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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 459-485

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United in Gratitude

Honoring Soldiers and Defining the Nation in Russia's Great War

Dept. of History
University of Oklahoma
455 West Lindsey
Norman, OK 73019 USA

One reason the Great War of 1914–18 was so terrible an upheaval was its unprecedented scale. Industrialized countries subscribing to the belief that modern wars were won by the "nation in arms" fielded giant conscript armies armed with weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. The huge social dislocations and staggering casualties that accompanied the outbreak of the first total war required powerful public and state responses. Millions of conscripted men needed reassurance that they and their families' sacrifice did not go unnoticed and that their sacrifice had meaning. Tens of thousands of grieving families sought consolation for their losses. As the war dragged on, local and national communities needed to reaffirm their unity and willingness to continue to sacrifice. Recognition of citizen soldiers' service and sacrifice was thus a practical and moral imperative. Moreover, identifying such service and sacrifice, investing it with a particular meaning, involving the public in commemorating and honoring it, were all potentially powerful means of promoting patriotism and a common sense of the nation. As Jay Winter has argued of the war in general, after August 1914 the very act of commemoration was an act of citizenship: "To remember was to affirm [End Page 459] community, to assert its moral character, and to exclude from it those values, groups, or individuals that placed it under threat."1

Almost every belligerent nation of the war created ways to recognize and honor the citizen in arms; Russia was not an exception. This article explores the wartime intertwining in Russia of notions of patriotism, citizenship, and membership in a national community by examining efforts to recognize and honor the soldier.2 First, I examine official and public discussion of the aid owed soldiers and their families at the very start of the war, as well as the subsequent decision to exclude those identified as unworthy. I then explore three wartime projects intended to nourish patriotism and a common sense of the nation by paying tribute to the country's outstanding defenders: the efforts to properly bury and commemorate fallen soldiers, to recognize and reward heroes, and to create a national holiday celebrating soldiers who shed their blood for their country. As will become evident, formal and informal appraisals of the soldier's wartime performance of duty were closely tied to discussion of what was therefore owed him by the state and his fellow-citizens. In this way, a key component of the modern understanding of citizenship, as entailing rights as well as obligations, equal for all and guaranteed by law, was disseminated and enmeshed with ideas of the patriotic national community.

These ambitious projects to recognize and honor soldiers were, in many respects, innovative and well-conceived. The figure of the soldier, whether depicted as defender of the motherland or as the citizen in arms, provided a locus for national unity potentially capable of transcending differences of class, region, religion, and nationality. Patriotic and national sentiments [End Page 460] could be forged around the soldier and mobilized on his behalf. The existence in Russia of such national projects, comparable to those being developed by the other combatant nations and publicized on a mass scale, suggests that we should rethink some of our assumptions about government attitudes toward popular mobilization and about the allegedly weak sense of national community in Russia during the war. At the same time, differential treatment of some people's service—demonstrated by reluctance to publicize Jewish soldiers' heroism—reveals the difficulty in propounding a model of Russian patriotism for a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society.

Obligations Owed Every (Worthy) Soldier

In the decade following the abolition of serfdom, Russia moved closer to European practices on universal male military service by introducing much broader conscription. But it was only after the debacle...


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