A Snapshot of the 1918 Global Influenza Pandemic in Russia

Judging by my social media feed, several folks with an interest in Russian history have been asking themselves “Hmm, I wonder what happened in Russia during the 1918 global influenza pandemic?” Many moons ago, when researching medical care and medical personnel during World War I for my book Imperial Apocalypse, I had the same question. At that time, I found very little work on the question, either in English or in Russian, though I may have missed something then or something might have been published more recently. (And if there is something out there, please reach out and let me know. I’m interested!)

I did some archival research on this question, though it was limited both by the fact that the flu struck right after the period (summer of 1918) at which I was wrapping up my story and by the scattered nature of some of this material. As is often the case, much of the research I did ended up on the cutting room floor, and I had only a couple of sentences in Imperial Apocalypse that dealt with it:

“As 1917 turned to 1918, and then throughout the rest of the Civil War, the Whites, Reds, and warlords all failed to create the conditions of state support and personal security necessary for vibrant economic institutions to re-emerge. People were hungry and cold. Then, increasingly, they starved and froze to death. As they weakened, they sickened further. Each month saw an increase in the number of people hospitalized, and epidemic diseases became more prevalent. In the summer of 1918, cholera ripped through cities like Iaroslavl. By October, the global influenza pandemic was hitting other towns in the Golden Ring like Rybinsk and the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin alike. Many Russians no sooner recovered from one disease than the next one struck.” (p. 256)

My mention of Rybinsk, a town just north of Iaroslavl, was of course not accidental. One of the sources I found was a set of records from a “flying detachment of the Red Cross for the fight against epidemics in the city of Rybinsk” from the summer and fall of 1918. (GARF f. R-4094 op. 1 d. 137). I entered these data into a spreadsheet to see the ways that disease hit at least one medical facility in at least one city in this critical period. My basic takeaway was that, in Rybinsk at least, the flu was just the latest and not the most lethal of the epidemics to affect the town. The flu first made its appearance into the records in October 1918 as the “Spanish Illness,” though by December it was more correctly labeled as “Influenza.” In October, 17 people were treated, 7 were released, and 10 were still in the clinic. In November, 10 more people became ill, 14 were released, 1 was still in care, and 5 had died. In December, 7 more cases appeared, but by the end of the month all 8 patients had recovered and been released. In sum, then, 34 people in Rybinsk were treated for the flu by this flying detachment, and 5 of them died. This was, of course, terrible. But just before the flu arrived, there had been a cholera epidemic in the city. From July-September, 284 people were treated by the detachment for cholera, with fully half (142) dying of the disease. Earlier still, in May, June, and July, 55 people had gotten typhus, though only one died.

These numbers offer only partial insight into the dynamics of the epidemic, of course. Epidemics strike unevenly in geographic terms, as we are currently learning. Was Rybinsk more or less affected than other regions? These were the records of a single medical detachment. Were there other medical institutions operating in Rybinsk? If so, did they treat infectious cases or send them directly to the flying detachment? There is narrative evidence given by officials in these records that many of the cholera cases they treated were at death’s door because families tried as much as possible to care for them at home, often infecting themselves in the process. Did they try to do the same with the flu? If so, were there many cases unaccounted for because they got better (or died) without ever seeing a doctor? Did the fact that many young men (a particularly hard-hit group in this pandemic) were serving in the military mean that civilian areas saw a lower impact? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. All I really feel confident in saying is that the social and medical impact of the influenza pandemic likely affected Russia differently than many other areas because of this larger context of mass epidemics and, even more broadly, of state and social collapse.

One more point of interest is that in November, 1918 a request was made to a Smolensk clinic to send weekly reports on the “Spanish disease” both to the oblast department of health and to the regional administration of the Red Cross. Perhaps at least some of those records survive. Maybe, once our current pandemic crisis eases, some historian will be able to fill in some of the many gaps of knowledge we have. In the meantime, stay healthy, my friends!

About Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History Department of History Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)
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