A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During
World Ward I
Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Gatrell, Peter. A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia During World War I. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.
This book is about the many dislocated people in Russia during World
War I, but this reviewer was particularly interested in the plight
of the ethnic Germans.
A mixture of hostilities and ethnic hatreds led to government and
military policies that set an almost unimaginable surge of refugees
into motion in Russia during the years of World War I. The dislocated
included hundreds of thousands of Jews, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians,
and about anyone else identified as non-Slav. Among them, ethnic
Germans constituted a kind of undigested lump in the nation, their
loyalty suspect because they had maintained their own language and
cultural identity, they were prosperous and owned large tracts of
farmland, and they were of the same nationality as the enemy. Also,
they were not Orthodox in a country where the Orthodox religion
was the only faith with any legitimacy.
What was the experience of many Germans living in Russia during
Gatrell mentions these:
-A Russian General named Ianushkevich, who was fond of the
scorched-earth destruction of villages, pushed Germans back hundreds
of miles from the front. He argued that although they
are Russian subjects, they are not Orthodox. He also sent
long-settled German peasants from Galicia to the east. Galicia
thereby became the first major site of mass civilian displacement
during the war. Ianushkevich grabbed at the chance to reward
his soldiers with the vacated farms.
-In 1914, the governor of Tula, referring to popular opinion, recommended
that Germans, even Russian subjects, were enemies of the fatherland
and should be removed and their land given to Russians.
-In 1915, some 200,000 ethnic Germans were deported to Siberia from
Volynia, Kiev, and Podulia.
-In 1916, about 13,000 more were forcibly removed from Volynia.
German Balts in Riga were also deported and their land was expropriated.
-In 1915, Polish farmers were forced off their land and replaced
with Germans. (The invading Germans played this game too.)
-During the harsh 1916 winter in Samara, the local population
attempted to drive 142,000 Germans out of the lower Volga region
in order to reduce competition for food.
-In 1916, Prince Urusov proposed that the farms of German
and Austrian settlers be handed to refugees.
-There was a hard-edged popular feeling that the government had
let in enemies when the Germans had been invited to settle. A belief
held that Germans could not be loyal members of the political
community. Rumors had it that Germans pointed out bomb targets
invaders, and there was a report that Jews and Germans refused to
-As early as 1914, the Russian High Command and Ministry of the
Interior drew up plans to remove Germans from the western borderlands,
but their whole plan was not carried out at the time.
From Gatrells book, the reader gets a sense of a whole population
struggling to survive amidst war and dislocation, the situation
exacerbated by a government that often made decisions without regard
to an established body of laws but based them on ethnic tensions
and hatreds rife in a population accustomed to scapegoating. In
this mess, refugees and non-refugees were both in trouble because
it was no simple matter to be a settled villager or farmer trying
to cope with tens of thousands of needy civilians roaming the countryside.
When the government finally set up programs to help them, it was
difficult for even well-meaning officials to be sure what should
Yet, wherever the Germans landed, there was an impulse to normalize
life. Though they were initially without aid or resources, German
colonies rose in the Tomsk, Tobolsk and Enisei oblasts. They
found employment in flour mills, paper factories, and timber. In
some ways, the displaced ethnic groups actually grew stronger because
they had to band together to fight for survival. In the case of
the Jews, movements against them (pogroms) became more difficult
once they were dislodged from their compact communities.
Europeans of this century have had a penchant for making war on
whatever peoples in their own borders have earned (or been assigned)
a reputation as unworthy. There seems to have been little hesitancy
to pick up whole populations and move them inland to Siberia and
other desolate areas. Germans who had not emigrated to the west
just a handful of years before World War I were caught in the middle.
What happened to the Germans was a precursor to the even greater
deportations that took place during World War II. This scholarly
book is most fascinating.