Staunton, December 29 – Kaliningrad Oblast, which in 1914 was Germany’s East Prussia, is “the only region in Russia” where a century ago the battles of World War I flared when the Russian army invaded in order to force Berlin to shift forces from the Western Front and thus, in the view of most historians, saved France from defeat.
And thus it is perhaps not surprising that Kaliningrad is the only place in Russia today where that conflict is recalled and where the graves of Russian soldiers from that conflict are honored and looked after, Andrey Vypolzov of Sovershenno Sekretno says (sovsekretno.ru/articles/mogila-neizvestnogo-russe/).
Few Russians elsewhere know much about World War I or the Russian achievements in East Prussia, in part because of Soviet ideology which invariably described the conflict as “an imperialist war” and focused on tsarist plans to seize the straits and in part because World War I is so long ago and has been eclipsed by the Great Fatherland War as Russians call World War II.
It is a matter of some bitterness that Russians elsewhere have forgotten the Russian soldiers who fought there and that the graves of those which have been preserved were kept by German officials in the interwar period. At that time, Vypolzov says, the graves of “Unbekannte Russen” were treated with as much respect as named German ones.
Occasionally other evidence of the Russian presence in the German region during World War I has surfaced, the Sovershenno Sekretno writer continues. A few years ago, a brick was found with the inscription, “Here worked many Russians. 1916” which recalls the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers who were captured.
In Soviet times, neither those who died fighting nor those who were forced to work as prisoners of war were recalled by Russia. But Germans continued to look after their graves; and in the 1990s, a German military mission restored some of the cemeteries in what had been East Prussia.
Local people have learned about two mass graves in which are interred 500 Russian soldiers, and the local university has launched an investigation in the archives to try to identify as many of the lost as possible. Local activists are supporting them and have even erected memorial stones where possible.
Perhaps most notably, these activists have organized annual meetings of the descendants of Russian soldiers of World War I. And as a result, ever more people in Kaliningrad if not yet Russia as a whole are learning about the thousands of Russian soldiers who died fighting and the 2.5 million Russian soldiers who were captive.
The story of their captivity remains largely a blank spot in the history of Russia, Vypolzov says. A rare exception was a book published by Moscow during World War II to highlight German cruelty. That book contains some important details and is available online at militera.lib.ru/docs/da/o_nemetskih_zverstvah/index.html. But far more needs to be done.
The people of Kaliningrad are taking the lead in promoting such attention, research and restoration of the Russian graves in their region.