Posted by on January 23, 2017

During World War I, Russian Prisoners of War, or POWs, were far from unheard of.  In fact, “between the outbreak of the first World War and December 1917, Russia took military prisoners, and by 1917 was the country with the second largest number of POWs in custody,” (1).  This photograph taken by Prokudin-Gorskii exemplifies the POW characteristic of a World War I era Russia.  The men lined outside this wooden building were all Russian Prisoners of War with differing ethnicities.  For example, the men captured here included: Poles, Ukraines, and other Slavic nationalities (2).  However, taking prisoners from the Austro-Hungarian Empire was relatively consistent for Russia throughout WWI.  “Over 2 million POWS in Russia- 90 percent of those captured- came from Austria-Hungary.  Among these Slavs (Poles, Ruthenians, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes) made up about one half,” (1).

 

This specific Prokudin-Gorskii picture illustrates an unknown POW camp.  Although this location is unidentified, Russia had countless locations to house their prisoners of war.  The constant incoming amount of POWs urged Russia to have enough facilities to house them.  Due to their large POW numbers, Russia had 400 internment facilities by 1917 (1).  Despite the large number of internment camps, however, the structure of these facilities was rather poor and the coordination of resources to these particular locations only proved to be difficult.  Food was always a source of contention within the internment camps as well. “At the outset, quantities were ample, equaling those of the Russian military, but soon both the quality and quantity of food deteriorated.  Many men were repulsed by the fact that they had to share their bowls, as was customary in the Russian military (2).  Consequently, although there were many points of hardship when it came down to the coordination of running numerous internment camps, there were also cultural and social differences that played a role in many prisoners’ struggles within these camps.  Due to many of these struggles, Russia had an impressive amount of POW deaths during WWI.  “Overall, with over 400,000 deceased, the death rate of POWs in Russia was among the highest of all countries,” (1).

 

Prokudin-Gorskii, in this particular picture, encapsulated a very prominent cultural aspect within the Russian makeup of WWI: The prominence of Prisoners of War.  Although these Prisoners of War were treated one way during World War I, the year 1920 brought a different culture for these POWs.  “Not surprisingly, the political transformation of Russia between 1917 and 1920 had immediate implications for the treatment of POWs.  Whereas Tsarist Russia had trouble coping with organizational deficits but indulged in an ethnic segregation of POWs, the Provisional Government aimed at intensifying POW discipline and using POW labour more efficiently for the war effort,” (1).  Consequently, the nature of being a Russian Prisoner of War changed dramatically and POWs were put to more uses of labor in order to produce more goods for the war effort.  However, treatment of these POWs still remained poor and would continue to change throughout Russian history.  Although POWs were still a part of war throughout history, POWs had their own prominent culture in Russia during WWI specifically.

 

 

Sources:

(1) http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/prisoners_of_war_russian_empire

(2) http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/empire/gorskii.html

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Comments

  1. Parker Leep
    January 23, 2017

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    This is a pretty cool topic but I’m just slightly confused. You refer to the men in the picture as Russian POWs but is this picture taken in Russia? If that’s the case the men are most likely Central Powers POWs rather than Russian. But it makes sense that Russia’s POW camps were the worst out of any combatants considering that Russia was basically just slapped around until they withdrew from the war. Your description of Russian POW camps also seems similar to Andersonville Prison. I know it’s part of American history but the experiences seem pretty similar. https://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/camp_sumter.htm

  2. Johanna Andersen
    January 23, 2017

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    My first thought about this blog is about the quote about men being repulsed about having to share bowls. This seems like it would be the least of my worries as a POW, especially coming from the battlefields of WWl. It is interesting that the situation of POWs changed after the political transformation of Russia in the early 20th century. I would imagine that the ethnic separation of the POWs led to more willingness to work for the war effort as they were asked and led to less disciplinary issues because they were more comfortable and happy with who they were stuck with in the camps.

  3. Max Morrison
    January 23, 2017

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    I think this is a chilling photograph you chose to discuss for a number of reasons. First, I think that we can assume that these men were not happy to be in the position that they were, yet they were willing to have a picture taken of them which I think some people would find humiliating given their circumstances. Second, it appears to me that their lodging facility would be very small for the number of men expected to stay there, and I am sure as you outlined in your blog that it would lack the creature comforts that we enjoy today. Third, I do not know much about World War One but I know that during World War Two, Soviet’s were notorious for brutalizing POWs in retribution for Nazi Wehrmacht actions, so I would be curious to know if similar actions occurred during World War One. Great post!

  4. Sam cochran
    January 23, 2017

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    I found this post extremely interesting. As a politics major I find political violence and comparative analysis intriguing. Reading this article really makes me want to look into other states treatment of POW and how Russia’s treatment differs from others. I would also like to better understand the evolution of POW treatment and how Russia incorporates and understands their past treatment in current events.

  5. Sophia Vella
    January 23, 2017

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    I thought this read was fascinating and very well done! It is interesting to read about the characteristics of the Russian POW camps, as they predated the Nazi concentration camps, but shared similar characteristics. Russia in the early to mid-1900s had an astonishing high death rate! From foreign prisoners in the POW camps, to the military men killed in battle, to the purges under Stalin, it is almost unfathomable how many lives were lost. Thought provoking read, well done.

  6. A. Nelson
    January 24, 2017

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    Thanks so much for writing about this. In a way these men foreshadow the disruption and confusion that will ensue during WWI. Although looking at them in this photo it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the upheaval that is about to unfold. I think these are Austrian POWs (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/prk2000000464/), right?

  7. Jack
    January 24, 2017

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    I really like that you decided to choose this photograph. It displays a piece of Russia during Wartime, whereas most of Prokudin-Gorskii photos that I have seen are from before the war. This photo is a great segway into 20th Century Russia in my opinion. The Soviets were known as being particularly harsh with their POW camps, just as you said the camps changed after the revolution. I read a book in high school about a POW who escaped a Soviet camp, and the things he had to endure were absolutely awful.

  8. Kevin Herrity
    January 24, 2017

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    The amount of research did on POWs and their prevalence within Russia at the time is very interesting. I had no idea that even amongst the other major nations involved in the First World War that Russia was so invested in taking and housing the prisoners. It would be interesting to see why they took so many as compared to others, whether it was due to tactics or a cultural phenomenon. When you mention the transitional government and the treatment of prisoners of war under it I wonder if their focus on labor is the formation of the gulags that would dominate Soviet Russia.

  9. Seth Mykut
    January 24, 2017

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    It seems incredible to me that they took care of and fed so many millions of prisoners while also funding the largest war on earth to that point. I can only imagine the strain that would put on the treasury and economy of the Russian empire. To have such a massive imported group living completely off of Russian money, the average person would certainly have felt it. I would be very curious to know if this at all contributed to poorer living conditions within Russia by the end of the war and in turn helped to convince the people to rise up in the revolution.

  10. Michael Anan
    January 24, 2017

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    I thought your post was really interesting. The numbers of POW is crazy. I’m definitely interested to learn more about Russia’s treatment of POW in WWI. I wish the photo was a little larger ( I know you have no control over that) so i could see the people’s faces.

  11. S. Cooper
    January 27, 2017

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    This was an interesting read! I’m surprised Prokudin-Gorskii was able to take this photo. I think it’s admirable that he showed all aspects of life through his work, even the not-so-pleasant ones. You mention Russia had the second-largest POW population in WWI. What was the country with the largest amount?

  12. Leah Robinson
    January 29, 2017

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