Russia and WWI Anniversary – 4 Aug 14

Unveiling of a monument to World War I heroes
President of Russia | August 1, 2014

Vladimir Putin took part in a ceremony unveiling a monument on Poklonnaya Gora to the heroes who gave their lives in World War I. The ceremony was one of the main events marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.


The idea to build the monument came from the Russian Military Historical Society, and is the work of sculptors A. Kovalchuk, P. Lyubimov and V. Yusupov, and architects M. Korsi and S. Shlenkina.

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Speech at ceremony unveiling a monument to World War I heroes


A century ago on this day, Russia found itself obliged to enter World War I. Today, we are unveiling this monument to its heroes – Russian soldiers and officers. We are unveiling the monument here on Poklonnaya Gora, a site that preserves our grateful memory of Russian military glory and of those who at various moments in our country’s history have defended its independence, dignity and freedom.

The World War I soldier and his comrades in arms have their place of honour here too. It was the fate of many of them to later fight again on the frontlines in the Great Patriotic War. These experienced veterans inspired and brought out the best in the young soldiers and passed on to them the traditions of military comradeship and brotherhood and the traditions of military honour. 

The Russian army’s great values and the heroic experience of the generation who fought in World War I played a big part in our people’s spiritual and moral upsurge at that moment. This was a generation that was fated to go through not just the difficult trials of the first global world war, but also the revolutionary upheaval and fratricidal civil war that split our country and changed its destiny.

But their feats and their sacrifices in Russia’s name were forgotten for long years. World War I itself, which the rest of the world calls the Great War, was erased from our country’s history and was labelled simply ‘imperialist’.

Today, we are restoring the historical truth about World War I and are discovering countless examples of personal courage and military skill, and the true patriotism of Russia’s soldiers and officers and the whole of Russian society. We are discovering the role Russia played in that difficult and epoch-changing time for the world, especially in the pre-war years. And what we see reflects very clearly the defining features of our country and our people.

Russia over many centuries supported strong and trusting relations between countries. This was the case on the eve of World War I too, when Russia did everything it could to convince Europe to find a peaceful and bloodless solution to the conflict between Serbia and Austro-Hungary. But Russia’s calls went unheeded and our country had no choice but to rise to the challenge, defend a brotherly Slavic people and protect our own country and people from the foreign threat.   

Russia stayed true to its duties as an ally. The Russian offensives in Prussia and Galicia upset the adversary’s plans and made it possible for our allies to hold the front and defend Paris. The enemy was forced to turn its attention and direct a large part of its forces east where Russian regiments put up the fiercest possible struggle. Russia withstood the attack and was then able to launch an offensive. The Brusilov offensive became famous throughout the whole world.

But this victory was stolen from our country. It was stolen by those who called for the defeat of their homeland and army, who sowed division inside Russia and sought only power for themselves, betraying the national interests.

Today, we are restoring the links in time, making our history a single flow once more, in which World War I and its generals and soldiers have the place they deserve, and our hearts hold the sacred memory that they rightfully earned in those war years. As the saying goes, “better late than never.” Justice is finally triumphing in the books and textbooks, in the media and on cinema screens, and of course, in this monument that we are unveiling here today.

This must continue. There is a need for large-scale educational work and serious archival research. This will help us to learn more about the exact causes of the war and its events and identify the names of all who took part, so that present and future generations can learn about the fate of their own forebears and know their family’s history.

It is very important to properly immortalise the memory of our soldiers, and find and bring order to World War I burial sites, of which there are hundreds in Russia. They are the resting places of soldiers from many countries, all of whom are forever bound together now by this common tragedy.

This tragedy reminds us what happens when aggression, selfishness and the unbridled ambitions of national leaders and political establishments push common sense aside, so that instead of preserving the world’s most prosperous continent, Europe, they lead it towards danger. It is worth remembering this today.

World history gives us so many examples of what a terrible price we pay for refusing to listen to each other, or for trampling on others’ rights and freedoms and lawful interests in the name of our own interests and ambitions. It would be good if we could learn to open our eyes and to calculate at least a step ahead.

It is long since time that humanity learned and accepted the single great truth that violence breeds violence. The road to peace and prosperity is built out of goodwill, dialogue, and the memory of our past wars, the people who started them and why.

This monument to the heroes of World War I is not just a mark of tribute to their feats but is also a warning and reminder to us all of our world’s fragility. It is our duty to look after peace and remember that the most precious thing on earth is peaceful, calm and stable life.

We cherish the memory of World War I heroes. Glory to Russian arms and to our hero-soldier!


How & Why Russia Forgot The Great War
Alexey Eremenko
The Moscow Times | Jul. 31 2014

The Great War hardly features in mass culture, having contributed neither myths nor heroes to Russian folk culture, and hardly having made a dent in nation’s wealth of arts and literature.

Russia lost 3 million people in World War I. But it also provided examples of explosive military strength and economic resilience that would make any nation proud.

And yet, though the 100th anniversary of the war — which Russia joined on Aug. 1, 1914 — has revived some interest in the event, Russians generally do not often speak of World War I.

This is a nation that loves and cherishes memories of other past military triumphs. World War II has  developed a cult-like status over the decades, and even the Great Patriotic War against Napoleon is widely discussed and revered.

But beyond the history books, the Great War hardly features in mass culture, having contributed neither myths nor heroes to Russian folk culture, and hardly having made a dent in nation’s wealth of arts and literature.

World War I’s marginal position in Russian lore owes to the fact that it fell between the cracks of history, or — more specifically — between the Tsarist and Bolshevik regimes, Russian scholars said.

In destroying the tsars, the Bolshevik revolutionaries denounced the Great War as imperialist, thus robbing it of its potential for a popular legacy.

"The two world wars are antithetical national myths for Russia," said prominent philosopher and columnist Maxim Goryunov.

"It is an either-or situation. [World War I and World War II] are mutually exclusive, you cannot celebrate them both," Goryunov told The Moscow Times on the eve of the war’s 100th anniversary on Thursday.

The Forgotten War

Russia boasts two major museums dedicated to the legacy of its 1812 war against Napoleon. Scores of museums celebrate the memory of World War II, and monuments to its heroes and victims can be found in abundance in every post-Soviet city, from Kaliningrad to Siberia.

But the country’s first-ever World War I museum is only slated to open its doors in St. Petersburg next Tuesday, 96 years after the war ended.

The situation is no better where monuments are concerned: The first monument was unveiled in a park in Moscow’s Sokol in 2004 on grounds that had been used clandestinely by the Bolshevik regime to bury the Great War’s dead en masse. The park is now slated for partial demolition.

Only 15 percent of Russians know that World War I was triggered by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and only 12 percent can correctly list the warring parties, according to a nationwide survey conducted by state pollster VTsIOM.

More than half of the 1,600 Russians polled earlier this month, found themselves at a loss to answer  either of these questions. In other words, they knew nothing about the war.

No One to Promote It

The problem with World War I is that the Russian regime that sent its troops to the front line was itself a casualty of the war, historians said.

The Romanov regime was ousted by the Bolsheviks, who saw the Great War as "imperialist" and actively opposed it, even as their countrymen fought on the front lines.

The Bolsheviks’ negative view of the war became the party line, and lingered for decades in the Soviet history books, said Dr. Yelena Rudaya, a leading expert on World War I who works for the Historical Perspective Foundation, a conservative non-profit think tank in Moscow.

"They labeled it ‘a shameful page of our history,’ though it was actually a glorious one," Rudaya said of the Bolsheviks.

By contrast, the 1812 war had the tsarist regime to promote it, and World War II had the Soviet leadership, which made it a cornerstone of their patriotic ideology, said historian Valentin Shelokhayev, an expert on the late Russian empire.

"A war’s memory is preserved from generation to generation by the political system [that survives it]," said Shelokhayev, who sits on the academic board of the Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"But other people came to power in 1917," he said.

Russia generally has a poor historical memory, Shelokhayev said. A prime example is the 1917 revolution: Once celebrated as the most important event in history, it has gradually been forgotten, he said.

Almost half of Russians, or 47 percent, said the Bolshevik Revolution did not matter to them, and another 15 percent had no opinion on the matter, according to a 2012 poll conducted by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation. The study surveyed 1,500 respondents nationwide.

Mixing Red & White

But the legacy of the Great War is finally hitting its stride in Russia, pundits said.

"Attention is mounting, thanks to the anniversary," Rudaya said.

The war can actually be said to have had a unique impact on modern Russia: Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, the best-known warlord of the pro-Russian insurgency presently blazing in eastern Ukraine, is an avid historical re-enactor whose interests center on World War I troops, as well as the White Army forces that fought the Bolsheviks during the Civil War of 1917 to 1922.

However, Girkin — who has been known to impersonate tsarist dragoons and machine gunners alike, and whose former day job was that of an FSB officer — is also known to evoke Stalin-era war rules in his orders. In May, he was reported to have had two marauders executed in line with a Soviet martial law decree issued at the start of World War II in 1941.

World War I is gradually emerging from obscurity as the divide between the communist past and the tsarist times blur in the Russian public conscience, philosopher Goryunov said.

"These days, a Red commissar is shaking the hand of a White officer," Gorynov said.

"This is an unnatural, insane, neurotic blend," he said. "But miraculously, it works … because the people honestly don’t care."

Saving the Entente

After teaming up with France and Britain to join the war, Russia’s contribution proved crucial to the Triple Entente’s victory right from the start, when the opening of the Eastern Front foiled the German blitzkrieg that had threatened to destroy the French and British armies, historian Rudaya said.

Russia beat the Great Retreat in 1915, losing Poland, Lithuania and Galicia in today’s western Ukraine, but counterattacked with the brilliant Brusilov Offensive in 1916, which broke the back of the Austro-Hungarian army.

General Alexei Brusilov, who led the offensive, has since been recognized as one of the best military commanders in Russian history, which is studded with superb war leaders.

At 1.6 million deaths, the offensive was also one of the bloodiest military operations in history, on par with the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 to 1943.

Russia’s World War I fight ended in 1917, when domestic chaos demoralized the army and led Russia to wage a separate peace with the Germans. At home, 1917 was marked by the execution of the Romanovs in February, and the Bolshevik rise to power in November.

Economic Wonder

Russia was not ready for the war when it happened — a trend later revisited in World War II. Military reform had been plodding along since the loss of the Japanese War of 1905, but money was too tight for any serious imperialist grabs, said Rudaya of the Historical Perspective Foundation.

"Russia had no solid offensive plans … but was sucked into the war because of its obligations to its allies," agreed Shelokhayev of the Institute of Russian History.

However, the country weathered the pressure of war well: Russia’s GDP only began to sink two years after the start of combat in 1916, at which point it lost a modest 10 percent, according to study published last year by Mark Harrison of the Warwick University in Britain and Andrei Markevich of Moscow’s New Economic School.

By comparison, the GDP shrunk 48 percent during the Civil War, between 1918 and 1919, the study showed.

The Great Retreat, for example, was caused by "Ammo Hunger" which allowed the German artillery to pummel Russian positions in Poland and Galicia without hindrance. Despite a demand of 1.5 million artillery shells per month, Russia only produced 650,000 shells over the whole of 1914, according to a historical study published last year by Forbes Russia.

But the industry was rerouted, and within a year was cranking out nearly 800,000 shells per month, the study said.

Also, while Russia imported TNT for shells before the war from Germany, of all places, by 1917, it had stockpiled about 16,000 tons of domestically made explosives — more than enough ammunition for the bloodbath that would define the ensuing Civil War.

The unparalleled breakthrough was due to quality management of the military-industrial complex and patriotic zeal of Russian entrepreneurs, the study said.

But of the two people behind the industrial war effort, one fled from the Bolshevik regime to the U.S., and the other died in 1937 on the eve of his already-planned arrest.


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