Echoing of the World War I...

The International Scientific Practical Conference “Belarus in the World War I. Smorgon district: tragedy, heroism, memory. The 90th anniversary of 810-day defense of Smorgon dedicated” is a unique phenomenon in its sphere, as scholars admitted behind the scenes. It means that despite the fact that the scientific issues of this period are growing in popularity, researchers dealing with the history of the World War I hold such scientific forums quite rarely. And this is the first event of such a level in Belarus!
While summing up the organizing committee of the science practical conference that took place in Smorgon turned to the world public: “We aim at commemoration of the died, joint preparation and conducting of large-scale historical and cultural campaigns, acts...., dedicated to the 100th anniversary of beginning of the World War I. We are convinced that these actions will contribute to rise of spiritual potential, development of science and culture, strengthening of friendly relations between all the peoples of Europe and the world”. So, one after another current.

There is such a fashionable term — “historical routine”. It means emphasis on details of time, place and actions in the frame of a certain event. A historical detail is very important, you know it’s like a pinpoint missile — it immediately achives the goal. I’m saying this because sometimes we can think out an associative array to some real event based on fiction and movies. And to other — in no way! By the way, when at a scientific conference routine, vivid metaphors and subjunctive mood are what an ordinary man lacks. Only dry facts. Alas, that’s the specificity of the genre.
As you know, it’s here where Kaiser soldiers were stopped despite absence of the Russian troops. Smorgon was the only city that during the World War I was defended by Russia for such a long time and so hard.

Have a look at the photo from the collection of Vladimir Likhodeev: fortifications belted the city, the ”dead city” — as Smorgon was called in newspapers — still has trenches and blockhouses. My attention was drawn to the figures and names mentioned at the conference:

— Over the period of 1915–1917 Smorgon district was the place of the major pressure at German-Russian front, the defense of Smorgon district lasted 800 days...

— Alexandra Tolstaya, the daughter of the writer shared her memories of gas attacks near Smorgon — at that time she was in charge of the front line hospital in the village of Zalesye.

— Rodion Malinovsky, Marshal-to-be and the Minister of Defence of USSR, a machine-gunner of 256 Elisavetgradsk regimen was wounded there.

— An outstanding writer, staff captain Mikhail Zoschenko led his soldiers into the assault here. This is where Valentin Kataev fought.

— During world War I Novospassk forest became famous for the fact that on dawn of July 22 warrant officer Maria Bochkareva and her strike “death battalion” containing of women only went to attack German trenches.

However, at the moment I perceive Smorgon district as a burial ground for Russian and German soldiers... And near the Lake of Vishnevskoye there are sites where advanced lines of defence of both troops are preserved untouched... The old city church still has a concrete block with fragments of words “year of 1917. Survival of citiz. is in revolut.”. Probably the phrase sounds like: “The survival of the citizens is in revolution”...

Before the above conference started the photo album with all sites of burial dumpings and battles marked had come from press. The first stone with the words: “This is the place where during the World War I of 1915–1918 Russian soldiers found their rest from toil” was placed by a regional ethnographer Petr Grinkevich as early as in 1966. According to his findings, 154 soldiers were buried here. And each of these 154 soldiers had his own routine life: peaceful occupation, parents, wife, and children.

Still another fact. In the village of Belaya, 5 km from Smorgon, there were reserve troops of the Russian army. In the year 2001 a memorial commemorating the victims of the World War I and II was placed there. And along the road towards Molodechno one can find a number of deep pots — traces of dugouts where reserve regiments lived, as specialists say each dugout could host up to 250 people...

By the way, German record-keeping officers have compiled several volumes containing precise description of battles at the territory of Smorgon district and names of soldiers and officers who took part in the World War I. The difficulties we face originate due to the fact that all documents are kept in Russian archives. And a Belarusian historian could hardly afford a trip to Moscow. Maybe after the international conference the situation will change for the better.

Photos at postcards are exclusive as well. These cadres are documents, if anything, a message from the previous century. Collector Vladimir Likhodeev has nearly 7 thousand event-based photos (!) of the World War I.

— Vladimir Alexeevich, Smorgon is a museum in the open air. Could you, historians, restore some episodes of the war on the ground of the old photos?

— Certainly. Military men have always been famous for punctuality and accuracy in business documents administration. The number of cards taken by German photographs is naturally bigger than pictures of the Russian positions. It can probably be explained by the fact that German soldiers usually sent pictures of the places they fought at home. This is tradition, culture of their country. And did not embellished or retouched the reality. It’s pity that the words at the back of the cards are difficult to read — they were written in the old German, the language that nobody uses any more. It is possible that together with the movement of the German front line forward military chroniclers — photographs and journalists — mover forward as well. I can’t but mention that the World War I is terra incognita in terms of art media. Generally speaking, the period to this Smorgon period of the World War I has not been put yet. Moreover, the archives has not been thoroughly studied and published.

Zhanna Vasanskaya
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