World War I: Memories and Lessons
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

The World War I, which was called the Great War in Europe in the 1920s – 1940s, ushered in the “short twentieth century,” becoming one of the defining moments in modern history, transforming the very image of modern warfare. For the first time toxic gas weapons were massively used, the war turned into a positional one, an unprecedented number of people were killed. If in the West the memory of this war has been preserved and passed on from one generation to another, in the USSR it was labelled “imperialistic”, while in the present-day Russia it is simply unknown. The upcoming 100th anniversary of WWI end is a good occasion to ponder on what the First World War meant for Russia.

On Wednesday, November 7, 2018, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion, titled “World War I: Is History Repeating Itself?” The speakers were Alexei Miller, Professor of the European University in St. Petersburg, Pierre Malinowski, Head of the Russian-French Foundation of Historical Initiatives, and Konstantin Pakhaliuk, Leading expert of the scientific department of Russian Military Historical Society. Oleg Barabanov, Programme director of the Valdai Club, moderated the discussion.

According to Alexei Miller, this war disappeared from the collective memory, so that Moscow does not have a single cemetery of the fallen soldiers. Today the situation is changing, although not necessarily for the better: this memory returns in the form of popular history, and its serious understanding is still ahead. At the same time, the speaker rejected the possibility of comparing the First World War to modernity, because the world changed radically after the invention of nuclear weapons.

Konstantin Pakhaliuk, agreed with this assessment, but said that a request to clarify the fate of the ancestors who lived in that era appeared recently in Russia at the grassroots level. Moreover, individual movements like the Cossacks or historical reenactors support the memory of that war.

One of the key questions is whether the WWI entailed the 1917 revolution or vice versa. According to Miller, by 1916, Russia’s position was relatively good, it managed to mobilize for the war, arm itself and strengthen industry, but everything changed after the February revolution.

“The country plunged into civilizational failure. Obviously, the events of 1917 are catastrophic militarily, they are determined by the uncertainty of the new elites and their position,” the expert said. “Nationalization” of military units and the 1917 summer offensive, when the collapse of the entire state mechanism and the system of communications began, only accelerated the catastrophe.

Konstantin Pakhaliuk agreed with Miller’s point of view on the economic breakthrough before 1914, but said that in connection with this topic there is a desire not to problematize obvious things – in particular, the issue of political stability of society at that time. It was the economic boom that caused the emergence of the new elites, which became, in his words, “the last nail in the coffin of the autocracy.” After Russia entered the war, Tsar Nicholas II would not have been able to retain power even in the event of victory. He was no longer considered the leader of the Empire. One of the main reasons for the revolution and the separate peace was the collapse of the army and the acute feeling of injustice of the war, the lack of motivation to fight – first of all for the bourgeois middle class.

In his speech, Pierre Malinowski shifted the discussion to the topic of war victims, as well as their memory at the level of international interaction. He reminded the audience that Russia sacrificed a great deal to help France and lost two million people — more than all other parties of the conflict.

Malinowski organized an initiative aimed to find the remains of the soldiers of the Russian expeditionary corps in France. “At first we met objections,” he said, “but when I found the helmets of the Russian soldiers, we were allowed to conduct excavations. Now Russia is not a faraway country for the French.”

He believes that the issue of recognition of the Russian soldiers’ contribution must be raised at the November 11 summit in Paris dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the WWI end. About 60 heads of state will attend this event. “The world does not forget the past and should not forget it. We must not forget who started the world war, and we want to prove that we won it,” the speaker concluded.