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.