NARRATIVES: 1. Romanian soldiers held captive in the USSR joined the Tudor Vladimirescu Division willing to fight fascism. 2. Romania turning arms against Germany reflected people’s will, and the Romanian soldiers fought better because they had a just cause. 3. The Romanian army was treated as an ally and fought side by side with the Soviet army. 4. The Soviet army entered Romanian territory to liberate it.
BACKGROUND: For a great number of years, Russia has mounted a propaganda effort to spread disinformation, which, on the one hand, sought to glorify the actions of the Red Army and depict the war as a confrontation between good and evil, while on the other hand trying to make people forget the role the USSR had played prior to being invaded by Nazi Germany, as well as the war crimes committed by the Red Army during the war. Historians consider the USSR an aggressor state – it invaded the Baltic States, annexed Romanian territories, attacked Poland, etc. – while its forces also committed war crimes, particularly in the final years of the war, when it became an occupying force in Eastern and Central Europe. In fact, the Soviet Union’s war crimes were also denounced, alongside those committed by Nazi Germany, in a resolution of the European Parliament published in 2019.
Russia’s embassies across the world are taking part in this propaganda effort, by adopting messages and adapting them to the specificity of each country. In Romania, the narrative promoted by the Russian embassy is reminiscent of the narratives circulated during the war against Nazi Germany, after Romania switched sides on August 23. According to these narratives (which during the first years of the communist regime insisted on the “liberating” role of the Soviet Army), Romania was one of the countries which played a major role in bringing down Nazi Germany. By switching sides, it helped shorten the war by a few months. The same narratives argued that Romania siding with the Soviets was the will of the Romanian communists, whose role had been instrumental in the August 23 events. In fact, things are not that black-and-white: the communists had played a relatively insignificant role. Romania turning arms against Germany was the result of political decision-making at the highest level (a decision which was steeped in controversy and did not enjoy full support), which followed the arrest and demise of Marshal Ion Antonescu. The timing was critical, as the situation was extremely complicated on the frontline and Russian troops had already entered Romanian territory, which meant full occupation was just a matter of time.
Communist-era narratives, much like those now being promoted by the Russian embassy, focused on the common effort to liberate Northern Transylvania, conceded to Hungary under the Second Vienna Award. The battle for Transylvania thus added a national dimension to the effort of defeating Nazism. The narrative ignores the capturing of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina by the USSR under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, considering that Romania entered WWII on the side of Germany with the undeclared purpose of liberating these territories, and this rallied great popular support. A much more controversial decision was the one whereby the Antonescu regime chose to wage war across the Dniester, a decision which can be explained, in part, as an attempt at finally retaking Northern Transylvania. Of course, this does not exclude Antonescu’s hostility towards the Bolshevik regime, nor him advocating some of the ideas Nazi Germany was actually fighting for, which in turn contributed to Romania deciding to cross the Dniester. Moreover, the Romanian forces were also guilty of committing war crimes in USSR territory, and Romania was one of the countries that took part in the Holocaust.
In the meta-narrative about Romania’s participation in the war against Nazi Germany and its alliance with the Red Army, the “Tudor Vladimirescu” division also plays a key role: its existence proved, on the one hand, that Romanians had fought the Nazis even prior to August 23, while on the other hand that the decision also had an ideological component, in addition to its nationalist purpose (Obviously, the choice of name was not random. Tudor Vladimirescu is described in communist historiography as a rebel fighting particularly for a social cause).
The practice of recruiting prisoners of war with a view to creating military units that would fight alongside their captors was used in the war both by Nazi Germany (see the Russian Liberation Army led by Vlasov) as well as by the USSR. Adding to these units made up of prisoners were others consisting of ideologically-minded volunteers or refugees from various countries, at times fighting on behalf of national authorities in exile (which were known to a greater or lesser extent). In the case of the USSR, such units were designed to be reused in the future, once Germany was defeated.
Such “divisions of volunteers” had been created by Stalin in 1942, made up of Slovaks and Poles. On October 2, 1943, Stalin approved the creation of “Tudor Vladimirescu” 1st Volunteer Division on USSR territory, according to Evenimentul Istoric.
Worth noting is that the Soviets had managed to recruit only a relatively small number of Romanian prisoners, the equivalent of two divisions, accounting for some 5 to 10% of the total number of prisoners, depending on the estimates regarding Romanian soldiers captured by the Soviets. Figures ranged from approximately 230.000 prisoners to as much as 445.153, of whom 309.533 were reported on August 23, and another 135.620 were captured after Romania switched sides in the war (according to Ilie Schipor, Prizonieri români pe frontul de est, National office for the Cult of Heroes, 2008). Of these, at least 65,000 allegedly died serving time, but the real number could be much higher, given that mortality rate estimates amongst Romanian PoWs stood at 28%. Romanian PoWs died not just in NKVD-run camps, located in remote areas of the USSR, but also in transit. Most of the survivors were set free years after the war had ended, and most of them had to cross thousands of kilometers on foot to get back home.
The Tudor Vladimirescu Division took part in the military campaign against Germany, and its soldiers would enter Bucharest, a city controlled by the new regime, on August 31, 1944 (the Russian Embassy in Bucharest published its post on the anniversary of that date).
The Soviets would subsequently create a new division, Horea, Cloşca and Crişan, but it was already too late for it to have any part in the war effort. It would, however, be used later – just as what had remained of the Tudor Vladimirescu Division – to help the communists effectively take control of the Romanian army.
PURPOSE: To reiterate narratives about the exclusively positive role played by the Soviet Army, and its alliance with the Romanian army. The narrative also seeks to invoke the old Romanian-Russian friendship and the prospect of present-day cooperation with a view to attaining joint objectives. It seeks to undermine people’s confidence in the current security context, based on our country’s NATO membership, by suggesting the existence of an alternative rooted in history.
WHY THE NARRATIVES ARE FALSE: “The volunteers” were given a choice between the hardships of a prison life in Siberia (their brothers-in-arms had died on their way to the gulags, as well as on the inside), and the possibility of being reinstated, as one such volunteer, Ion Dumbravă, recalls in this eyewitness interview for Rador: “After the “Tudor Vladimirescu” Division was set up – we were second-tier -, everything changed. They gave us Romanian uniforms, and of course, our living standards changed, namely we were given good and other rights, pay and all the rights befitting an officer […] Each unit and subunit of the division had some Soviet drill-sergeant. […] We swore allegiance to the Romanian people on the Romanian flag, which didn’t display the royal insignia”.
Fear, opportunism and the will to survive seem to have played a much more important role in persuading the military to sign up voluntarily for the Tudor Vladimirescu Division, rather than their desire to fight fascism. Adding to the pressure every prisoner had been subject to was also the pressure of an intense propaganda drive. A number of Romanian communist activists were forced by Soviet authorities to search the Soviet gulags, looking for Romanian military whom they could recruit for the new division of “volunteers” under the guise of a patriotic war. Among them were Ana Pauker, Vasila Luca, Valter Roman (father to Petre Roman), Nicolae Cambrea (uncle to filmmaker Sergiu Nicolaescu), etc.
Despite this array of factors, those who did volunteer only accounted for a small minority. Most of the prisoners believe that, as long as Romania was at war with the USSR, joining a Moscow-run military outfit was considered an act of treason. Most of the officers were in this frame of mind, so the Russians had a hard time recruiting the necessary numbers to make up a whole division, so they promoted privates or junior officers to full-fledged officers.
Not even the narrative regarding a greater and more efficient motivation of the Romanian army would pass a closer scrutiny. Both campaigns were fought in the name of liberating Romanian territories (Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Northern Transylvania) and against a regime that was the epitome of evil – Bolshevism, and Nazism, respectively. Romania was merely a junior partner in both campaigns. Germany and the USSR, respectively bore the brunt and ultimately decided victory or defeat. In both campaigns Romania was outgunned and less prepared compared to its allies. The strength of the Soviet Army pushing back the Nazi frontlines in the final years of the war was overwhelming. So it’s unwise to compare the efficiency displayed by the Romanian army fighting the Soviets to that of the Romanian army fighting alongside them against an already defeated German enemy who was on the retreat.
As regards popular support for Romania turning arms and the enthusiastic reception of the Tudor Vladimirescu Division and the Red Army by the population, the pictures taken at the time can be deceiving, Anatol Petrencu, a university professor and former president of the Associations of Historians from the Republic of Moldova, the holder of a PhD in historical sciences, has pointed out:
“If we look back at the images and films taken in Bucharest, they are somewhat impressive. I believe the people of Bucharest weren’t so enthusiastic about the Russians coming to occupy them. Worth mentioning is that, although these were Romanian soldiers, they were part of the Red Army. This was not the Romanian Army, but a division that was part of the 2nd Ukrainian Front. Romanian soldiers were wearing the same uniform as the Soviet military. Admittedly, their shoulder boards were Romanian Army standard issue. But their clothing was nonetheless Soviet”, the historian went on to say.
Contrary to the narratives, Romania was not treated as an ally of the USSR. Once it turned arms on Germany, over 135 thousand Romanian military were taken prisoner by the Soviets, and after the war, Romanian was treated as an aggressor state and forced to pay huge reparations via to so-called SovRoms.
Even those Romanian soldiers who were part of the Tudor Vladimirescu Division, whose official status identified them as volunteers, were used as cannon fodder in the Red Army’s western campaign, Anatol Petrencu argues: “The Russians didn’t put too much trust in such military units. We have to say that this Romanian division was also used as cannon fodder. Of the 9,562 soldiers the division had in 1944, only 4,436 remained in March, 1945. Over half of them died fighting in Transylvania, and later in Hungary”.
The Red Army didn’t enter Romania to “liberate” it, but as part of its campaign against Nazi Germany and its allies, following the frontlines and the retreating Axis army. Romania in particular was one of the targets of Stalin’s expansion campaigns. The Soviet leader had agreed with his British and American allies that this country would remain in Moscow’s sphere of influence. Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina were re-annexed. An occupation army was stationed in Romania, installing the communist regime.
The “Tudor Vladimirescu” Division played a key role in the communists taking hold of Romania, which proves that the USSR had planned this years before its forces had even came anywhere near the Dniester. Moreover, the 2006 report of the Presidential Committee for Investigating the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, specifies that the people at the top of the “Tudor Vladimirescu” Division had close ties with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the NKVD secret police, the forerunner of the KGB.
Historian Anatol Petrencu points out that the creation of the Horea, Cloşca and Crişan Division, at a time when it could no longer be of any service in the war, is further evidence of the USSR’s true intentions when using Romanian “volunteers”.
“The truth is that Moscow was home to many Romanian communists, such as Ana Pauker or Valter Roman. The latter would become the commander of the other Romanian division in the Red Army, dubbed Horea, Cloşca and Crişan, when it had become very clear that Germany was by now defeated. And therein lies the question: why did the Russians create another division? [...] Those who addressed Stalin and spread propaganda amongst Romanian prisoners were Romanian communists. On the other hand, Stalin too approved. He agreed with the Romanian communists who saw Romania nost just a country liberated from German occupation, but also a future communist country. And when the second division was created – Horea, Cloşca and Crişan – at the end of the war, it was already clear that the division led by Valter Roman was meant to bring and uphold communism in Romania. Which is exactly what happened, if we look back at the toppling of King Michael”.
GRAIN OF TRUTH: The two divisions were forcefully made up of volunteers who fought alongside the Red Army during the Second World War. Soldiers of the Tudor Vladimirescu division were met with enthusiasm by the civilian population upon entering Bucharest.