Ethnically diverse group of soldiers in Russia (WWI)

I bought this photograph from a dealer in Finland, who told me it had come from the estate of a Jewish family.  Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 until December 6, 1917, when it declared independence from the new Soviet government in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg).

A note about dates: the Julian calendar was used in the Russian Empire.  It was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West.  Julian calendar dates are traditionally referred to as Old Style (O.S.) and Gregorian dates as New Style (N.S.).

The first Russian Revolution of 1917 resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 2 (O.S.) and the formation of a weak and fractious Provisional Government.  The most unpopular decision made by the new government was to continue Russian participation in the First World War, despite food shortages, low troop morale, and a high rate of desertion by soldiers at the front as they heard of hardships and chaos back home.

The above photo has a dedication on the back and a date of April 14, 1917, which is likely Old Style.  That would make it little more than a month after the abdication of the Tsar.  Were these men on their way to the front, or had they just returned from it?  If they had just returned, was the photo taken in 1916, before they deployed?  How did they feel about the Revolution?  (Update: See comments at the bottom of the page for a partial translation of the dedication.)

Russian soldiers (April 1917) 4


I’m most intrigued by two men at the center of the group.  One is wearing a medal on his breast pocket in the shape of a cross which I haven’t been able to identify.  The other man is the only member of the group wearing an overcoat, possibly a military greatcoat.  (Another man at far left in the same row is wearing civilian clothes.)

Russian soldiers (April 1917) 2

Update: After I published this post, there was some interest in the young man to the right of the two men above, and in the ribbon he’s wearing.  Here he is:

Russian soldiers (April 1917) 6

A few men in the group are wearing black ribbons.

So many questions.

Russian soldiers (April 1917) 5



13 thoughts on “Ethnically diverse group of soldiers in Russia (WWI)

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  1. So intriguing. Is that also some kind of decoration on the uniform of the man to the right (our right) of the man in the overcoat? Are these mostly officers, particularly the ones in the two back rows who have not removed their hats? What do the different styles of hats signify? And such a small unit has its own chef? So many interesting questions!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ve added a detail image showing the young man with the large ribbon, Carol. I don’t see any officers, but I could have missed something. The different hats probably indicate that the men came from different places, and maybe different units.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know about russian history more than I know, Brad )
    Here’s my little input: we can see a group of military staff personnel who are responsible for administrative, operational and logistic needs of its unit. One of the officer has the Cross of Saint George. In addition, I see a ribbon next to that cross. It could be a symbol of belonging to a certain party. The text above is quite complicated to read. На добрую память от товарищей………товарищу……..
    I am unable to recognise one word which is written twice. It could be the location name (somewhere in Finland).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Very interesting! If the word is товарищ (comrade), then the inscription is “In kind remembrance, to comrade [name] from comrade[s] [name].” The word товарищ would have been used by socialists or communists. I don’t know if all the socialists used it, or only the more radical ones. An avenue of research!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The term comrade means”friend”, “mate”, “colleague”, etc (
        Socialists and communists use the word comrade as a replacement for such titles as Mr. or Mrs.
        I increased the text to 500% and found the name Alexander.
        На добрую память товарищу Александру от товарищей…….

        Liked by 3 people

  3. BTW the reform of Russian spelling (restricted the use of ъ) was announced on 11 (24) in may 1917. I’m intrigued if the author of this text knew about it;))

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Fantastic photograph. It’s very intriguing but the writing is completely beyond me! I’m struck by how they have crammed themselves into a relatively small space for the photograph (perhaps it had the best light? or perhaps they couldn’t go outside for some reason?), plus the man at the man at the back in what looks like a chef’s outfit. They all look very smartly dressed.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad you brought up the space. There’s no indication it’s a studio (no painted backdrop), but the light is very good and uniform throughout, so it must have been lit by a floodlight. The focus is also excellent, so the photo was taken by a skilled photographer using a high-quality camera. Your comment about the men looking smartly dressed makes me realize that they must have sat for the portrait before they went to the front. Great observations!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, sidelight from the window, but must have been some light from the front too, as you say. There’s an animal skin on the floor too, which maybe a photographer’s prop? Almost definitely a professional photographer took this!

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Fascinating post and brilliant comments!

    I’m wondering if it was taken in a studio, though there are some haphazard elements? Assuming that the photographer wasn’t used to taking photos of large groups, he may have forgotten some things in his preparations. The black curtain behind the group serves no purpose if this were a normal room. Perhaps pulling it over was forgotten in the fuss of accomodating such a large group? Perhaps the group is obscuring the details of a back-drop, as I can see a puckering in the top left-hand corner, which isn’t something you’d expect to see on a wall. The crack could be a tear or crack in a canvas? Perhaps it is a tear in your photo, Brad?

    The fact that there is curtained glass on both sides of the room suggests a studio. I have seen this in numerous group photos. If the photogrpher hasn’t done many large groups they might not have been aware that these elements would show up so prominently in the finished photo, or didn’t care? I also think that most of the light is coming from above due to the way the shadows fall under the legs of the soldiers on the floor.

    There you go, my two cents worth! I hope you can find out a bit more about this image. It is so full of intrigue!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’ve won me over to the idea of a studio. I hadn’t noticed the slight fold in the upper left corner of the backdrop. The photo isn’t torn, so the crack to the left of the fold must be the edge of a piece of canvas or curtain. And a skylight makes perfect sense. Outstanding analysis!

      Liked by 1 person

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