Refugees in the Russian Empire

by Michael Crombie

Why Refugees

There is a great mental block that pervades our understanding of history. Our brains associate certain countries, cultures, occupations, and lifestyles with specific ideas: Russia with winter, the British with seafaring, soldiers fighting in trenches. All of these are ways our brains simplify things to help us remember and understand, but there are deserts in Russia, people in Britain who have never seen the ocean, and solider who stock vending machines rather than shoot at people. So it is vital that we look at history and the present from different angles. We can never expect to understand every aspect, but we can certainly get a better vantage point than the one we have now. To me, that is what the study of history is about.

When it comes to the study of the First World War, our brains have been conditioned to favor the western front, but one of the largest land wars in history was going on in Eastern Europe at the same time, and I wanted to learn something about that war that had never been brought up in any class I’d ever taken. This is what brought me to refugees. I discovered A Whole Empire Walking by Peter Gatrell, the definitive peace on refugees in Russia during World War I, while browsing possible topics at Swem. I realized that the story of the refugee crisis in the Russian Empire was a complex narrative with five different parties vying for power over the situation. This is the story of this crisis, how these parties clashed, who came out on top, and what the aftermath was like.

What did it Mean to be a Refugee?

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Refugee on the move in late 1914

Before I delve into this narrative, it is important that one understands what is meant to be a refugee in the larger European context. Michael R. Marrus’s  The Unwanted: European Refugees from the First World War Through the Cold War (Philadelphia: Oxford University Press, 2002), 52-68 provides a broad overview of the history of refugees in the twentieth century. Refugees were not a significant problem in European politics until the twentieth century. They were once seen more as vagabonds and travelers, having a clear niche in society. Governments would often encourage refugees to settle in their countries to boost population and labor. People recognized their benefit to society and integrated them. World War I changed the very notion of what it meant to be a refugee. From Belgium to Russia to Armenia, millions of people were put on the move as a result of this war. As their numbers reached dramatic levels, they came to be viewed as a burden and lost their place in society.

When people think about the First World War, they tend to think of soldiers slaughtering each other with machine guns and artillery on a barren battlefield of endless trenches. It is thought of as an immobile war, but this was far from the case in the east. The eastern front was far more open allowing armies to maneuver and the front line to move more than a couple of miles in a month. The great irony is that it was the ordinary citizen caught up in the chaos of the war that traveled more than any soldier on any front. This was the life of a refugee.

Historians are always more interested in soldiers, workers and peasants. Refugees outnumbered the industrial proletariat of Russia by 1917. They were drawn largely from the peasant class, and it was the soldiers of the Russian army responsible for manifesting the refugee crisis. Being a refugee and thus participating in a national calamity gave rise to national identities and separatist tendencies among the many minority groups of the Russian Empire: Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, and so on. Their struggles would make themselves clear during the revolution of 1917. Still, it is hard to find much research into refugeedom. Why? As you will see, refugees played a massive role in determining the course of Russia’s war effort and the development of the Bolshevik revolution.

The Origins of the Crisis and the German Invasion

World War I instigated this great displacement of peoples. Germany and Russia’s epic land battle stirred up tensions between the hosts of nations that made up the Russian Empire. This ethnic diversity greatly contributed to the severity of the refugee problem.  After the Battle of Tannenberg, the tide of war turned against the Russians on the eastern front. The Germans invaded Russia penetrated hundreds of kilometers into the Russian Empire and occupied a vast swathe of territory by 1915, which was organized into a military domain known as Ober Ost. In War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National identity, and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge University press, 2000) Vejas Liulevicius describes the German implementation of Verkehrspolitik, which translates to “movement policy.” Through it, they restricted all movement within Ober Ost. No one could leave their areas without the permission of the army. This was part of the initial stages of Germany’s plans to colonize pieces of the western Russian Empire. They effectively put an end to the refugee crisis in all areas they occupied. However, by the time the German’s arrived millions of people had already fled to the interior, leaving behind scarcely populated lands almost cleared out for German administration

The Russian Army’s Disastrous Plans

As the Germans advanced into their territory, the Russians feared minority groups would take advantage of the occupation to pursue independence. Liulevicius notes how shocked the Germans were by the diversity of the Russian Empire. Nationalistic ideologies had come to dominate the minds of middle and upper class Europeans, but the reality in the Russian Empire was lagging far behind their idealistic notions of homogenous nation states. When the war began, the western areas of the Russian Empire were made up of mostly of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Jews, and Germans amongst other national groups, so there was truth in these fears. The Poles had been without a state for over a century, but the independence movement was far from dead in the Polish people. Other nations, such as the Latvians and Ukrainians had hopes for their own state and saw the Germans as their saviors. A deeply ingrained sense of anti-Semitism contributed to abuse of Jews despite them not presenting a political threat. In an effort to deprive the Germans of the resources and people of the land they were taking, the Russian army implemented a scorched earth policy.

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The Russian Army in 1914

According to historian Eric Lohr in Nationalizing The Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I (Harvard: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 2003), the army’s goal was to leave nothing for the Germans to live off, and at the same time lay the ground works for the nationalization of the empires economy at the expense of minority groups. This included forcibly deporting millions of people of all ethnicities. Lohr lays out how the Russians did so and their racist tendencies in Nationalizing The Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I (Harvard: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 2003). Naturally, people fled the German advance for fear of living under occupation, but as Gatrell points out in A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees In Russia During World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999) only one in five refugees fled of their own volition. The rest were forced to leave their homes by the Russian army which had been given martial control over large parts of the western empire by the Tsar in order to run the war. This meant millions of extra people were moving to the interior. Russia’s people, government, and bureaucracy were in no way ready to handle this influx.

The Struggle to Provide Aid and the Tsar’s Triumph

At the beginning of the war, two public organizations were formed by the Tsar’s Ministry of the Interior to provide aid to those sick in wounded as a result of the war: the All-Russian Union of Zemstvos (VZS) and the Union of Towns (VSG). The Tatiana Committee was formed months later with similar objectives. All three of these worked independently, making the coordination and inefficiency of relief a constant issue.

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Refugees evacuating forced to evacuate Kerzeme in late 1914

By 1915, both the central government and these civilian administrations were realizing the catastrophe the army had created by forcing the deportation of so many millions. However, the government was more interested in maintaining authority over the army and the public organizations than solving the crisis. The trend of defeat had tarnished the reputation of army leaders so thoroughly that the Tsar was able to take direct command of the armed forces, and secure absolute power over the military.

In “The Public Organization of Aid to Refugees During World War I,” Russian Studies in History (2013): 81-107, Anastasia Tumanova explains how state and society had to work together in order to resolve the refugee crisis. This necessity quickly gave way to conflict. The public organizations may have been created to provide aid, but they couldn’t help but developing political alignments as their civilian leaders wanted to put more power in the hands of the people over the government. Thus, they made the refugees their pieces in this power struggle. The public organizations did all they could to secure as much authority as possible in handling the crisis, however, the government resisted them every step of the way. By the middle of 1915, the government decided to wrest power from the public organizations entirely by forming the Special Council for Refugees. It was to “disburse funds for refugee relief, oversee the registration and relocation of refugees, and ‘return them to the place of their permanent settlement and restore their affairs, as well as making arrangements for the future.”[i] Essentially, it was given broad authority over everything regarding refugee aid in order to ensure the central government could interfere with and control any actions taken by the public organizations.

The dispute escalated later that year when the reality of the refugee crisis the military had created was just making itself evident. A meeting of the State Duma expressed fears of how military actions were affecting civilians, most notably because of the millions of people forced from their homes with little to no warning. The government also feared the direction the military’s leadership was taking. However, they did not express this publicly as they did not want to undermine the war effort and lend credence to the Duma’s accusations.

czar-nicholas-ii-1868-1918-czar-everett

Tsar Nicholas II

The central government was able to reestablish its dominance over the army. Tsar Nicolas II dismissed Chief of Staff of the Russian Army, General Ianukevitch as a preliminary step to taking personal command of the military. Despite being at odds with the central government, the public organizations were also relieved by this change of command as they had grown weary of the military’s disastrous policies. However, it put them under even stricter control by the central government, which was steadily tightening its grasp over the empire. By 1916, the central government had established its dominance over both the military and the public organizations, but it was appropriately fearing revolution.

What was Left for the Refugee

Getting lost in the political squabbles, it is easy to forget the very reason for the crisis in the first place. This internal conflict meant there was little leftover for the refugees themselves. Upon being deported, refugees took to the roads where they would lose most of their livelihood to violence and thievery as is mentioned in former Russian solider Ivan Stenbock-Fermor’s Memoirs of Life in Old Russia, World War I, Revolution, and in Emigration (Berkeley: The University of California Berkeley, 1976). The devastation of losing their livelihood was only the beginning of their problems though. Once arriving at the interior, there was a constant struggle to find adequate work. Refugees were often branded as lazy by the press, however, they argued that wages offered were often so low they were better off begging or living off whatever the government could provide. Many in society who had grown to resent the refugees held the contradictory opinion that refugees were both too lazy to work and stole jobs from natives.

Realizing the absurdity of having a labor crisis in some areas, and refugees desperate to find work in others, the public organizations attempted to establish networks of labor markets. However, their attempts to establish helpful institutions most often were foiled by the state. The army made matters worse. With no regard for the plight of refugees, army units would often deport refugee laborers from ideal areas for space or along ethnic lines. “Memories and Diaries” – Polish Account of the Brusilov Offensive, June 1916,” last modified Saturday, 22nd August, 2009, http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/brusilov_polish.htm is a good example of how local populations and refugees felt about the abuse the army inflicted on them.

By 1917, over 5% of the population of the Russian Empire were refugees. This was larger than the industrial proletariat. The refugees were continuously subjected to the authority of the public organizations, the army, and the central government. However, throughout the crisis minor cases of refugees demanding better conditions were answered by the government, showing cracks in the rigidness of the regime. The crisis also served to awaken the minority issue as national committee were formed to respect refugees of certain ethnicities. The Tsarist government may have succeeded in consolidating power within its own administration, but this control rapidly began to crack in 1917 as the refugee crisis led to the growing confidence of the poor, and the strengthening of national minority groups which would coalesce in the February and October revolutions.

 

Bibliography

Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees In Russia During World War I (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

Anastasia S. Tumanova, “The Public Organization of Aid to Refugees During World War I,” Russian Studies in History (2013): 81-107.

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National identity, and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge University press, 2000).

Eric Lohr, “The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I,” The Russian Review (2001): 404-419.

Eric Lohr, Nationalizing The Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens During World War I (Harvard: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 2003).

“Memories and Diaries – Polish Account of the Brusilov Offensive, June 1916,” last modified Saturday, 22nd August, 2009, http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/brusilov_polish.htm

Ivan Stenbock-Fermor, Memoirs of Life in Old Russia, World War I, Revolution, and in Emigration (Berkeley: The University of California Berkeley, 1976), 122-173.

Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees from the First World War Through the Cold War (Philadelphia: Oxford University Press, 2002), 52-68.

“The History Place: World War I”, last modified March, 2009, http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/rus-army-bnetts.htm

“In East, Russians Drive To Finish Off Austrians”, last modified March, 2014, http://greatwarproject.org/2014/10/15/in-east-russian-drive-to-finish-off-austrians/

“First World War Refugees,” last modified 2011, http://pedas.lapamuzejs.lv/?page_id=557&lang=en