Soviet collaborationism with Nazis (34)