When Steve Barnes invited me to join this project, I hadn’t given much thought to blogging as a scholarly enterprise. I have read academic blogs from time to time and I usually enjoy them. Sometimes helpful, sometimes self-indulgent, often stimulating, frequently ranting, I’ve put them on the list of things I’ll browse for intellectual pleasure in odd moments in the day, say the ten minutes I have between lunch and my one-fifteen class. But I didn’t plan to write them myself. Steve convinced me, however, that the blog as a genre held real possibilities for scholars. I won’t go into all of those possibilities in this first post, but I will point out a couple of obvious facts about the current limitations of scholarly publication: we only review new books, we review articles anonymously or in the safety of our classroom, and we comment very infrequently upon the strengths of particular works for teaching. And, of course, the publishing process takes a long time. At one time, listserves promised to break down some of these barriers, but few of them really do. So this group blog, from my perspective at least, is a chance to experiment with short-form publishing in which the peer review comes after publication (in the form of responses to the posts, which are always welcome) rather than before. It’s an exciting opportunity.
My first post is a short translation I’d like to share and briefly comment upon. Aleksandr Subbotin was a cavalryman from the village of Kolkovo in Tver’ province who served in Rennenkampf’s First Army at the start of World War I. Bright and literate enough to keep a diary, but occasionally clueless enough to be confused about the actual army he was in (he wrote that he was serving in the Fourth Army), he left behind a diary of the war and several photographs. These remnants were preserved by local historians and ended up in a special room of the House of Trades in the town of Goritsy. They were read there by Vladimir Burdin, who thought the story of the local boy off at the Great War merited publication. His edited volume of the diary was published in 2008 in the small burg of Kimry (pop. 50,000). As far as I can tell, only one library in the United States owns the book, and only the magic of WorldCat and interlibrary loan brought it to me.
Despite this unusual provenance, Subbotin’s diary is not all that different from other Russian soldier diaries I have read, but there is one significant difference. Subbotin reports his own behavior and the behavior of his comrades just after they crossed the German border in 1914 without a hint of self-censorship. Given the delay of publication, there was also little outward censorship, which was fortunate given the political ramifications of atrocity stories in the twentieth century. At the time and long afterwards, German sources insisted that East Prussia had been despoiled and its inhabitants violated by the invading Russian troops in the time period between the Russian invasion and the German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes that drove the Russians back on their side of the border. Others wondered whether these German protestations were little more than an attempt to divert attention from the atrocities they were accused of committing in Belgium and France at the same time. Mutual recrimination was the dominant mode for many years. That situation has begun to change with the publication of a good deal of high quality scholarship on the events on the Western Front, most notably John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities, 1914, but scholarship on the events in East Prussia is far thinner. Most students of atrocity on the Eastern Front have focused on Galicia or Anatolia, with good reason. The scale and duration of civilian abuse in those regions was much greater than anything that happened in East Prussia. Nevertheless, the events in East Prussia ought to be of interest more broadly to students of twentieth century Russia and to students of the Great War.
Subbotin is exceptionally, almost painfully, cool and frank in his short descriptions of raping and pillaging below. It is precisely the normality of his tone that is most shocking. What soldier wouldn’t race to get the best cheese? Who would be concerned by shooting “about” eight spies over the course of a day’s march? Why not wink at the comrades who “courted” two girls they grabbed off the road and dragged into the rye? The fact that these men were whipped by a German baron for driving their horses too hard (and not for raping the locals) says volumes about relations between soldiers and officers, ethnic groups within the Russian army (which had plenty of ethnically German officers in 1914), and the mundane violence of life on the front starting from the very first days of the war. It makes you wonder whether all the talk of a gradual breakdown of Russian discipline gets the story wrong, for where is the discipline in this tale?
The dates below are old style (13 days behind the western calendar), and the place names are straight transliterations from the Russian (thus Suvalki rather than Suwałki)
29 July 1914. We set out from the town of Suvalki and arrived in the village of Motula, where we only paused to eat, and in the evening we marched to the village of Ol’shanka, where we stood six versts (one verst is 1.06 kilometers – js) from the border of East Prussia.
30 July 1914. The division remained in the village of Ol’shanka, and on the 31st we set out in the direction of Magriboven. We traveled lightly, taking only our weapons, the rest we left behind, we were on field patrol.
A region of more than forty versts of East Prussia along the border was enveloped by fire. A battle was going on, strictly artillery. Exploding shells were visible, both from us and the Germans. The Germans retreated. The battle lasted all day and night on the first of August. On the second, we stayed in place and went on field patrol. The division had received its first baptism. Many soldiers and officers were buried over the course of those days. Our lieutenant was killed early on, the soldier Seleznev was killed, and others too.
3 August. The division set out and at six o’clock in the evening crossed the border near the Filippovskii customs post in the direction of the town of Marusken, which is a verst from the Russian border. At 6:45 we arrived in the town of Marusken. But as we halted on the edge of town, just to the right of us a group of our infantry was already leaving the town’s cheese factory. The infantrymen had loaded up planks with six or more wheels of cheese and were carrying cups and rolling away whole barrels of Russian butter, which they were eating directly with their hands or spreading on the cheese. And so upon our entry into the city we also began to plunder. We broke open their cellars, took out harmonicas, brought some wine, and began a real party. On the tables appeared geese, ducks, eggs, beef, and apple wine. But we had hardly begun feasting when the alarm was raised. We quickly saddled our horses, and the news spread like lightning that German infantry was marching upon us. Our artillery got into position, and we extended into a line. We fired a rifle volley at the Germans creeping up our left flank, but the darkness hampered the shooting. The Germans retreated back. Soon everything had calmed down and we unsaddled the horses and began to feast again. After the feast I lay down to sleep next to my horse Gabal’nik and soon fell asleep.
4 August. I woke up early in the morning and set a table between two apple trees, red apples hung directly over the table. A lot of guys were very drunk. You couldn’t find any soldiers smoking makhorka (a cheap tobacco – js). Everyone without exception was smoking cigars, the very best taken from the shops, and they were eating chocolate. Everyone was all mixed up together, someone groaned, someone threw up. At 9 AM they roused the whole division and we marched to the Danilin farmstead.
8 August. We marched to the village of Al’botvingen. On the road to the village we shot about eight spies. Marching along the road, we destroyed two tall observation towers. At four in the morning, Riazanov and Iurchuk arrived. They had found two girls along the way and had dragged them into the rye in order to court them. And in order to make up for lost time, they drove their horses at a full gallop in order to catch up to the regiment. On the way, they ran into the commander of the division, General Gurko, and his adjutant Lieutenant Argnol’d, who ordered them to be given five lashes for overworking their horses. And upon their arrival they were sent for punishment to Lieutenant Rekunov. Argnol’d did not like Russian soldiers in general, since he himself was a German baron, and Rekunov also was strict.
Aleksandr Mikhailovoch Subbotin, Dnevnik soldata Pervoi mirovoi voiny (Kimry: IP Mel’nikova N. V., 2008), 21-25. Translated by Joshua Sanborn.