The War Illustrated, 2nd June. 1917
'The Russian Soldier as I Know Him'
by Hamilton Fyfe
Special War Correspondent of the ‘Daily Mail’

Pen-Portraits of Our Fighting Friends

Russian soldiers as portrayed on the covers of 'Lukomorie' a Russian magazine


“All soldiers when they are in hospital are children, but, while the French and British behave like schoolboys, the Russian is like a child.''

That is the opinion of a hospital matron I met-at the front who has gained much experience. I have learned during the war to know the Russian soldier pretty well, and I can tell you that in the beginning. the matron was right. He was in mind and character a child. He had a child's faith in his leaders, whom he had been taught to consider his “masters and; betters," as our Catechism puts it; he submitted, he "ordered himself lowly and reverently" towards them.

The war has taught him much. It has widened his horizon. It has made him think, and "to think" means to criticise. To the Russian soldier war has been a great educator. When he goes back to his village he will be a different man.

Fairy Tales in the Field

Not, of course, entirely different. He has still a child's curiosity and a child's superstition. He delights in listening to fairy-tales. He likes to march singing simple march-songs which help him to keep step. He is like a child in his work and, in his play, in his heedlessness of the morrow, in his simple processes of thought.

I saw a group of Cossacks gathered, one cold day, round the little fire which, had been: boiling their tea-kettle. It was early morning, and, no matter how much smoke went up from the trenches at that time of day, neither side fired. Russians and Austrians had silently agreed to respect the breakfast hour. No shots were heard between six and seven o'clock.

A friend and I went up to the tea group to hear what they were saying. All their heads were close together. As we got near we saw that one was- speaking and the others listening to him, evidently with enjoyment. What were. they listening to ? To the story of Snow-White and the Seven Bears.

In the lives of Russian soldiers there is a curious mix-up of the sordidly real and the fantastically imaginative. Four-fifths of them are peasants from the villages. Nothing ideal about the peasant's existence in Russia, or anywhere else. Hard work on the land through the short summer. In the long winter either idleness with frequent drunken stupors, or more hard work such as logging (wood-cutting) varied by drunkenness now and then.

Contempt for Mollycoddles

In the small cottages large families live together in a manner indescribably promiscuous and unpleasant. That is to say, it would be unpleasant to us. They do not mind sleeping all together on the stove without taking their clothes off. They would think you mad if you suggested that the window should at limes be opened, and preached to them the value of fresh air.

They are hardy ; unafraid of exposure if they feel inclined for it. After their weekly steam bath (the only occasion in the week on which they take their clothes off) they will sometimes roll in the snow — this I did not believe until I saw it — by way of showing their contempt for mollycoddles. But they cannot be happy in their homes without an atmosphere which turns Western people sick and faint. Their village morality in their sanitary arrangements are disturbing to our sentiments and our sense of propriety.

Peasants and their "Popes"

Even their religion is material, almost entirely a matter of keeping up certain observances in order to put God in a good temper. They think He can be coaxed by a lighted, candle. They think that He watches them to see if they cross themselves always when they came out of their houses, when they pass a church or a holy picture in- a roadside shrine, when they return home and stand before the ikon (holy picture) in the corner of the room with a lamp burning before it, unextinguished from one Easter to the next.

They have no respect for their "popes" (priests), who indeed seldom deserve it. Yet they believe that the priesthood must be employed by all who hope to avoid the anger of God. They pay the priests therefore — and often pay them well — to baptise, marry, bury, and arrange for the repose of souls departed. Some soldiers once found a priest drunk in bed. They pulled him out and beat him. As soon as he' was sober enough to say Mass, they forced him to the altar and made him go through the service, to which; they listened with well-disciplined attention. They can distinguish between the man and the magician. He had the power to perform miracles, no matter how dissolute his life might be.

This does not seem a promising soil for poetry, fantasy, charm of expression, delicacy of feeling. Yet the Russian peasant soldier frequently gives proof of these qualities. I have read hundreds of letters written by wounded men to those who have cared for them in hospitals. At first they filled me with amazement. Now I expect such letters to be touched with the live coal of imaginative emotion. I am disappointed if they are not.

People full of Poetry

Strange, it seems to you, I am sure that peasants without schooling, without any of the refilling influences which are at work among peoples more advanced in civilisation, should think and write like this, while British soldiers use the most banal phrases and display in their letters seldom any gift of expression at all. Strange that the Russian peasant-songs should be so fanciful, so full of poetry.

Yet is. it strange, after all ? Every nation in its childhood lives — as children do — more in the world of imagination than in the real world. The Russian people are only now beginning to grow up. They still are able to see, as the boy saw in Wordsworth's exquisite ode :

The earth and every common sight Apparell’d in celestial light.

They still keep something of “the vision splendid." The shades of the prison-house" have only of late begun to fall across their path.

Unless you grasp, this difference between the Russians and the Western nations you cannot understand the Russian soldier. He is the oddest mixture of suspicion and confidence, gentleness and savagery, childlike sincerity and cunning. In his normal state he is kindly, friendly, humane. But he is very easily excited, by both strong drink and eloquent talking.

The suppression of vodka has been of the greatest advantage to the Army, as to everyone else. It has made Russia far more prosperous than she was, in spite of the war. It has already changed the appearance of many villages. Women and children are better fed and better clothed. The houses are tidier, less miserably furnished. Everyone is glad that prohibition of spirit-selling was decreed. Those who drank heavily before say frankly : "We knew it was bad. For us,, but we couldn't stop it. It is greater right of the Government to make us stop it." Children all the time !

Simplicity is the dominant note of the Russian soldier's character, and this note sounds through all the arrangemeents of his daily life at the front. His food is very simple indeed. He lives on soup and dry porridge (made usually of buckwheat), tea and bread. The soup has meat in it and plenty of vegetables. A plateful of it with a lump of black rye-bread is a plentiful meal. He does not find this monotonous. It is what he is used to.

Soldiers in the Making

The training through which the Russian soldier goes is simple; very effective as far as It goes, but not calculated to develop qualities of self-reliance and initiative. It is a system of training borrowed from Germany like so much else. in the Russian Army ; but it cannot, produce exactly the same result, since the Russian has too much individuality to submit himself limply to the moulding, process, and to be turned into a machine.

Listen to the shout which greets an officer when he comes on parade : "Zdro ! zhiai vash deetst vo" (short for "I wish you good health, your Excellency"). There is a note of sincerity, even of jollity, in it, which you never notice on a German barrack-square. Watch a squad being drilled ; you will not notice the wooden, anxious expression that you would see on the faces of German "rookies." The men treat the whole business rather as a joke. They smile all the time, and pretty often laugh outright, and the instructors join in.

Over bayonet exercises they are more serious. They feel that here they are learning something useful. Soldiers charging and plunging their bayonets into straw figures representing Niemtsi (Germans) have been common sights in the streets of Russian cities these last two years. The men are taught to cheer as they approach "the enemy." Most of them emit blood-curdling yells. All go through the exercise with a stern air of resolve to give the straw figure no chance.

Growth Speeded by the War

It is only when they use their bayonets that they consider they are really fighting. I asked a big Little Russian once, early in the war, "How many Germans have you killed ?"

"None, burin," he replied sadly. "I have had no opportunity."

"But," I said, "you are firing your rifle at them all day."

"That is true, burin," he answered, "but I don't count that. I reckon we kill them when we stick our bayonets into them — devil take them!” The Russian soldier has the individual idea of combat still. He likes to meet the foe face to face.

The Russian soldier is growing, and the war has speeded-up his growth. The Army takes an interest now in the struggle between privilege and progress, and it is on the side of progress. Privilege gave it Sukhomlinoff, the Minister for War who failed to provide munitions. The Army will never forgive that.


Russian Uniforms


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