Caring for Imperial Russia’s Sick and Wounded Soldiers

I heard about a lot of interesting new work at the ASEEES conference this year, and one of the exciting things ASEEES was the way in which research at one panel complemented and extended research presented in an entirely different context. The way in which the Russian Empire handled the medical demands of war is one of those serendipitous moments.

I served as commenter on a panel loosely defined as veterans in Russian and Soviet history, but ended up being a wider ranging discussion on war and society in broad terms. One paper by Andrew Ringlee, a graduate student at North Carolina, looked at the Red Cross and its de facto role as the Russian Army’s medical service prior to World War I.

Though Ringlee’s research is still in its early stages, he has some intriguing findings. The Russian Red Cross might have been the largest and most significant of the various national chapters, and likewise might have invented the modern concept of disaster relief: stay tuned for the dissertation for full discussion of that point. On the specific question of the Russian military, the Russian Red Cross had its first experience handling sick and wounded soldiers in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, where its performance was remarkably good and well-regarded by the Russian educated public. Despite the normal frictions and difficulties we extent under such circumstances, the results were clearly positive. In 1904-05, however, the Russo-Japanese War proved quite different. The Red Cross was less effective, in part because of the remote theater of war and in part because the Russian Army’s failure to properly integrate the Red Cross into its planning. More importantly, the Russian public believed the Red Cross to have failed, and to have squandered its resources through incompetence and corruption.

What struck me about the story Ringlee told was the way in which the Russian high command expected its medical needs to be met by the Red Cross, and yet made no effort to integrate the Red Cross into its contingency planning or to provide it with the information and resources it would require to deal successfully with the challenges of war. Part of the reason seems to have been a deep official mistrust of Russian civil society. Though Ringlee has not yet taken his research into the First World War, there are clear parallels to the poisonous relationship between state and civil society we see in that period.

Peter Waldron (University of East Anglia) picked up the story in a roundtable on health and living standards in World War I and World War II by looking specifically at epidemic disease in the First World War. Many of the themes of Ringlee’s work–relatively successful efforts by Russian civil society to deal with a crisis, and tsarist indifference or hostility–were equally clear in Waldron’s.

Waldron provided a wealth of welcome data on the nature of disease in the war–of the five million hospitalized Russian soldiers during the war, just under half were there because of contagious disease. The biggest killer was cholera, which killed a third of all those it infected and accounted for 20% of all disease fatalities, but the most prevalent disease was typhoid. Despite the difficult conditions of wartime, Russian public health had made remarkable strides even since the 1890s. A cholera epidemic in 1892 had killed half of those it infected, rather than the third who succumbed during the war.

The pattern of disease is what we might predict: concentrated behind Russian front lines and in big cities, particularly Moscow. Though the precise reasons for this remain to be determined, Waldron found that while wounded soldiers were widely scattered around Russia, infected soldiers were concentrated in Moscow. It’s difficult to know what to make of this: given the city’s importance as an industrial and transportation center, and the huge numbers of vulnerable refugees in Moscow, dumping disease-carriers there would seem a really bad idea. This is hard to imagine as a result of deliberate policy. Of course, we are talking about Nicholas II, so deliberate policy is certainly a possibility.

In terms of the bigger theme, though, Waldron amply confirmed the pattern of the Russian state having a terrible time working effectively and productively with private initiatives. While Waldron did not discuss the Red Cross, he did bring in the Union of Towns, which had a great deal of responsibility for aiding the sick. Desperate for assistance, the Union of Towns begged for help in setting up hospitals, only to find the the tsarist government slow and grudging in its responses. In a remarkable range of circumstances, not simply care for sick and wounded soldiers, this seems to be the rule.

3 Responses to “Caring for Imperial Russia’s Sick and Wounded Soldiers”

  1. Alexej says:

    One must bear in mind, before blaming Nicolas or his government, that the Union of Towns was lead by Georgy Lvov, who later became de-facto the head of Interim Government. Hence – high ranking member of february coup. Union of Towns waged very dirty polical campaign, spreading anti-government propaganda, agitating among wounded soldiers. Of course they were treated with suspicion.

  2. [...] The Russian Front presents a fascinating insight into how the Russian military relied on the Russian Red Cross to treat its injured soldiers in the First World Wa…. [...]

  3. I posted a fragment about Red Cross in the Russo-Japanese War on my site. Gives an idea how it was run…

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