Monarchists, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts (William T. Vollmann)

And now, when it was once again too late for anything, his troops became ever more various, even fabulous: Great Russians, Ukrainians, Mensheviks, monarchists, murderers, martyrs, lunatics, perverts, democrats, escaped slaves from the underground chemical factories, racists, dreamers, patriots, Italians, Serbian Chetniks, turncoat Partisans who’d realized that Comrade Stalin might not reward them after all, peasants who’d naively welcomed the German troops in 1941, and now rightly feared that the returning Communists might remember this against them, dispossessed Tartars, Hiwis from Stalingrad, pickpockets from Kiev, brigands from the Caucasus who raped every woman they could catch, militant monks, groping skeletons, Polish Army men whose cousins had been murdered by the NKVD in 1940, NKVD infiltrators recording names in preparation for the postwar reckoning (they themselves would get arrested first), men from Smolensk who’d never read the Smolensk Declaration and accordingly believed that Vlasov was fighting especially for them, men who knew nothing of Vlasov except his name, and used that name as an excuse—a primal horde, in short, gathered concentrically like trembling distorted ripples around its ostensible leader, breaking outward in expanding, disintegrating circles across the map of war. When the British Thirty-sixth Infantry Brigade entered Forni Avoltri at the Austro-Italian border, they accepted the surrender of a flock of Georgian officers, no less than ten of whom were hereditary princes “in glittering uniforms,” runs the brigade’s war diary. Suddenly pistol-shots were heard. The Englishmen suspected ambush, but it turned out to be two of the princes duelling over an affair of honor. The victors’ bemusement was increased by the arrival of the commander, a beautiful, high-cheeked lady in buckskin leggings who came galloping up to berate her men for having yielded to the enemy without permission. Leaping from the saddle, she introduced herself as the daughter of the King of Georgia. (Needless to say, no kings remain in our Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, which happens to be the birthplace of Comrade Stalin.) All these worthies considered themselves to be members in good standing of Vlasov’s army. Vlasov, the Princess explained, had guaranteed the independence of Georgia . . .

From William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. 

I’m a big fan of the list passage, which Vollmann rarely uses, perhaps understanding and valuing its rhetorical force.

I just finished the section on Andrey Vlasov, the Russian general who collaborated with the Nazis. The section was fascinating—strangely sympathetic, balanced, personal—Vollmann explores just how unsure and troubled Vlasov was. Anyway. Reading Europe Central, I’ve come to see just how little I know about the Eastern front of WWII, especially in comparison to the Western front (in particular American involvement).


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