All wars begin in politics and end in tragedy.
Even the victors know that their triumph stands on a foundation of corpses. That is the way of war.
By the time World War I ended in 1918, more than 15 million were dead, including 5 million from hunger and disease. The empires of Russia, Germany, the Ottoman Turks and Austria-Hungary were gone.
That four-year conflagration set the stage for other conflicts that racked the 20th century and are still echoing in the 21st.
The events are outlined in “Faces of War: Russia in World War I (1914-1918),” a timely, albeit somber new exhibit at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in south Minneapolis. The museum’s first truly multimedia show, it includes 17 short documentary films, interactive touch screens, rare photos, posters, documents and artifacts. Impressively researched and handsomely installed, the show runs to March 13, 2016.
“Faces” was organized by TMORA in an unusual collaboration with Russia’s Ministry of Culture and several state archives and museums, plus contributions from collectors and institutions in Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus, Germany, Serbia and the United States, including the Minnesota Military Museum at Camp Ripley in Little Falls. Because of a complicated legal imbroglio between Russia and the U.S., all the Russian loans are reproductions rather than authentic artifacts, but they are so meticulously fabricated that only experts would notice.
A version of the display was shown to much acclaim in Moscow last year and in Serbia this past spring to mark the centennial of the war’s start in the summer of 1914.
“The intent is not to glorify war or any one country’s military exploits, but to show a tragedy of global proportions,” said Vladimir von Tsurikov, TMORA’s director.
A historian by profession, Von Tsurikov was keen in a recent interview to recall the United States’ long friendship with Russia. The U.S. didn’t enter World War I until 1917, but it provided military and economic support to the Russians for three years before that. And in World War II, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allied again in fighting Nazi Germany.
Von Tsurikov hopes that “Faces” and other transnational collaborations will improve relations between the countries.
“During the Cold War, culture and sport kept channels open; now it’s culture and business,” Von Tsurikov said. “Our cultural counterparts in Russia are very interested in finding ways to collaborate, and those who came here from Moscow were very encouraged.”
War as a family feud
World War I began as an unusually personal war, sparked by the June 28, 1914, assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife, Sophie. Their deaths at the hands of Serbian nationalist Gavrila Principe prompted Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, which in turn drew allied nations into the conflict.
As “Faces” immediately makes clear, it was a family feud writ large. The rulers of Germany, Britain and Russia — principal players in the conflict — were cousins whose common grandmother was Britain’s late queen, Victoria. They vacationed together, gathered for family weddings, and wrote to each other in their common language, English. In their cozy, cosseted world, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was “Willy,” Britain’s King George V was “Georgie” and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II was “Nicky.”
They all, theoretically at least, possessed the authority to resolve tensions peaceably, but they failed to do so through indecision, willfulness, ineptitude, fear, bravado or buck-passing. Letters on display show Czar “Nicky” unsuccessfully lobbying Kaiser “Willy” to persuade Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies to stop their aggression. Instead, the Kaiser tossed that job right back, telling the czar “your shoulders now … have to bear the responsibility for peace or war.”
A timely reminder
The exhibit is divided into overlapping sections on peacetime, war, military headquarters, front lines, Russia’s revolution, the conclusion of hostilities and the war’s aftermath. Early newsreel footage shows crowds in St. Petersburg mobilizing for war, cavalry troops marching, and even a motorcycle corps.
Photos include winsome images of rather ragtag children, trenches, gunners with cannon, Cossack troops in gas masks, bodies strewn on battlefields, a forest grave. Family photos include the English king and the Russian czar in their military regalia in happier times. From Germany come images of troops in spiked helmets boarding trains; from England, photos of a young, thin and debonair Winston Churchill.
National anthems and music of the era provide audio counterpoint to the silent films and photos.
A gauzy white “tent” at the center of the exhibit suggests the hospitals where Czarina Alexandra, trained as a Red Cross nurse, gave out Easter eggs to wounded soldiers. Elsewhere, heavily embroidered banners and epaulets recall the glamour once associated with battle; old-fashioned rifles and knives suggest how comparatively simple and intimate the weapons of the era were.
A sepia-toned photo from July 1916 shows soldiers with a machine gun attached to a motorcycle. They’re aiming it toward the sky in hopes of bringing down an airplane, the newest war technology back then.
Like any exhibition about war, “Faces” is a sobering if not depressing affair. In retrospect we see the pointlessness of the deaths, the folly of it all.
And yet, as the U.S. and Russia now bristle over Syria, refugees flood into Europe from the Middle East, and careless politicians rattle verbal sabers, it is a timely reminder of the disasters that could unfold if the world were once again to sleepwalk into world war.