Illuminating Russia’s World War I memory

While World War I didn’t have the same devastating impact on Russia that World War II had its successor state, the Soviet Union, the fact that some 2 million Russians died and another 5 million suffered as prisoners of war during the 1914-18 conflagration ought to give an indication of the conflict’s impact.

However, tangible proof of Russian memories of the Great War haven’t been easy to come by, obscured by the miseries of the Second World War, the Soviet Revolution, the Russian Civil War and attempts by the victorious Soviets to obliterate positive recollections of Czarist Russia.

Despite all that, the memory of World War I was “hidden in plain sight,” said University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences history Professor and department Chair Karen Petrone.

Petrone searched WorldCat, the world’s largest library catalog, for terms like “Russia,” “personal narratives,” “World War I,” and “1914-1918,” according to the University of Kentucky. “Remarkably, Petrone found quite a few narratives, military histories, novels, and memoirs – most of which she had never heard of.”

Petrone has compiled her evidence proving the existence of World War I memory in Russia in the book, The Great War in Russian Memory, released in July by Indiana University Press.

Petrone said given the fact that the Russian Empire had 18 million men-in-arms she just couldn’t believe that no one remembered World War I in Russia.

“I spoke to colleagues in Russian history who told me that World War I memory was not a category in the Soviet Union, and that there was nothing about it in governmental archives,” she said. “Scholars believed that World War I memory did not exist.”

Her goal wasn’t necessarily to prove her fellow researchers wrong, but, inspired by the work of World War I scholars like Paul Fussell, she decided to look into the question.

“France had 5,000 monuments dedicated to World War I,” Petrone said. “While the Soviet government privileged commemorations of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War over World War I, it just didn’t make sense that there was no memory at all. I set out to look for remembrance of World War I in Russia.”

Petrone’s new work unearths a wealth of buried stories from the Soviet state about the memory of World War I, according to the University of Kentucky.

“I guess that these materials were always there,” she said. “But scholars who follow a government’s records don’t find anything, because the Soviet government didn’t want them to. There was nothing in textbooks or other cultural materials.”

The Soviet Revolution arrived in the middle of World War I, which caused quite a problem for the revolutionary government. Good, loyal soldiers were fighting for the Czar, but then the revolution happened, so Soviet leaders were in a tough spot, explained Petrone.

To avoid widespread confusion, the Soviet government weeded out books and other written materials that asked these types of complex questions.

“The sorrow, pain, humiliation and moral ambiguity of killing others were not discussed openly,” Petrone said. “The conscience of the war era undermined war itself in the mind of the Soviet government. In the eyes of federal officials, these books questioned the basic tenets of the Soviet state.”

Petrone saw firsthand how far the censors went, as she analyzed multiple versions of the same novel.

“They took out ambiguity, in addition to anything bodily or sexual,” she explained. “And as you would expect, in the same period, from 1917-1939, there were no monuments or memorials to World War I in the USSR.”

Petrone hopes that new authors’ unknown works will receive greater attention as well. Through her research, the professor of war and gender also hopes to cast a different light on 1930s Russia.

“People want to separate Russia from Europe when it comes to World War I, but they can’t,” she said. “These countries had parallel experiences.”

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4 thoughts on “Illuminating Russia’s World War I memory

  1. Pingback: Illuminating Russia's World War I memory « The Cotton Boll … - - worldhistory.vno.bz

  2. Ironically I was researching an ancestor who died in World War I just today. Sometimes I think it should be called “The Forgotten War” because as bad as it was, WW II was worse and it supplanted the first one in the minds of many. Finding information is more difficult and sketchy at times because the records are so old. Its hard to believe that the war began (in Europe) almost 100 years ago and so few ever seem to think much about it anymore. This was a good poke to remember the toll that war took as well.

    • It’s definitely the forgotten war in the US, but not in Europe. The toll it took on the major European powers is simply staggering and they haven’t forgotten.

      If anything, Americans ought to take more pride in their role in the conflict. Personally, I doubt the Allies could have defeated Imperial Germany without the help of the US, so devastating had the impact of the war been by the end of 1917.

      Of course, some would argue that if both sides had finally fought to exhaustion and agreed to return to their respective corners, so to speak, we’d have been a lot better off in the long run (no Treaty of Versailles, prostrate Germany, Hitler, WWII, etc.) Still, if you ever get a chance to visit what passes for the World War I monument in Washington, D.C., you’ll see how little remembered the war is. It is indeed sad.

      Good luck with your research. All soldiers deserve to be remembered, particularly those who gave their lives.

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