Witnessing and remembering Russia’s war

Lead Curator Dr Katya Rogatchevskaia draws on diaries, memoirs and other personal accounts to explore the experiences of Russian civilians and soldiers during World War One.

Memoirs and diaries 

Memoirs, private letters and diaries are important primary sources that tell us about historical events and the role they played in the lives of people who witnessed or took part in them. They can also describe the development of a character, provide an individual insight and give a first-person account of a private experience. Usually, memoirs are compiled later in life by a person much wiser and older than the central character - the younger self. They give a reflection on someone's life, so the author can select images, scenes and events that fit best into his or her life. One's role in the events and the influence these events had on one's life are seen from a distance where the author usually enjoys a relatively safe and comfortable environment. Thus it is inevitable that the past is manipulated with or without specific intent to do so. Normally memoirs are meant to be made publicly available. In her unfinished memoir Sketch of the Past Virginia Woolf described the difficulties of writing memoirs: ‘So they [memoirs] say: “This is what happened”; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened’.[1]

In contrast, diaries give an immediate reaction to what is happening to the author within a specific time frame. They are snapshots of everyday life, and it is really striking to see how little sometimes is recorded by a diarist about an event that later turns out to be one of the most significant in history. In the pre-Internet age diaries were usually not meant to be made public. However, quite a few diaries were published relatively soon after their creation: some by the author's family and friends after his or her death; some by the author him- or herself.

The First World War in diaries and personal accounts 

Many people kept personal accounts of the events during the First World War in diary form, and published them later. In Russia, during the war and for 15 years after it, over 100 accounts were published in journals and as separate books. Most of them deal with personal experience at the front, in war hospitals and in prison.

Detainees 

In summer 1914, quite a few Russians travelled to or were living in Western Europe, and those who saw the beginning of the war in Germany or Austria found themselves cut off with no possibility to return home, as the borders turned into front lines overnight. One of the persistent motifs of such accounts is the lack of reliable information and inability to get news. In summer 1914 many foreigners, Russians included, holidayed in spa towns in Germany and Austria, for example in Carlsbad (now Kavlovy Vary in the Czech Republic), and were detained there after war broke out. The diaries of these detainees truly reflect the mood of people who had to spend several months in an enemy country in a hostile environment and under constant surveillance by the Austrian police. Many of them had no money, as they had not planned to overstay their holiday and those who had the means could not get cash as their accounts had been frozen. Although this type of detention was not real imprisonment, foreigners were not allowed to move about freely, and it eventually became difficult for them to rent accommodation not only because they could not pay, but also because of the growing xenophobia. In some places the police prohibited the local population from renting out rooms to citizens of the enemy states, and in some cases people would get rid of foreign tenants before police warnings. The majority of people who could not find any suitable occupation felt lost and demoralised. Of course, it must be said that attitudes to foreigners who were citizens of enemy states, was very similar in all countries, whatever their alliances. Intellectuals were in a better position as they could keep themselves busy carrying out scholarly research, and although there was no research library in Carlsbad some books were sourced from Berlin.

Keeping a diary was not an easy task for the people who did so, as they constantly feared arrest or search. Therefore, they usually wrote very little about the war itself and decided to avoid documenting personal thoughts and opinions on politics. They concentrated on emotions and described how other people were trying to cope with the situation. Some authors did not consider their diaries to be of public interest, whereas others were happy to publish them as soon as they got back to Russia.

Three Russian prisoners of war in Assens

Three Russian prisoners of war in Assens

Three Russian soldiers captured by the Germans in Warsaw, 1915. They managed to flee to neutral Denmark.

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Socialists 

Aleksandra Kollontai, a Russian revolutionary and later Soviet Ambassador to Norway, also kept her diaries when she was in Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. The diaries were published in Soviet Russia in 1924. Although she tells the story of her personal ordeals, for example when her son was arrested and she could not find any information about him, the main theme of the diary is her activity as a socialist. Russian socialists were against the war in general and thought that socialists in all countries should support them. In their view, the proletariat had no nationality and so the working class should not fight a war waged in the interests of the Imperialists.

Support for Russian Revolution

Support for Russian Revolution

Papers from the archive of Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky, a Russian Socialist. The archive provides an insight into Russian and British Socialism and the literary and artistic worlds during World War One.

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Copyright: © Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky

Diaries about the front line

Quite a few diaries were written at the front line. They tell the participants’ story of what was happening during war campaigns, which in many cases turned out to be different from the official reports and news compiled by generals, politicians and journalists. Soldiers and officers wrote about their life in the trenches, encounters with the enemy, and often analysed the mistakes of the senior commanders and gave their opinion on the current situation at the front. Some of these diaries were written away from the front, without fear of being criticism or punishment for having independent thoughts, unlike the diaries written at the front, whose authors were facing death almost every day.

At the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander 

Russian historian and journalist Mikhail Lemke (1872-1923) was very conscious of the fact that when in 1915 he was sent to serve as a military censor at the Headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army, he had to document his experience. In his diaries, published in 1920 (250 dnei v tsarskoi stavke – 250 days at the Tsar’s Headquarters, Moscow), he says that as a historian he was well aware how badly previous wars and military campaigns had been documented and remembered. He put down diary entries almost every day, but his diary is a diary of a historian, rather than a private individual or a witness. Very little is written about his personal experience. On the contrary, Lemke included official documents that he read as part of his job and managed to copy. He also talked to a lot of people, some of them very senior, and recorded these conversations. Knowing that copying secret material and recording private conversations during the war could be considered a military crime, he would send his diaries to St Petersburg, where they were safeguarded by a friend. Only after the 1917 revolution in Russia was Lemke able to make his diaries public. Of course, this book is a fascinating piece of evidence, but the moral dilemma – whether it was right for the author to collect and record secret information during the war in the first place – still remains.

Footnotes

[1] Virginia Woolf. Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writing. New edition edited by Jeanne Schulkind. London: Pimlico, 2003. p. 79

  • Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia
  • Dr. Katya Rogatchevskaia is Lead Curator of East European Studies (Russian) at the British Library. She specialised in Russian literature and has MSc in Information Studies. She recently published on history of the Slavonic book and the British Library Russian collections, as well as the impact of transition to digital media on reading. Her current projects include: publication of private letters written by Russian émigré writers in 1920-1950s and a project on Russian memoirs, diaries and personal accounts of the time of the First World War and the Russian revolution (1917) held in the British Library collections.

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