Calls for prosecution over PhD thesis on Soviet traitor

A leading historian of Russia's little known wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany is facing calls for a criminal investigation after defending his PhD thesis on a Red Army general who turned traitor against Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Kirill Aleksandrov was awarded a PhD last month by St Petersburg Academy of Sciences' Institute of History by an academic committee vote of 17-1 for his thesis on General Andrei Vlasov and his Russian Army of Liberation, which turned against the Soviet side and fought on the German side.

The controversial thesis, on "The generals and the officer corps of the armed forces of Russia's Peoples Liberation Committee 1943-1946" by a historian who has already published a number of Russian-language histories of the Vlasov movement, caused a major controversy, with war veterans among an audience of around 90 people attending the academic council meeting.

Although the story of Vlasov's collaboration with the Nazis is not unknown in Russia – a decade ago a military committee in Moscow refused to officially rehabilitate the general stating that Vlasov "was and remains a traitor" – any public airing of versions of history that run counter to the accepted narrative of wartime Soviet sacrifice and victory over Nazi Germany stirs up deep passions.

The outcry that accompanied his latest research has led to criticism from war veterans and some in the academic community and calls for his prosecution under a Russian law forbidding the propagation of "wars of aggression".

The St Petersburg chapter of Nationalist group Narodny Sobor (National Union) has made a formal complaint to prosecutors who have requested a copy of the thesis to study for any evidence of illegal statements.

St Petersburg online newspaper Fontanka quoted a spokesman for the Central Archive of the Russian Ministry of Defence as saying Aleksandrov's thesis was "uneven, biased and sloppy in its presentation of research sources".

A 91-year-old war veteran and retired professor of Leningrad State University, Mikhail Frolov, said: "The thesis destroys the memory of Russia's great victory, the 70th anniversary of which was recently celebrated."

Aleksandrov's thesis – which builds on earlier works written over the past 15 years – delves deeper into the story of Vlasov and examines what motivated him and those who served with him to turn against Stalin.

The story of Vlasov, though not widely known, has been the subject of many books and documentary films both in Russia and the West.

Early in the Soviet war with Nazi Germany, Andrei Andreevich Vlasov – a lieutenant general considered at the time one of the brightest tactical minds of the Red Army – had saved an army from encirclement outside Kiev and helped mastermind the defence of Moscow alongside General Georgy Zhukov.

In the spring of 1942 Vlasov was given command of the Soviet 2nd Shock Army and personally tasked by Stalin with the crucial job of breaking through German lines to lift the siege of Leningrad.

Caught in encirclement by powerful German forces under General Georg Lindemann's 18th Army, Vlasov was captured after being betrayed by local peasants and taken prisoner of war.

In captivity Vlasov was persuaded to work with the Germans by Baltic-born ethnic German officers in the Wehrmacht (German Army) and went on to raise a Russian Army of Liberation (Russkaya Osvoboditelnaya Armiya or ROA), recruiting a force from among Red Army prisoners of war that on paper could have supplied the Nazis with an additional million men.

Political intrigues within senior Nazi circles and Hitler's refusal to work with a force consisting of men considered untermenschen or sub-human under Nazi ideology ensured nothing much was done until near the end of the war. Then a small force of two armoured infantry divisions, a training division and tiny air detachment were armed and equipped with the help of Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler who was then head of the so-called Ersatzheer or replacement army.

Saved Prague from destruction

Although Vlasov's ROA fought only limited engagements against the Red Army in the spring of 1945 around the Oder River east of Berlin, a key – and little known – contribution to history is its role in saving Czech capital Prague, when in the last days of the war the force turned against the Nazis and fought SS units in the city tasked with its total destruction, in a similar way Warsaw had been destroyed the previous autumn.

The ROA's role in defeating the SS in Prague before the Red Army entered on 9 May 1945 had long been considered heresy in Russian military history and remains little known or understood in the West today.

At the end of the war, Vlasov and his senior officers fell into Red Army hands; he and other key members of the ROA were executed in Moscow in August 1946 after a trial held behind closed doors.

Whether Aleksandrov's thesis will prompt court action is not yet known, though prosecutors in St Petersburg are already reported to be looking into a case that, if it results in a criminal conviction, could result in him facing fines of up to £3,000 (US$4,255) and a prison term of up to five years.

Nick Holdsworth is co-author with Sigismund Diczbalis of The Russian Patriot: A Red Army Soldier's Service for his Motherland and against Bolshevism (The History Press, Stroud, 2008).