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Book Reviews - General (4)

Aleksandr Borisovich Astashov, Russkii front v 1914 – nachale 1917 goda: voennyi opyt i sovremennost’ [The Russian Front from 1914 to the Beginning of 1917: Military Experience and Modernity]

Moskva, Novyi khronograf, 2014, 737 pages
Joshua Sanborn
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Aleksandr Borisovich Astashov, Russkii front v 1914 – nachale 1917 goda: voennyi opyt i sovremennost’ [The Russian Front from 1914 to the Beginning of 1917: Military Experience and Modernity], Moskva, Novyi khronograf, 2014, 737 pages

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1Aleksandr Astashov’s monograph is, by a wide margin, the most comprehensive and best book ever written on the experience of Russian soldiers during the Great War. In four extensive chapters, “The narod goes to war,” “The human being in the face of war,” “Problems of organizing fighting on the Russian front,” and “The birth of the citizen-soldier,” he provides a richly researched and intelligently argued social history of the millions of men who served in Russian uniform from 1914 through 1917. Some of the questions he addresses have concerned historians for the past century. How were Russian peasants mobilized both institutionally and culturally? How were soldiers motivated to fight? Why did they eventually revolt? Others have received only glancing attention in the literature. What were the sexual practices of Russian soldiers? How extensive was marauding and robbery in occupied zones? How were leaves organized, and how often did soldiers receive them? What did the army do during the (long) periods of inaction between major battles? It is no exaggeration to say that a simple list of the key questions tackled by Astashov would fill this entire review. Most of these questions are dealt with substantively, with many (on occasion too many) supporting paragraphs rich in archival data. It is a dense and long work, but it is required reading for scholars in the field.

2 Astashov uses a very wide variety of sources in this book, but his favorite by far is the corpus of nearly 500 Russian military censor reports located in the Russian State Military History Archive (RGVIA). Astashov is not the first to use these reports, but no one to my knowledge has read them as completely or used them as extensively as he has. This grounding in censored letters provides the book with some of its greatest strengths. Astashov has interesting things to say about the peaks and valleys of soldier moods (with a notable decline not so much after the military disasters of 1915 as during the fall and winter of 1916-17); he notes that a surprising number of soldiers proclaimed themselves to be in high spirits even during the worst days of the war; and he describes a significantly darker soldier view of certain groups (such as nurses) than previous historians (this reviewer included) have done. There is, however, room for concern that Astashov has partially internalized the viewpoint of the censors as a result of this immersion in their work. William Rosenberg has provided a trenchant critique of the censor reports in a recent article in the American Historical Review (“Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I,” AHR 119, 3, 714-740) and I agree that historians must be exceptionally careful about deriving actual soldier “mood” from these documents. Not least, it is worth remembering that soldiers and officers were fully aware that their letters were being censored and that letters that violated regulations or had the potential to sow despair on the home front were likely never to reach their destinations. As Astashov puts it (using the words of one of the censors) “soldiers ‘learned how to write letters’” (p. 171) This is not to say that the letters should be ignored. For instance, as Astashov demonstrates, they are a rich source for understanding familial relationships, in part because letters about loneliness or sick cows were safe from the scissors of the censors. But it seems problematic to trace small changes in percentages of letters demonstrating a “healthy” mood (letters with a positive mood constituted 19.6% in the Minsk Military District in November, 1916, but “in December a certain increase in positive letters continued, in the Second Army . . . reaching 23.5%”, p. 121). Astashov himself concedes as much in a later section on motivation, admitting that “a qualitative analysis is difficult here: there are too few sources, and the representativeness is low” (p. 145), but this caveat certainly applies to discussions of mood as well. Indeed, this is the core problem of writing about the war experience. Despite archives full of material, sources written by the bulk of the army population are “too few,” and those that exist are not necessarily representative. We all do the best we can with what we have, and Astashov has done more than most in this book.

3 Astashov’s engagement with the secondary literature is also extensive. He argues critically but respectfully with many who have written about the Russian war experience both in Russia and abroad (including the present reviewer) and shows an admirable ability to tie different national historiographies together. He also flashes a creative ability to dip into other literatures, spending a significant amount of time discussing the work of Russian psychologists as he attempts to delineate the nature of Russian “shell shock” and post-traumatic stress disorder. This creativity can tip into quirkiness at times, as when Wilhelm Reich appears as a major figure to understand Russian soldier sexuality.

4 Finally, there is the question of “modernity.” The main tension in the war, in Astashov’s view, was the conflict between the unmodern mentality of the Russian peasant and the aggressively modern manifestations of an industrialized total war. This was a tension that only increased as the war went on, as the most “modern” elements of the army (cadre officers and soldiers) were destroyed in the first year of fighting and were replaced by old, married reservists and hastily trained young kids from the farm. This observation about the changing demographics of the Russian Army during the war is valuable, but it is possible to stretch the “peasant” interpretation too far. I flinched a little when I read that the strong desire of soldiers for leave from the front was best explained by the “peasant mentality of soldiers who were continually trying to get home to their families.” (p. 180) If this was so, there were a lot of urban and urbane Europeans with a “peasant mentality” in other armies during the war, where leaves were equally desired. Astashov’s insistence on seeing a “peasant mentality” even in the rumbling mutinies on the eve of the February Revolution is also, in my view, problematic. Fundamentally, Astashov argues that patriotism and discipline are “modern” and that Russia’s undeniable exceptionalism in the war (the massive scale of insubordination, desertion, and mutiny, especially but not only in 1917) was the result of unmodernized soldiers. This, I think, misunderstands the nature of both the Russian mutineers and “modernity.” Modernity is not only technology, discipline, and industrialization, but is also a particular form of resistance to those things. Without being too Hegelian, we might argue that “modernity” embraces both the articulation of “progress” and the challenge to it at the same time. If this is so, then Russian soldier behavior looks a bit different. Instead of an atavistic reaction, perhaps it was a creative, even “revolutionary,” attempt to challenge a war which had been unwisely entered, incompetently pursued, and tragically destructive.


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Electronic reference

Joshua Sanborn, Aleksandr Borisovich Astashov, Russkii front v 1914 – nachale 1917 goda: voennyi opyt i sovremennost’ [The Russian Front from 1914 to the Beginning of 1917: Military Experience and Modernity]The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 04 July 2015, connection on 28 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Joshua Sanborn

Lafayette College

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