One of the most repeated tropes about Russia’s World War I experience is that—unlike other combatants—the sprawling multiethnic empire suffered from the handicaps of relative backwardness and a lack of a common national identity. The purported lack of patriotism and national sentiment in Russia explains why the war effort floundered and led to the revolutions of 1917. In her richly sourced study Mobilizing the Russian Nation, Melissa Kirschke Stockdale shows convincingly that Russians cared deeply about the war and not only were mobilized to fight it, but also volunteered and mobilized themselves on an impressive scale for the common war effort. The author captures as no one before how personal the war was for everyone, showing in detail how people supported the war effort in church, by stretching their budgets to buy war bonds, volunteering time and living space to help refugees and orphans, and immediately beginning efforts to commemorate the dead. No prior book gives such a powerful and comprehensive sense that for most people in the Russian Empire, this was a holy and total war that people supported with emotion and a sense of shared sacrifice. For me, the most powerful and original chapter in the book is chapter 3, on the Russian Orthodox Church and its role in channeling support for the war effort. Stockdale paints a picture of the church as a place where policies from above met with voluntary social mobilization from below in support of the war. Parishes organized weekly panikhidas (services to remember the dead), pilgrimages, fundraising, and aid to those affected by the war. A new national publication, Prikhodskii listok (the Parish bulletin), spread news of the efforts of parishes to support the war throughout the country. Stockdale’s chapter on the church shows a national community coming together behind a message of shared sacrifice and Christian charity in support of the men at the front and the injured, displaced, and bereaved throughout the country. Another chapter that makes striking empirical contributions is chapter 5, on commemoration. Stockdale unearths evidence that from the very beginning of the war, Russia was preparing to remember the war and the war dead on a scale that would have been comparable to how other countries did had the Bolshevik Revolution not completely subsumed the war underneath the narrative of the revolution. In other chapters, Stockdale portrays more familiar topics in a fresh way by stressing not the problems and shortcomings of patriotic mobilization, but rather the successes. For example, her account of the Russian war-bond campaigns is strikingly optimistic, stressing less the actual amount of money raised (though she contends it was more impressive than scholars have portrayed), and more the way the language of the campaign contributed to the sense of shared sacrifice and patriotic mobilization. Stockdale shows that even the Provisional Government’s often-ridiculed war-bond issue met with an enthusiastic response and was very widely subscribed. This book complements and extends Joshua Sanborn’s arguments about military mobilization in his book Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905–1925 (2003), and in a series of articles. Both authors contend that mobilization for war extended beyond the ethnic Russian core of the empire to embrace nearly all of the ethnic, religious, and social groups of the empire’s territory. Stockdale shows some limits to this very broad concept of the “nation” in a chapter on exclusionary policies toward Germans and Jews, but she could be more clear about her concept of the “Russian nation” and where it is bounded. In an influential article in Post-Soviet Political Order: Conflict and State Building (1998), Mark von Hagen argued that the war “mobilized ethnicity” in opposition to the Russian core, and I argued in Nationalizing the Russian Empire (2003) that the mobilization of the Russian core for war was profoundly disruptive to old regime stability. Stockdale’s view is more sanguine—that the mobilized Russian nation could transcend ethnic and other divisions, and that it helped shape a modern Russian national identity that lived on into the Soviet era. Whether or not one is convinced by the idea of World War I as a formative moment in the emergence of a modern Russian national identity, the book makes many other important and convincing contributions. In addition to those already mentioned, Stockdale’s account provides very strong evidence that civil society was broad, rapidly growing, and powerfully engaged in the war effort. In my reading, Stockdale’s book also provides evidence against the notion of continuity across 1917. None of the associations and civil society organizations that flourished during the war survived into the civil war era, efforts at commemoration were completely abandoned, and the church that was so central to the wartime mobilization was entirely destroyed. The Bolsheviks did all this with brute force, but I also wonder if it was also a result of the end of the war. Liberal civil society and the church had invested so much political and social capital in the war effort that, when the war suddenly ended, those institutions were discredited along with the war. This book should be read broadly—by anyone interested in World War I. Stockdale shows that Russia’s mobilization looks a lot more like mobilization in other countries than nearly all previous narratives would have us believe. The great majority of Russians, like people in other countries, responded to the war with care and generosity, willingly sacrificing their time, material well-being, and their lives for their fellow citizens. Naive as these sentiments may seem in retrospect, Stockdale makes a convincing case that to understand this crucial era in Russia’s history, we should respect the sincerity of the motives and feelings of those who lived through it. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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