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There remains a third level of interest in this film, however; its value as an aesthetic object, not something we would normally associate with an officially sponsored film. Yet this is often what gives newsreel material its permanent appeal, especially black and white footage. It testifies not to historical facts, but to the fact of history. It reminds us of our own mortality. 

Aesthetic considerations were certainly far from the minds of those who ordered the film to be taken and the results in this case do not show any special filmic quality. But once we know more about the context in which the filming took place, and once it dawns on us what the material really signifies, the images are transformed and the whole piece acquires an emotional charge unrelated to formal aspects of the recording medium. They have the power to move us in the same way that graffiti in Christian catacombs do. Yes, that probably was a church service the camera caught a glimpse of as it came to an end. We can imagine the heart-wrenching melodies of the Russian Orthodox liturgy in that desolate setting. Was it by chance or design that the camera caught the shadow of a truck passing across the wire behind which prisoners wait their turn to board the railcars? Details that are included in documentaries as "filler" material or "cutaways" ("B-Roll" in modern video terms), always with a deadening effect, now come to life. They affect us through their artlessness, their truth to life. The packs and belongings abandoned on the ground bear witness to an earlier scene not recorded on camera, the one, no doubt, described by Tolstoy. We suddenly become alert to the mud, the cold, the awful process of selection by those with power over those without it. One man slowly limps across the frame, as if dragging out his remaining hours on earth; another comes trotting up when his name is called, and then trots on into the truck that is going to take him back to Stalin, a response that suggests a man who has survived many other camps. Will he also survive this journey? The young American without a hat present at the first roll call does not seem part of the military. But he appears to speak Russian. He catches a prisoner who is trying to slip quickly by when his turn comes, holding him by his coat as he checks on his list. Then he puts away the paper that he's been holding in his hand. What, one wonders, was his role in the events of that day? And what became of him? 

We can't exactly blame Stalin for wanting to get his hands on these men. The Cossacks were implacable enemies of the Soviet state, and most of the others who had joined Russian divisions under German control had no reason to feel loyalty toward the Stalinist system. Nor can we blame ordinary Russians who had suffered terribly defending their country if they felt outraged at fellow countrymen who donned German uniforms. In the Soviet Union, wrote Solzhenitsyn, to call someone a Vlasovite, a follower of General Vlasov, was a term of abuse comparable with calling him "sewage". In Britain, the word "Quisling", the name of the Norwegian Nazi, had a similar connotation for traitors of all kinds. And whatever we may think of their leaders in acquiescing in the policy of repatriation, surely most American and British soldiers who had seen German concentration camps must have felt that any Russian who allied himself with the Nazis deserved all that was coming to him. 

Nearly half a century has passed since these events took place. In those extraordinary months before they lost control of the center of power, Soviet officials were themselves driven to admit to the crimes of the Stalin era, internal and external, including the Nazi-Soviet pact and the atrocity of Katyn committed against the Poles during the existence of the pact. Since then we have seen a Romanov brought back to what is now again called St Petersburg to be buried with a traditional Orthodox mass in a Cathedral that until recently had been treated as a museum, and we have heard questions openly raised about the future of Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow. The Soviet Union is no more, the names have all changed, and the archives have been opened. In this topsy-turvy Russian world, it would not be surprising if the fate of the Cossacks and even of the Vlasovites came to be seen in a new light, just as terrorists in the old colonial regimes were reborn as freedom fighters when independence came to their countries. It was, after all, these anti-Soviet Russians who saved Prague from destruction by SS units in the last days of the war. Who knows what else lies hidden in the Soviet archives? Some Russians who did survive the repatriation policy lie buried in a graveyard in the Hudson Valley, not far out of New York City, where prayers are said regularly for their souls and for their country. Memorials proudly display their battle honors - 1917-1921; 1941-1945. Is it beyond belief that a similar memorial will one day be erected inside Russia?  

Meanwhile, the seven minutes of unedited Signal Corps film rests in the archives in Washington, a reminder that a shadow still lies over actions committed by the victors in this war. Now that Russians are facing up to their own past, some gesture of reconciliation from the west on behalf of these forgotten men would not be inappropriate. The gray human figures that have been captured on celluloid are like the shards of an archeological dig, to be handled with the utmost tenderness as we reconstruct their world, relive their experiences. With the exception of Constantine Gustonon, the man who stabbed himself in the chest, we know no one's name; but here are individual human beings whose images have been saved from the turmoil of a terrible century. A few lined and weary faces are recognizable, they speak for all of humanity, and who cannot single out among them a son, a brother, a husband? 

* * * * * 

July 1992  


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