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01/13/2014 11:54 AM

Stolen Triumph

Russia Revisits Pivotal Role in World War I

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At the beginning of World War I, Russia was a member of the Triple Entente, which went on to win the conflict. By then, however, the Russian czarist empire had vanished and the war was swept under the historical rug. Putin is now bringing it back.

This is Part II in SPIEGEL's series examining World War I and it ongoing relevance today. Part I can be found here.


Anyone looking for human traces of World War I in Russia is well advised to start on the Moscow metro, specifically the green line, which runs to the river port where day-trippers cast off for trips up the Volga River. But you have to get out three stations before that, in Sokol.

It's a walk of 400 meters, away from the noise of Leningradsky Prospekt, through a gate and past the Church of All Saints in Vsekhsvyatskoye and across a small street to a park that opens up between two tall residential buildings. It is one of the many green spaces that provides a bit of fresh air to Moscow's 14 million residents.

As in all parks in the city, mothers push their strollers through fallen leaves and elderly women walk their dogs. There are joggers, pick-up football games and people talking on their mobile phones. And yet this park is special due to a slab of red granite that stands alone in the middle of an open field. White letters engraved into the stone read: "Sergei Alexandrovich Schlichter, student at the University of Moscow, born on Dec. 31, 1894, wounded in battle on June 20, 1916 near Baranovichi, died on June 25, 1916."

Nowhere else in Russia is there such a stone, bearing the name of a soldier who fell in World War I. The almost 2 million Russians who died in the conflict have disappeared from the country's memory -- because the "Great War," as it was once called here, long found no place in the historical narrative mandated from above.

So why did Sergei Schlichter's monument manage to avoid the censors?

The Story of an Imperial Soldier

Somebody attached a photograph of the soldier to the stone along with images of two nurses who belonged to Schlichter's unit and lost their lives as well, one from a shell and the other from typhoid fever.

Schlichter, Sergei Alexandrovich. Information about him can be found in the archives. He was born in the Ukrainian city of Poltava, his father was a staunch Bolshevik. When the war began in 1914, Schlichter was in his second semester of studies in the Historical-Pedagogical Faculty of the Imperial Moscow University.

He volunteered for work in a military hospital and was sent to the front in November. Schlichter must have been a courageous man. He crossed the lines to the German side as a peace envoy, and was awarded the Cross of St. George as a result. Later, he was given an even greater honor. In May, he joined the Imperial Russian Army's 266th infantry regiment as a volunteer.

Just a few weeks after that, his regiment joined the fight near the Belorussian city of Baranovichi. After the officers fell, Schlichter led the unit forward, taking an Austrian outpost. The fighting ended when shrapnel from a stray shell struck Schlichter. He died on the long journey to the hospital.

He was buried in Moscow in the cemetery of honor for casualties of the war. Schlichter found his last resting place in Sector 13 -- at the spot where his gravestone now stands.

A Monument of Upheaval

Sergei Schlichter's fate, and that of the veterans' cemetery in Sokol, is symbolic of the radical changes in course undertaken by Russia in the 20th century. When the graveyard was opened on Feb. 28, 1915 with plenty of pomp and a bevy of prominent guests, the 22-hectare (55-acre) space was laid out as a place of commemoration for a proud nation. The consulates from Russia's allies -- Great Britain, France, Belgium, Japan and Serbia -- were there for the opening, as was the Orthodox bishop and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the older sister of the Russian Empress, who hailed from German nobility.

Pall bearers soon had plenty to do at the new cemetery. Fully 17,920 generals, officers and soldiers from the czarist army found their final resting places in Sokol -- until the Bolsheviks took power in November of 1917.

That winter, the carefully planned order of the military cemetery gave way to confusion. No longer was it reserved just for soldiers: Junkers, who had defended the Kremlin against the communists, were buried there too. Later, executions were carried out at the cemetery walls. On a single day, Russia's new rulers shot to death a bishop, an archpriest, two czarist interior ministers, the head of the national council and several senators at the site.

Soon, World War I battlefield dead stopped coming. In March 1918, the Bolsheviks reached their own separate peace treaty with the Germans. By this point, though, the domestic war within Russia had intensified. Troops with the former regime began shooting Lenin's revolutionaries. Dead soldiers from the Red Army were then buried in Sokol next to members of the White Guard.

The cemetery was closed in 1925 and then levelled by Stalin in 1932. The Kremlin boss even ordered that the head stones be ripped out of the ground and that part of the complex be transformed into a park. According to legend, Sergei Schlichter's father, a confidant of Lenin, threw himself on top of his son's gravestone as it was about to be torn up. Homes and a cinema were later built on top of the remaining graves during the 1950s. Those walking to the park from the Sokol metro station pass over the burial ground of thousands of deceased.

The Key Event

Why is it that Russia wiped out any memory of World War I for nearly 100 years? And why is the country only just now rediscovering the war?

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia described the battle of nations between 1914 and 1918 as an "imperialist war between two coalitions of capitalist powers for a redivision of the already divided world." On both sides, it argued, the war was "aggressive and unjust" and led to an "aggravation of the class struggle and accelerated the ripening of the objective prerequisites for the Great October Socialist Revolution." The revolution, the encyclopedia argued, allowed Russia's "toiling people" to "throw off the oppression of the capitalists and landlords."

The essential message was that it was Lenin's revolution and not the war that was the key event -- and this despite the fact that Russia lost nearly a quarter of its European territories in the war including Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine and Finland. Even though it bred the revolution, the armed conflict was banished to the margins of Russian history books because it increased social and political tensions to the extent that the Bolsheviks, even though they were in the minority, were able to overthrow the imperialists.

In Russia, World War I didn't create any heroes. Very little of it took place on Russian territory -- instead undulating back and forth between East Prussia and the Caucasus. And unlike the war against Hitler, the Russians didn't really have any idea what it was they were actually dying for in the war. Even when East Prussia fell to the Soviet Union in 1945, the very region where 160,000 Russians lost their lives at the start of World War I, Moscow had every trace of the mass graves there eradicated and simply ignored the war's history so as not to harm the myth of the revolution.

Now, nearly a hundred years later, the story is changing. On Aug. 1, 2013, the Kremlin commemorated the outbreak of World War I for the first time and launched a competition to design a memorial that would honor the "15 million soldiers" who rose up in 1914 "to protect the homeland." The monument is to be unveiled on Aug. 1, 2014 at the memorial site on Poklonnaya Hill currently devoted solely to the war against Hitler.

The Resurrected Empire?

The resurgence of World War I commemoration is nourished by that inferiority complex that has plagued the Russians for centuries -- particularly since the start of the Putin era. Russia is not taken seriously by the rest of the world, the Kremlin elite believe, despite their view of it as always having been a great power.

That also applies to the period between 1914 and 1918. Russia occupied more than half of the enemy divisions for three years and held its ground, protecting Great Britain and France, the other two countries allied with Russia in the so-called Triple Entente, from certain collapse in the process, say historians. In the fight for common victory, Russia suffered more casualties than all of its allies put together, they argue.

Yet Russia, under Communist rule after 1917, was not invited to the victors' feast in Versailles, but was -- like always, according to the narrative -- left in the cold: Only France, Great Britain and the United States profited from Allied victory. Winston Churchill once encapsulated the tragic trajectory of czarist Russia when he wrote: "Her ship went down in sight of port."

The Russian view is that, prior to 1914, the country was not only large and rich, but also orderly, thanks to the czar, police and clergy. It had experienced an economic boom, delivered more than half of its exports to Germany and thus supported the German war industry -- facts that are part of the educational cannon in today's Russia. But this economic boom was not welcomed by Russia's foes, a group that not only includes Germany and its allies but also Russia's erstwhile partners, including the United States. The conclusion? All of them, whether Triple Entente or Central Powers, actually wanted to wipe Russia off the map.

So was the czarist empire just an imperialist power like any other? Not in Putin's Russia. The czar is now described as having been "wise and great" and would have won, had the Revolution not gotten in the way. For the Kremlin, World War I is a welcome blueprint for the present. Are not Western governments just trying as always to keep Russia down? Is the West not complicit in the downfall of the Soviet Union? NATO pressing at Russia's borders, the West's offensive in regions of Russian influence like Georgia and Ukraine: These are all symptoms in the Russian mind of a persistent goal -- the division or liquidation of Russia. This is what Russians must brace against.

A Metaphor for Putin

It is striking how hard Moscow is currently trying, against this backdrop, to position itself as a major foreign policy player. When it comes to Syria, Iran and American whistleblower Edward Snowden, Moscow's role in the conflicts is sold to the Russian people as clever geopolitical maneuvering. In reality, the country has defined itself as being in opposition to the West since 1917. It is a poorly organized empire whose power now depends on oil prices remaining at over $100 a barrel.

Nevertheless Putin acts at home as if the empire had been resurrected.

"Forgive us, Sovereign," it reads on large panels that recently commemorated the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. Back in 2008, there was a television broadcast of the film, "Nikolai II: The Stolen Triumph." It brings together leading politicians, clergymen and historians "to show a fair picture of the reign of Czar Nicholas, one of the most successful in our history."

The czar can also be seen as a metaphor for the reigning leader of the Kremlin. Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has praised Putin as the "first ruler since Nicholas Romanov" who came to power legally. And Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, honored him in November for "preserving Russia as a great power."

Guarding the Czar

The rewriting of history is both broad and detailed. The Russo-Japanese War, which the czar lost in 1905, is now interpreted as the first attempt at an "Orange Revolution," aimed at preventing Russia's ascension to the rank of world power. And the Brusilov Offensive in the summer of 1916, Russia's greatest feat in World War I in which they defeated the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in what is today's Ukraine, is seen as a turning point in the relationship between Russia and the Western Allies. The Americans and the British suddenly understood, according to this narrative: If Nicholas II is not gotten out of the way, the Russian empire will take down Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on its own -- and then become world power number one.

The view of today's ordinary Russian is that czarist Russia was a paradise of civic life and imperial power. Built 120 years ago, the newly renovated Moscow department store Gum on Red Square is infused with this feeling of imperial nostalgia, promoted in TV commercials referring to the good ol' days. And in April, President Putin bestowed the honorary title of "Preobrazhensky Regiment" on the elite Moscow unit responsible for protecting state guests and carrying out counter-terrorism operations. For 230 years, that was the name of the hard-nosed aristocratic regiment tasked with guarding the czar.

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