Why is there a monument to a Nazi collaborator in suburban New York?

Colin Campbell/Yahoo News
The monument toi Andrey Vlasov in Nanuet, N.Y. (Colin Campbell/Yahoo News)

NANUET, N.Y. — On Tuesday, Russia celebrated Victory Day, the annual national holiday that marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in 1945. With the war in Ukraine now in its second year and Russia condemned by much of the world for its unprovoked invasion of a much smaller and less powerful neighbor, the moral and military triumph against Adolf Hitler can seem far away.

And then there is the lonely memorial to the renowned Soviet lieutenant general Andrey Vlasov, an obelisk at the edge of a graveyard in a monastery in Nanuet, New York. Vlasov was an actual Nazi collaborationist, of the very kind Russia now claims to be battling in Ukraine.

The Vlasov monument is one of several remaining monuments to Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the United States. It stands, improbably, at the edge of one of the largest communities of observant Jews outside of Israel — and is a tragically apt symbol for the Soviet excesses that produced modern Russia.

The faltering war effort has caused the Kremlin to lash out in blame, looking for fifth columnists responsible for the bungled invasion. Vlasov is once again a “hated figure” in the land he betrayed, says Russia expert Jade McGlynn, a development she says “reflects how Moscow’s political rhetoric and historical falsehoods have unraveled as its soldiers are driven back on the battlefield.”

The man

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1943:  World War II. Soviet General Andrey Vlasov during manoeuvres of Russian volunteers' training, 1943.  (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1943: World War II. Soviet General Andrey Vlasov during manoeuvres of Russian volunteers' training, 1943. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images) (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Vlasov could have been one of the great Soviet generals of World War II, one of those whom Soviet youths would come to know by a single name: Zhukov, Chuikov, Rokossovsky.

Instead, he was executed by hanging in Moscow on Aug. 1, 1946. It was an ignominious end to what had been a stellar career.

The son of peasant farmers, Vlasov first distinguished himself while fighting for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Later, he was sent on a military mission to China, which allowed him to escape the murderous purges Stalin unleashed against the Red Army’s officer corps in 1937.

Vlasov returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, after Germany had invaded Poland and appeared poised for an attack on the USSR. When that attack finally took place in 1941, Vlasov fought in the failed effort to defend Kyiv from the Nazi advance, as well as the successful effort to keep Hitler from taking Moscow. He was subsequently dispatched to help break the Nazi siege of Leningrad but failed to do so and was captured in July of 1942.

The Russian Liberation Army

1941:  Red Army troops storming an apartment block amidst the ruins of war-torn Stalingrad during World War II. (Georgi Zelma/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images)
1941: Red Army troops storming an apartment block amidst the ruins of war-torn Stalingrad during World War II. (Georgi Zelma/Slava Katamidze Collection/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Stalin’s inability to initially contain the advancing Nazi war machine convinced Vlasov that the Soviet system was rotten to the core. Taken by his captors to Germany, he began to conceive of a Russian army that would fight for the Third Reich in the name of a post-Bolshevik Russia.

In 1943, Vlasov published the Smolensk Proclamation, in which he declared that Bolshevism was “the enemy of the Russian people.” His aim was to recruit other Russians now in Germany—the Nazis had taken hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers prisoner in the first two years of the war— to unite against the Soviet Union.

But after the shattering victory at Stalingrad, the Red Army began to believe that victory was possible. Germany, which had boasted the world’s most formidable military at the start of the war, suddenly seemed vulnerable. Even if its weaponry was less sophisticated and its troops poorly prepared, the sheer size of Russia’s forces could overwhelm the enemy — a reality that holds 80 years later, as the war in Ukraine grinds on and the patience of Kyiv’s partners in the West begins to wear thin.

Vlasov’s life in Germany was far from lavish. “My underpants are completely worn out,” he complained at one point, according to one historian. Apparently, the Germans had only given him one pair.

Vlasov wanted to from a Russian anti-Soviet force, but Hitler was reluctant, fearing latent sympathies with Moscow. But by late 1944, he had few other options. Vlasov finally prevailed on Heinrich Himmler, the brutal SS chief. Himmler in turn managed to convince the increasingly desperate Hitler.

And so, in September 1944, the Russian Liberation Army was born.

Its life would be short. Vlasov’s division fought only once for the Nazis, in February 1945, in a futile attempt to stop the Soviet push across the Oder River and into the heart of the Third Reich.

After being beaten back by Soviet forces, the Russian Liberation Army retreated to Prague. In yet another reversal of loyalties, Vlasov hoped to help anti-Nazi forces and eventually surrender to the United States.

Here, again, Vlasov was unlucky. He surrendered to the United States, but the Americans turned him over to the Soviets. Vlasov was taken to Moscow, where he was imprisoned and ultimately executed.

Russian military leaders remain fond of such vivid reminders of what traitors face. Last year, a deserter of the Wagner Group militia was executed with a sledgehammer, which the outfit’s leader Evgeny Prigozhin has taken to wielding as a symbol.

The monument

Colin Campbell/Yahoo News
The text of the monument at the Novo-Diveevo Russian Orthodox Convent in Nanuet, N.Y. (Colin Campbell/Yahoo News)

The Novo-Diveevo Convent sits in a grove of trees about a 45 minute drive north of New York City. Across the way is a shopping mall; the orange signage of a Lowe’s Home Improvement outlet is visible from the convent’s driveway. But within the compound, trees block out the surrounding noise, while the ever-present Orthodox iconography — the slanted cross, the Cyrillic lettering—evoke the birch forests outside of Moscow or Leningrad.

The Vlasov monument is about 20 feet tall and topped by a golden cross. An image of Vlasov — bespectacled, his face drawn — is embossed on one side. On another, a sword rises along the monument's length, pointing towards the gray winter sky.

“In dedication to the participants of the liberation movement of the peoples of Russia falling in the fight for freedom, 1941-1945,” a dedication says.

The monument went up in the 1960s, likely erected by Russians who had fled to the United States during the Bolshevik revolution and had remained hostile to the Soviet Union, including after the war.

A nun emerged from one of the convent’s several cottages to talk to Yahoo News.

“We were pleased to put it up,” she said of the monument, speaking in deliberate, classical Russian. She defended Vlasov in general terms. “What happened yesterday — who knows? He did a lot, didn’t he?”

She is similarly ambivalent about the war in Ukraine, as are the parishioners of the church that sits on the monastery’s grounds. Some are against the war, she says, but others still support Putin and see him as something of a victim.

“Poor Putin,” the parishioners say.

Reckonings

Crews prepare to remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, September 8, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Steve Helber/Getty Images)
Crews prepare to remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, September 8, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Steve Helber/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Monuments to Confederate generals, racist political leaders and other objectionable figures have been coming down across the United States in recent years. There still stand a surprising number of monuments to Nazi collaborators across the United States, many of them erected by Orthodox or Catholic parishes that have sometimes overlooked the Nazi collaboration of national heroes from countries like Poland and Lithuania.

In Ukraine, the recent rehabilitation of nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Germans during World War 2, appears to have been the basis of the Kremlin’s claims about the rise of Nazism there.

Meanwhile, the U.S. essentially adopted some of Nazi Germany’s most prominent scientists, many of whom became celebrated pioneers in the American space program. Their wartime abuses were overlooked, and some of them are still honored by institutions like Harvard and Stanford.

Vlasov was more obscure and more complex. Few local Nanuet officials appear to know who he was, or that he is honored at Novo-Diveevo.

“This is the first time I’m even being made aware of that and have not heard anyone in the county talking about it,” Rockland County commissioner Beth Cefalu told Yahoo News. She said that the Vlasov monument was wholly within the convent’s jurisdiction and seemed satisfied to leave the matters there.

In heavily Jewish towns like Munsie and Ramapo, antisemitism has been sharply on the rise — as it has been across the United States. To some, there are echoes of Weimar Germany in today’s political divisions and culture-war battles.

Vlasov’s own attitudes about Jews were difficult to divine. At the very least, it did not seem to occur to him that by fighting for the Third Reich, he was helping to prolong the Holocaust.

Today, of course, the Soviet Union is a historical memory. But in many ways, the brutality and incompetence that Vlasov so passionately denounced continue to haunt the Kremlin.