Article Review: William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (June 2014): 714-740.

In this post, I’m hoping to use the Russian History Blog platform to explore a different form of scholarly communication – the article review. Articles are of course reviewed all the time, but normally anonymously and with the aim of assessing their suitability for publication. After publication, however, authors are lucky to get more than a few lines of comment in a fellow scholar’s work or glancing attention in a footnote. A happy conjunction of forces – finishing my own large project and then opening my latest issue of the American Historical Review to see an article by Bill Rosenberg on a topic I’ve thought a bit about – allows me to do one now.

Rosenberg takes a source familiar to Russianist historians of the Great War – the reports of military censors – and links them to the burgeoning field of the history of emotions. He frames his argument around a handful of thoughtful questions:

“In what ways . . . did the military censors configure feelings at the front during World War I? How important was their reading itself of the colossal mass of soldiers’ correspondence to their understanding of individual and collective emotional states? How successful were they in their careful and well-organized effort? Or does the effort suggest instead that the dichotomy itself between feeling and expression is not in the end hermeneutically (or otherwise) useful for historians?” (718)

These are important questions, and I strongly encourage readers to read Rosenberg’s article to see how he answers them.

I’d like to add two more questions to this list, questions that Rosenberg’s rich piece also helps us to answer. The first is: how can historians best use these censor reports in their works? As I can attest from personal experience, these censor reports are interesting and tempting documents. The reports include passages from the letters themselves and also statistical analyses on the letters on a bi-weekly basis. They lend themselves to – indeed were written for the purpose of – making broad statements about the morale of Russian enlisted men, identifying the issues that most exercised those soldiers, and tracking changes in these states of feeling over time. But Rosenberg points out some of the reasons why using these reports as windows into the thoughts of the Russian army is a problematic endeavor. In the first place, letter writers knew that their missives were being read and censored. Not only did commanders issue repeated orders imploring soldiers not to reveal the location or movements of their units in their letters, but they had soldiers and civilians alike arrested for crimes related to their correspondence. We should therefore not be surprised that most of the letters were classified as “бодрый” (“in good spirits”) in censor reports. The point of the letters from most of those who were writing them (both at the front and at home) was emphatically not to reveal their emotions to Stavka or the government but to express very simple messages to their friends and family: “I’m still alive,” or “we love you.” This could be accomplished while spouting patriotic cliches, and it frequently was. Moreover, as Rosenberg notes, soldiers were trained to express high morale, and their officers came to expect it from them, almost as a national trait. This “served to discipline the expression of feeling and perhaps its experience too.” (727) Furthermore, the censors themselves were under pressure to produce reports that reaffirmed the belief of their superiors that their soldiers remained the stolid muzhiks they imagined them to be.

This does not mean, however, that the reports are of little use. Rosenberg’s article suggests that we can learn a good deal from the very formulas and narratives that soldiers and their correspondents used during the war. In addition, Rosenberg considers the impact of the process of classification that the censors were asked to engage in. He makes the sharp point that the limited number of classifications began to shape the ways that officers contemplated the war effort, as they “essentially broke a complex emotional landscape into implied sets of discrete feelings, each of which reflected what censors and army commands reasonably assumed that conditions at the front would create.” (734) We should note (as Rosenberg does) that this was a dynamic system. Large numbers of complaints about a particular issue (say, inflation) could force the creation of a new category, which in turn would reinforce the notion that this was a “Problem” with a capital P. All of these considerations need to be taken into account by historians wishing to use these documents, and Rosenberg provides a valuable guide to those who want to tap into this resource in their work.

The second question I’d like to ask is how we can extend Rosenberg’s analysis of the relationship between “feeling” and “expression” to include behavior as well. Rosenberg discusses the relationship between feelings and expressions in subtle ways. The problem, he argues, is not simply one of sincerity. It is not enough to say that some soldiers were telling “the truth” when they expressed high spirits, while others were engaging in deception to evade the censor or to soothe the feelings of their families at home. Using the work of William Reddy, Rosenberg argues that the expression of emotion by soldiers may very well helped “stimulate the feeling” in question. While it surely would be too much to suggest that writing a formulaic letter might make a cold, lice-ridden soldier suddenly happy with his lot, it is, I think, entirely plausible that repeatedly rehearsing formulas and ideological prescriptions in letters home helped to strengthen the dominant narrative of the war. This becomes especially important as we consider how feelings and expressions translated into behaviors. Here it is valuable to note Rosenberg’s point that what interested censors and their superiors was not the transformation of individual subjectivities but “collective mood.”

Of course, what really concerned military leaders was not “mood” itself, but the ways that with the ways that mood translated into action. If you were to have told the leaders at Stavka that they could choose either ineffective patriotic soldiers or effective malcontents, they would surely have chosen the latter. They were concerned with mood because they believed that the subjective dispositions of their soldiers had tangible effects on their fighting capabilities, a conclusion Rosenberg says they derived primarily from the disastrous recent experiences of the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905. Nevertheless, there is good reason to doubt that the connection between individual subjective mood and military performance was quite that direct. Unhappy soldiers can often fight quite well. They can also show obedience, and here one thing that we certainly can learn from these censor reports is the level of willingness on the part of soldier authors to write what they were expected to write. It matters, of course, if many soldiers were upset with the war effort at a given stage of the war. But it also matters that they still felt that they had to recite the chest-thumping phrases that were expected of them.

Disgruntled soldiers only become dangerous when their discontent assumed a particular shape and direction. Rosenberg suggests as much with his concluding section on the development of “counternarratives” or “secondary narratives.” Individual dispositions became important only within the context of a narrative or counternarrative (such as “Revolution!”) that could organize these interior elements into organized behaviors. We make a mistake when we think that the primary function of political messages, narratives, or ideologies is to transform thought. Instead, their main function is to govern behavior. The relationship between thought and action, as a result, is neither direct nor transparent. These censor reports help us to rethink and reconceptualize the relationship between the lived experience of soldiers, their internal ruminations on their condition, and how they acted.

This nexus is both extremely important, historically speaking, and very difficult to get to the heart of. On the one hand, Russian soldiers fought a long and brutal war for a government and indeed system of government they believed was incompetent. They endured gruesome defeats and found remarkable battlefield success deep into 1916, after more than two years of combat. On the other hand, in 1917, these same soldiers engaged in what was, in terms of raw numbers, the greatest military mutiny in history. Both of these phenomena need continued explanation as we consider the impact of the Great War on Russia’s tumultuous 20th century.

About Joshua Sanborn

Professor and Head, Department of History Chair, Russian and East European Studies Program Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
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2 Responses to Article Review: William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” American Historical Review 119, no. 3 (June 2014): 714-740.

  1. Eric Lohr says:

    I picked this article up just after reading the remarkable new book by Aleksandr Astashov, Russkii front v 1914—nachale 1917 goda: voennyi opyt i sovremennost’ (Moscow: Novyi khronograf, 2014). Astashov (thanked by Rosenberg for helping with sources) uses the military censor reports as his main source and proves in 700 pages of sophisticated analysis that Rosenberg need not fear that scholars will simply take the censor reports as unmediated truth. Astashov’s book proves that, used carefully, the censor reports can be an excellent source to get at all kinds of questions about soldier mentalities and material conditions at the front.

  2. The artifacts produced by the censors were to a large degree determined by the type of instructions they had to follow and by their level of education. Apparently, the instructions were quite specific. The censors were unsophisticated young women who followed them blindly. Admiral Alexey Krylov writes in his memoir (Moi Vospominaniya, available in English as Professor Krylov’s Navy):

    “Military censors were recruited from maidens. They were strictly ordered not to let through either regiment and division numbers or names of the cities, towns, villages, and localities in general. I read with my own eyes the report in the Novoye Vremya, “…our regiment NN was advancing under heavy artillery fire across the marsh YY in the ZZ District of the KK Province. Either Germans installed the fuse tubes incorrectly or the fuse tubes were bad, but the shrapnel often gave a ‘peck’ and did not explode.” I showed this to Grumm-Grzhimaylo, saying, “take a look at the censorship.”
    In two or three weeks, I met him. He said, “You know, the Germans have supplied the shrapnel with a fuse tube that explodes even with a peck, so they could have sent a goodly box of chocolates to the censor maiden.”

    Disclaimer: I translated the memoir.

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