(The following guest post is by John Van Oudenaren, director for scholarly and educational programs at the Library of Congress.)
By the time the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the European powers had been fighting for more than two-and-a-half years. U.S. troops joined their British, French and Belgian allies in battles against Germany on the Western front, and a small number of U.S. soldiers were deployed to northern Italy. The United States was also allied as an “associated power” with Russia, which since August 1914 had been fighting Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on the Eastern front.
Like all governments on both sides, the Russian authorities issued a steady stream of propaganda aimed at shoring up morale and convincing the Russian people that their wartime sacrifices were not in vain – that victory was sure to come. Among the most popular and effective forms of Russian propaganda were “luboki,” which were popular prints with simple, colorful graphics, generally used to illustrate a narrative. Lubok images were clear and easy to understand, aimed at people who were illiterate or had limited education. As part of its presentation of World War I as a global conflict, the World Digital Library includes a collection of 79 lubok posters contributed by the British Library and the National Library of Russia. These prints show Russian forces fighting soldiers of the Central Powers in fierce battles along the huge front stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas, as well as on the Caucasus front in eastern Turkey.
Shown is a typical lubok poster from a battle between Russian and Austrian troops early in the war in September 1914. It depicts a non-commissioned officer, Avvakum Volkov, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, vanquishing a detachment of Austrian dragoons. The caption explains that Volkov and his men attacked a unit of 10 enlisted men and an officer. “Volkov decapitated the officer, engaged three dragoons and the flag bearer, and, with the enemy’s captured flag, headed back with his comrades. On the way they encountered a second Austrian patrol. Another desperate fight ensued, and ended with the flight of the enemy.”
The poster is typical of the genre, in which Russian forces often are depicted on horseback, slashing at their enemies with swords and lances. Hapless enemy soldiers fall in droves, often profusely bleeding. The illustrations generally show the Russians emerging unscathed from the fiercest of combats, although casualties sometimes are mentioned in the captions.
Propaganda such as this was of course highly misleading. Russia suffered more than 9 million casualties in World War I, including an estimated 1.7 million combat deaths. The economic and political strains caused by the war led to the February 1917 revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 15, three weeks before the United States entered the war. With the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1918, Russia withdrew from the war and concluded a separate peace with Germany.
World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.