Memoirs of a Lost Era

Olma Media GroupA poster raises funds for the families of circus and variety artists who died in the war.
'The yells of 'Play the anthem!' grew stronger after each number. Finally, the orchestra played the Russian anthem three times and the French one once. But when someone demanded the Serb anthem, it turned out that the orchestra didn't know the tune."

This eyewitness account tells of the atmosphere at Moscow's Aquarium pleasure gardens on July 28, 1914, the day that war was declared. It is quoted in a new book, "War and Muscovites: Scenes of City Life From 1914 to 1917."

Two years ago, two historians and journalists, Vladimir Ruga and Andrei Kokorev, published a fascinating book called "Everyday Moscow: Scenes of City Life From the Beginning of the 20th Century," which took a reader on a journey into the daily life of Moscow's inhabitants a century ago.

The book won wide critical acclaim and was often compared to the classic book "Moscow and Muscovites," by Vladimir Gilyarovsky, published in 1926. He was an affectionate and detailed chronicler of Moscow life, including hidden sides such as the city's wretched slum areas.

While Ruga and Kokorev's first book covered the period roughly from 1900 to 1910, in the new book the authors chose to write about World War I and the two revolutions in 1917, showing how these events affected day-to-day life.

The authors' approach is just about the same as in the first book, with an emphasis on photographs, posters, advertisements and cartoons. In addition, a lot of space is given to excerpts from newspapers and people's journals and memoirs.

Observing chronology of events, the book starts with the beginning of World War I and ends with the October 1917 revolution, underlining that the latter event crucially changed the city. "Moscow entered a new epoch, a Communist one," the authors write.

Chapters deal with specific aspects of day-to-day life, such as trade, city transport, and entertainment.


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Soldiers leaving for the front carry a banner saying "Freedom or Death."
The final chapter deals with the street fighting between the supporters of the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks. It also includes eyewitness accounts of the chaotic period.

A former cadet at a military academy, V.S. Arsenyev, recalls how the students deserted en masse. "Everyone began to cut off their epaulettes and write out fake permission slips to leave the premises," he writes. "A Bolshevik commissar signed all the papers and gave out passes. I left the cadet academy in full uniform and with a knapsack and got home safely."

Like the previous volume, "Everyday Moscow," the book often turns up surprising and funny similarities between Moscow in the early 20th century and the city today. But the extraordinary and even tragic historical events covered in the new book often make for sad reading.

The book describes in detail the atmosphere in hospitals set up to treat wounded soldiers arriving from the front. The authors quote the memoirs of F.A. Stepun, who was a patient at one such hospital. "Here, in the ward for the severely wounded, dull and absolutely helpless suffering reigns," he writes.

There was an acute shortage of hospital beds in the city, according to newspaper stories quoted in the book. "Moscow turns out to be insufficiently prepared for the quick and rational accommodation of wounded soldiers," an editorial in Utro Rossii newspaper complains, adding ironically that, "Enormous Moscow with its huge empty palaces, monasteries, public buildings and halls, is suddenly facing a shortage of accommodation."


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The writers also touch on the treatment of Germans and Austrians in Moscow after war was declared. They quote an edict issued by the city's mayor in 1914: "All male citizens of Austria and Germany aged from 17 to 45, residing in Moscow are considered prisoners of war and should show up at Krutitsky military quarters at 10 a.m. on July 30 and produce identification and documents related to their military duty."

When war was declared, many Muscovites saw a business opportunity. The book quotes newspaper reports saying that prices for military equipment immediately went up. Stores started charging 40 roubles for a sword that normally sold for seven to eight, and 75 roubles for a revolver that should have cost 25 roubles, one newspaper wrote in the summer of 1914.

The wartime shortages allowed some to make their fortunes by profiteering. A chapter entitled "'Heroes' of the Home Front," gives examples of commercial schemes that allowed people to become rich overnight. For example, a merchant called A.E. Yesis sold a consignment of military boots, most of which turned out to be poor quality and cost him next to nothing.

The chapter also describes the way such nouveaux riches behaved: "They wanted to stink of money. They demanded the most expensive wines and dishes, and threw around ridiculously generous tips."

An entire chapter deals with the prohibition that was imposed in Russia as soon as mobilization was announced in the summer of 1914. The book quotes a decree signed by Major General Adrianov, which prohibited the sale of liquor at food stores, railway stations and entertainment venues. It also banned serving alcoholic drinks at bars and restaurants after 11 pm. In accordance with the decree, individuals who violated it could be jailed for three months or fined a draconian 3,000 roubles.

These steps aimed at restricting alcohol consumption proved to be ineffective, however, prompting drinkers to turn to all kinds of surrogate alcohol. The book quotes a newspaper article about six people who "drank a large amount of cologne instead of vodka and soon died."


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A child's drawing from 1917 shows soldiers besieging a building.
The writers also include an excerpt from "A Soldier's Journal," a memoir published a few years after the war, in which D.P. Oskin praises the taste of "Cologne No. 3," which was put on sale right after the prohibition was introduced.

Despite the sadness and misery of war, Muscovites were still concerned about ordinary, day-to-day things. A chapter titled "The Housing Issue" tells of skyrocketing prices for real estate in early 1917 -- something not untypical of the present day.

The book quotes a story from Ranneye Utro newspaper: "In February, 1917, K. bought a house in a lane off Arbat for 600,000 rubles, but just a few days later he got an offer to sell it for 900,000 rubles. K. is hesitating and has told the prospective buyer that he will have to think about it."

The film industry also experienced a boom. "Steady demand and high salaries attracted Russia's best creative minds to the film industry," the chapter on entertainment says. In 1916, newspapers announced that the renowned theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was planning to direct two movies, titled "Mona Lisa" and "The Man Who Laughs," although these films never actually got made.

Cultural events largely served the purpose of distracting people from bad news from the front. "Very many people have shown up," one eyewitness wrote of an exhibition opening in December, 1914. "Never have art exhibitions been as successful as this year. One wants some distraction, an opportunity to enter a dream world."

Vladimir Kozlov is a Moscow-based journalist, novelist and filmmaker.

"War and Muscovites: Scenes of City Life From 1914 to 1917" is published by Olma-Press.