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World War I: Suffering and lessons


August the 1st in Russia marks the anniversary of the day the country joined the World War I


Roughly by dawn, red mobilization posters appeared in all residential areas of the Empire. At 11 am, emergency meeting of the Cabinet – chaired by the Tzar – took place in Peterhoff’s “Ferma” palace convention hall. It ended with the sadly-remembered statement by the foreign minister S.D. Sazonov. After the meeting he said two words – “That’s war”

Yuriy Zinchuk, “Pulse of the city” host: “It seemed that 100 years is enough time to accumulate enough knowledge about the war. But, in reality, only today we are rediscovering the event which changed the course of world history. The only gunshot of a Bosnian terrorist got a gigantic and horrifying mechanism going. Four empires collapsed as a result and two revolutions broke out. Humanity rapidly started preparing for a new, far more destructive war.

How did it happen that successful people of the art nouveau epoch, Silver Age, flourishing of all sorts of arts, epoch of unseen technological advances, era of aviation were sucked into ruthless massacre, which had no analogies? Where did nobility and aesthetics of warfare of the 19th century go? The most terrible thing happened – for the first time in the history of wars, civilian casualties exceeded military ones. World War I was held under a slogan “War against all wars”. It was considered as the last war in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, it has proved to be merely an illusion.

Our observer Alexey Mikhalyov made his report on the topic, still, unfortunately, being quite acute in the 21st century.

The song “Pipes of Peace” was written for the 70-th anniversary of the World War I; it has proved to be Paul McCartney’s most successful solo project since the break-up of the Beatles. The author played the roles of two soldiers – a German one and a British one. The song received phenomenal popularity – largely thanks to its topic. More than 20 million people died in a meaningless massacre. Participation in it didn’t bring pleasure of victory to anyone, except those who used it as a pretext for a revolution

Kirill Nazarenko, researcher at St. Petersburg State University: “It was made to look as suffering which preceded the dawn. For other participants it was suffering with no salvation following it”

38 of 59 independent states which existed at the time took part in the war. Almost the whole Europe plunged into darkness and chaos for 4 years. The Russian army lost almost 2 million people in casualties, around 5 million people were captured. It was history’s first war where not humans, but mechanisms and technologies were playing the first fiddle. For barely educated peasants it was like a war with extraterrestrials.

Fyodor Zorin, head of exhibition department of the Artillery, Engineer Forces and Signal Forces: “It was more dependent not on military action itself, but rather on how developed the home front was. It all depended on how weapon-making factories worked. People’s only mission was to die at the spot marked on the map”

The 1st automatic pistol, the first chainsaw bullet, the first machine gun in the history of the Russian Army – the Fyodorov, with 25 rounds in a clip. The first tanks, zeppelins, airplanes, submarines. And the pinnacle of cruelty – the 1st gas attack. During one of them, Adolf Hitler – Gefreitor of the Austro-Hungarian army at the time – temporarily lost his eyesight. The overall number of the wounded exceeded 55 million people

Anna Volkovich, head researcher of Military-Medical Museum: “That experience had no complex generalization in our country. But it was generalized by scientists. There are manuscripts, there are works on this topic, but they have never seen light”

Not only manuscripts, but even documentaries were shelved. The presidential library is only now publishing videos which had been classified to date. It took a hundred years to feel that grief.

Tatyana Maskhulia, head of forming of information resources department at the B.N. Yeltsin Presidential Library: “It was clear that the frontline cameraman was close to soldiers – in those craters left by shelling. And he filmed this mass of soil approaching men. It looked as if it was walking towards them”

World War I was eclectic. Cruelty didn’t rule out glimpses of nobility in places where the duel code survived – in the navy, aviation, in cavalry attacks.

Denis Batsuev, painter: “A pilot shoots down another pilot. Then picks him up on a car and takes him to the HQ, takes care of him. Something of a knighthood-like attitude”

Not the most striking from a painter’s point of view – what kind of heroics one could see in Mazurian swaps? – World War I nonetheless attracts painters. Works of Andrey Romsukov have been famous well outside of St. Petersburg. Denis Batsuev is trying to deliver a simple thought through his works – that history never broke up. Not for four years, not for quarter of a century.

Denis Batsuev, painter: “Those fortifications which had been built prior to World War I were actively used in 1941 when Germans came here. And those weapons fired at German troops which approached Leningrad”

The truth is, however, that World War I initially took a very modest spot in the memory of the people. Some tried calling it “the second Patriotic”, but to no effect. And its not a coincidence that irony and cynical humor in its description are not regarded as something out of place – remember Shveik. The majority of Russian soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for, being sure that “our Tzar had a quarrel with theirs”

Kirill Nazarenko, researcher at St. Petersburg State University: “Propaganda was working in the same manner as during the Napoleon’s invasion – stories of a disabled with one foot, who killed 10 and died in the name of the Emperor, having received a golden medal posthumously”

As a result, the propaganda led to the very same clichés, which formed the banners’ style for half a century. The famous Red Army soldier was born in the World War I. And even spy-mania, which had lived for a century, and its symbol – the mysterious Mata Hari – were inherited.

Alexey Mikhalyov, reporter: “Even more so – when people ransacked the German Embassy, they were looking for a radio transmitter, among other things. The city was filled with rumors that there are statues with hidden compartments at the Isaakievskiy Cathedral area, which contained cryptic info. And all this spy aesthetics: James Bond, Vodka-Martini “shaken, not stirred”, guns with angled barrels to shoot from around the corner – all this was born during World War I and, partially, in central St. Petersburg”

There are more of such connections, than one could imagine. The uniform created for the Victory Parade was adopted by the Red Army. In 1943, officer’s shoulder loops were revived, St, Georges crosses were worn again.

But there is a connection of a different kind. Having completed the 1st global massacre, humanity did not protect itself from repetition of the nightmare. Institutions created to avoid it proved to be fruitless. And the indestructible fear which remained, just like 100 years ago, is the fear of another global war”.