12 September 2014
A nurse, a poet and a girl – women’s diaries of the Great War
In Russian cultural memory the First World War does not occupy the same place as in the cultural memories of other peoples who fought this war. One of the reasons, of course, is that it was overshadowed by the events of the Russian Revolution. For the Russians, the Great War did not come to an end, as it did for the other nations, on 11 November 1918. Therefore, it was not properly reflected upon either in Soviet or in émigré Russian literature. Russian authors and poets had a very short time window to respond to the war, which they certainly did, but it proved almost impossible to reflect on it thereafter. As diaries and memoirs often manifest themselves as intermediaries between document and fiction, it was interesting to see what was written and published in Russian in these autobiographical genres. Not surprisingly, as with literature, there is no abundance of diaries or memoirs solely devoted to the time of the war and where wartime events, emotions and thoughts are at the core of the work. In any case, there are fewer diaries and memoirs left from the time of the First World War in Russian than, for example, those describing the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
The three examples which I shall present here are all created by women.
We do not know anything about Lidiia Zakharova, who in 1915 published a book Dnevnik sestry miloserdiia: Na peredovykh pozitsiiakh (‘Diary of a wartime nurse: on the front line’; X.700/19594). The book was published in the series Biblioteka Velikoi Voiny (‘The Great War library’) and of course was meant to be part of wartime propaganda.
When you read it, it is very difficult to believe that the diary was indeed written in field hospitals and trenches, although some scenes are very vivid and disturbing. However, the book is full of clichés, like the overwhelmingly forgiving attitude shown by Russian soldiers towards German prisoners, the good humour and modesty displayed by war heroes, or kind treatment of a Jew and a Polish girl which allowed them to demonstrate their profound gratitude to the Russians. In her narrative, Lidiia Zakharova also mentioned that she had somehow copied samples of soldiers’ letters which are quoted in the book as proofs of the heroism, courage, humanity and simplicity of their authors. Artificially sweet and lacking any individual character, they are reminiscent of a book of patriotic poetry created by Zinaida Gippius, a poet well established on the Russian literary scene by 1914 (photo below from Wikimedia Commons).
The book Kak my voinam pisali i chto oni nam otvechali: kniga-podarok (‘How we were writing to warriors and what they were replying: a book-present’; Moscow, 1915), which is very rare and unfortunately not held at the British Library, consists of poems written in the form of letters from three ordinary Russian women to soldiers. The letter-poems and the replies were written in stylized folk-poetic language, but as one of the contemporary researchers puts it, “the soldiers clearly did not have the language of their own to express their feelings and thoughts, and the overall result was … stereotypical and banal … (Ben Hellman, Poets of Hope and Despair. The Russian Symbolists in War and Revolution (1914-1918); Helsinki, 1995, YA.2002.a.8054,p. 148).
However, Zinaida Gippius’s own diary, published in Belgrade in 1929 under the title Siniaia kniga (1914-1917) (‘The Blue Book (1914-1917’); 09455.ee.31), is a very interesting story of a poet and intellectual who undertook the task of documenting the times. In the preface to the 1929 edition Gippius wrote: “’Memoirs’ can give the image of the time. But only a diary gives it in its continuity”.
This correlates with the words of Gippius’s contemporary Virginia Woolf: “So they [memoirs] say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened” (Virginia Woolf. Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writing. New edition edited by Jeanne Schulkind. (London, 2003; YC.2003.a.4621), p. 79).
And the person “whom events happened to” is very vividly portrayed in the diaries of another woman – Ekaterina Nikolaevna Razumovskaia (née Sain-Vitgenshtein or in the German version: Katherina Sayn-Wittgenstein) (1895-1983), one of six children born into the old noble family of Prince Nikolai Sain-Vitgenshtein.
She was 19 when the war began and 23 when the family left Russia for good. Until 1973 the diaries were completely forgotten and kept among other old papers in sealed boxes. Only after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had appealed to Russians abroad to send him their documents, memoirs and diaries to facilitate his work on the novel Avgust 1914 (August 1914) did Ekaterina Razumovskaia remember about her diaries. They were published first in German and then in Russian (1986) shortly after her death. Her diary is not only a document of wartime life (in many ways her ‘experience’ was common to thousands of people and her ‘analysis’ of the events was entirely based on newspapers and the opinions of her family members), but it is also a coming-of-age narrative with the major events of the 20th century in the background. And because of that, a hundred years later we still can feel her fear and anxiety when reading: “What is the year 1915 preparing for us? How much sorrow, how much joy? Never before has the burning question about the future arisen so acutely as on this first night of the New Year. Never before have we felt such a sharp fear in front of the black abyss of unknown. I’m peeking into this abyss and my head is spinning and darkness arises in front of my eyes. Everything is in Lord’s hands, come what may!” (, p. 41).
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Eastern European Curator (Russian Studies)