Because many sources remain classified, Makhalova says, it remains “unknown” even now how many such collaborators were caught and tried and also how many escaped trial and punishment. Most studies in the past were driven more by ideology than facts and as a result, “there are many myths on this theme and a deficit of objective materials.”
Except for two high-profile cases during the war, she says, most of the trials were conducted in secret; and the Soviet government released little or no information either about particular cases or statistics about the shape of collaborationism among Soviet citizens during the war.
That lack of information was then distorted by a decision of the Russian authorities in the 1990s to provide the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. with copies of some but far from all cases against Nazi collaborationists from Ukraine, Crimea, Moldova and the three Baltic republics. In the absence of better data, the Moscow historian says, her group used this data set.
Many of these cases did not involve the holocaust at all, Makhalova says; and the lack of data from other republics had the effect, likely intended, of suggesting that collaborationists came primarily from these non-Russian republics. In fact, Western scholars have concluded that just over half of all collaborationists in the east were ethnic Russians.
The Moscow historian says that most experts in the West believe that between one million and 1.6 million Soviet citizens collaborated in various ways with the German invaders. But only about 320,000 are known to have been brought to justice, with a fifth sentenced to death and the others to long prison terms.
The data do allow for the possibility to overturning Soviet myths that the only people who collaborated with the Germans were victims of Soviet policies, former kulaks, or members of the upper classes from before 1917. In fact, those who did collaborate were mostly peasants although abut a third were urban residents.
But perhaps Makhalkova’s most important conclusion so far in this ongoing study is this: those who collaborated did so not because of their ethnicity but rather because of the specific circumstances in which they found themselves. People of different nationalities who found themselves in one or another circumstance under the Nazis collaborated at roughly the same rate.