Staunton, May 12 – During this year’s celebration of Victory Day, Vladimir Putin and the media his regime controls stressed not only how the USSR stood alone against Hitler but also how united the Soviet people were in standing up to him. Neither of these claims is true, but much less attention has been devoted to the second Putin lie than to the first.
If almost every critic of the Kremlin has pointed out that the USSR was provided massive assistance both directly and in the form of coordinated military operations by Great Britain and the United States, few have pointed out this year at least that the population of the USSR was anything but united in the face of Hitler’s aggression.
An exception is Natalya Nikitina of the Media Zone Central Asia portal. She notes that more than a million Soviet citizens fought on the side of the German invaders during the war and thus formed two-thirds of the 1.8 million foreigners who fought for the Nazis for various reasons during that conflict (mediazona.ca/article/2021/05/11/legion).
In an article on the Turkestan Legion, in which nearly 200,000 Central Asians fought on the side of the Germans, she interviews Oleg Romanko, a historian from Simferopil who specializes on the issue of collaborationism among Soviet citizens, a subject long taboo in Soviet times and not that widely discussed in the Russian media even now.
Romanko says that the German approach to the Turkestanis was inherently contradictory. On the one hand, Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa never planned for a German military occupation of Central Asia. The military advance was supposed to stop along a line extending from Arkhangelsk to Astrakhan.
But on the other, Hitler planned to use a reunified Greater Turkestan as a launch pad for an invasion of British India after he had defeated the USSR. None of that happened, but the Germans did view Central Asians more positively than Slavs because of their links to the Turks and formed an East Legion of 178,000 men and SS units consisting of 2,000 Turkestanis.
Romanko provides details about the reasons for such massive collaboration, the role of Turkestani emigres like Kayum Khan in these units, and their complicated relationship with both the Germans and their openly hostile attitudes toward pro-German Russians like General Vlasov with whom most Turkestanis refused to have anything to do.
Many Central Asians who participated did so because they really wanted to see an independent Turkestan, the researcher says; and in the first part of the war, they thought they could achieve that end with German help. In the fall of 1943, however, Berlin shifted them to Western Europe and the future became less promising as far as they were concerned.
At the end of the war, most of those in the Eastern Legion found themselves in the Western zone of occupation. Some remained in the West, but many returned, where they shared the fate of the Vlasov movement participants. Stalin’s attitude toward them was expressed during a closed trial in Alma-Ata in 1947 where 11 were sentenced to be shot and the rest to prison.
Romanko says that there are many sources of information about this, although he acknowledges that much of the story remains to be written on the basis of archives that are open only to varying degrees. What he does not say is that most of the published materials have appeared only abroad.
His article provides Central Asians and others one of their best glimpses into this little-known history.