Light in the darkness (WWI)

This postcard came to me from a dealer in Pennsylvania who specializes in photographs from Russia and Eastern Europe. He said the photo was Russian, which made sense. The only woman in the photo is wearing what appears to be a Russian nurse’s outfit from the First World War. But who were the men, and why did she pose with them? The back of the postcard has no writing or information of any kind.

I could see that the nurse was holding something in her lap that looked like a newspaper, and I hoped the name might become clear under high resolution. Fortunately, a few letters did:

I read a long article online about Russian newspapers of the period, and none of the names matched the letters visible above. I then tried a Google image search of Russian newspapers of WWI, and one of them matched:

Rizhskoye Obozreniye, February 1916. Source: eBay listing.

 

 

Рижское Oбозрение (Rizhskoye Obozreniye) translates as Riga Review.  The paper was published in Latvia, which may explain why it wasn’t included in the article I read about the Russian press, although Latvia was part of the Russian Empire until 1918.

The newspaper indicates that the photo might have been taken in Latvia.  Could it tell us anything else?  I’m really curious about the men.  My first thought was that they must be hospital patients, perhaps convalescing after serving on the front lines.  But no bandages are visible, so I don’t think that explanation is correct.  They’re all wearing basically the same outfit.  Might they have been psychiatric patients?  I wondered if they were prisoners.  Then it occurred to me that they could have been prisoners of war.

 

Rigasche Rundschau

When I read about the history of the newspaper Rizhskoye Obozreniye, the POW theory made sense.  The paper was founded in 1867 as Zeitung für Stadt und Land.  In 1894 the name was changed to Rigasche Rundschau (Riga Review).  Published in German, it catered to the large population of German speakers living in the area of Imperial Russia near the Baltic Sea (including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania today).  There were other German-language papers in other parts of Russia.  However, during the First World War, publishing in the German language became illegal.  The only way to continue publishing Rigasche Rundschau was to do so in Russian, which is what was done from 1915 until 1918.  Publishing in German became possible in Latvia in 1918 and the newspaper continued to be published in Riga until the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), which stipulated that Baltic Germans were to be resettled to Germany from the area occupied by the Soviet Union.

There isn’t a Wikipedia page for the newspaper in English, but there are pages for it in German and in Russian.

 

Final thoughts

All the combatant armies of the First World War took large numbers of prisoners.  In this case, the nurse might have been fluent in both Russian and German, and might have translated articles from the newspaper into German for the men.  Other explanations might also make sense.  For example, the men could have been Russian POWs in Germany, but I don’t know if a Russian nurse would have been able to visit them there.  Let me know if you have any other ideas.

I titled this post “Light in the darkness” because journalism, at its best, shines the light of truth.  In this photo, the nurse in her white uniform appears as a bright figure.  To the men–whoever they were–she must have been a ray of hope in a dark time.

Nurse and men with Rizhskoye Obozreniye 3

 

 

 

 

45 thoughts on “Light in the darkness (WWI)

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  1. Because of the veil she wore around her face, I thought she was a nun. Without your research, I wouldn’t have guessed that she was a nurse. As you said, she appears to be the “Light in the Dark” amongst the men in a very difficult time.
    You said so well, that “ journalism, at its best, shines the light of truth”. Can’t agree more. Just watched the film “Mr. Jones”, which tells the story of the welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who sacrificed his life for bringing the truth to light in 1933.
    Thanks for this insightful post, Brad.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The woman could be a nursing nun, but as for the men, complete mystery to me. The men look relatively healthy, sane and dressed as to preclude prison or even hospital. This is a real puzzler. Mental health issues might have prevented anything this organized. Could it have been a class picture of some kind? If language and translation were involved, they might have been emigres.

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  3. That’s a very interesting ratio of coats to buttons! It looks like most of them are wearing double-breasted overcoats but either have them fastened oddly or simply wrapped over. Not one button to be seen. Yet many of the overcoats look like a standard pattern, like military issue but with buttons and other decorations removed.

    On beards: most shaving at the time would have been done with straight razors. Psychiatric patients would have been shaved by staff and I can’t imagine any patient had access to the razor themselves. Some patients would have been essentially “ungroomable” if they resisted. This group looks fairly well groomed, and none totally unkempt. I doubt this is a psychiatric hospital.

    All the men are of a military age, from 20 to 50. A psychiatric hospital would have a few older men

    Also note the man sat behind the nurse has a ring (or two!) on his left hand ring finger. One seems to be a simple band, the other set with a stone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent observations, Emma. I agree about the men not looking like psychiatric patients for the reasons you mention, and about the coats looking like some kind of military issue. There’s a military connection here for sure. Isn’t it strange about the buttons! During the revolutions of 1917 and the Civil War that followed, insignia were often removed, but removing buttons wouldn’t make sense, unless they could be traded for cigarettes or something.

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  4. It is a rather sad photo as the nurse (I thought she was a nun) indicates that it is not a normal group. The men do look healthy but it is still odd to have that one woman there. If they were prisoners of war, as you said, it could have been for propaganda. The men’s faces are haunting. Good detective work on your part!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Jo Nell. Propaganda is a distinct possibility, although to be fair, all the armies took pictures of POWs. The numbers of POWs throughout Europe were mind-boggling: 8 million total, with 2.4 million in Russia alone. Whoever these men were, they were unusual for some reason. I agree that the scene is haunting, made more so by the institutional setting.

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  5. I think this is a meeting of hard workers. They are wearing dressing gowns. This is the workwear of factory workers.And everyone’s eyes are either hungry or tired. This is probably a group of Bolsheviks. The photo was taken at the beginning of the 20th century. Let’s recall Chekhov’s aphorism of those years:
    “A man without a mustache is like a woman with a mustache.”
    Two men’s hands are visible-they are black.
    The nurse seems to be from another photo and it creates the main intrigue. Maybe it’s a hospital for the rehabilitated. Although, I support the first version more. Thank you so much for such interesting puzzles!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They could be laborers, or they could be rehabilitated prisoners. Something about them is unusual or special. Also, the newspaper could be an accident, with no connection to the group, but I think the nurse would have hidden it from the camera in that case. Do you think the newspaper has any significance?

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      1. Good question about the newspaper. If to accept the fact that the newspaper in the picture is not an accident, then this group of people has adopted certain views. A newspaper published for the Germans, if I’m not mistaken. I am surprised that nothing shows the political affiliation of men. And it’s also strange that an “important” newspaper is held by a woman. Could she be a German woman? I wish I could find a solution.

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      2. I think this group of men, for some reason, doesn’t have access to newspapers, so she brought the news to them. Her choice of that particular newspaper, out of all the possible newspapers, tells us something about her or about them. But what is it?! 😜

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  6. I like the “shell shocked” theory, a group of soldiers recuperating from the horrors of war, maybe gassing, possibly the literal shocks to their brains of nearby blasts. They may have been living in a group setting, not necessarily a hospital but a large home or other structure commissioned as a recovery center. One wouldn’t expect them to be dangerous, nor to appear anything but “normal” on the outside, so posing with one nurse would be “safe.”

    I found some quick references to Latvian Riflemen during WW1, especially during 1915-17. Might they be Latvian soldiers, who fought for the Tsar against Germany? My first thought on seeing the mustaches/beards was to think they were Russian men; I imagine Latvians sported similar facial hair styles at the time.

    A fine mystery, with some truly great sleuthing on your part!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They could certainly be Latvians, or even Baltic Germans. I hadn’t considered those possibilities, oddly enough. The latter in particular would explain the newspaper! Your idea of a group recovery home makes perfect sense. I have a photo on the blog that was taken at one such home in Scotland, called Lennel House, where Allied officers could recuperate after service at the front. Records from Lennel House describe symptoms which we would recognize today as PTSD. Thank you for your insightful analysis, Rebecca!

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  7. This one really is a puzzler. The woman does look like a nun in many respects. As a group, the men do seem a bit on the old side for a group of soldiers. I’m more inclined to think it is a work group. A poor house perhaps, but what on earth could have prompted the occasion for a group photograph? Maybe they are political prisoners, not soldiers. This could be intended to show they are being treated well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel pretty confident that one of the ideas put forward by you or another commenter is correct, but I don’t think we have quite enough clues to know which one. Probably the only way to know for sure would be to find another copy of the postcard, along with a description of it.

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    1. Wow, so many interesting pictures! All from 1914, from various hospitals around Moscow. I see what you mean about the clothing. It does look very similar. Thank you so much for sharing that link! I look forward to exploring other pages on the site. Огромное спасибо!!

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  8. There’s one other possibility that I don’t think anyone’s mentioned: that the men might be workers or staff in an institution, and the nun/nurse their supervisor. During war, many civilian institutions are taken over for purposes other than those they were designed for. Could it be possible that a convent was being used as a hospital or something similar, and that the men were supplementing the staff? They just don’t have the look of psychiatric cases, POWs, or even soldiers on active duty. It might be worth poking around to see what convents or schools associated with religous orders were found around Riga.

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    1. That’s an excellent suggestion, Linda. They could be working as orderlies, in lieu of active duty at the front. Maybe they had already served at the front and been rotated to the rear for a period of service out of danger. (I don’t know if the Russian army did that, but it would make sense.) Whatever the case, the photo seems to indicate that they had a special relationship with this nurse. As you suggest, it could have been a working relationship.

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  9. I’m sure I’m totally wrong here, given the era but the nurse/nun almost looks like she has been photoshopped into the shot. The figure is so white – almost luminous compared to the white sections of clothing the men are wearing. I can’t see how the photographer could have achieved that effect. But also, she doesn’t appear to be sitting within the group – she’s sitting behind the front row of men and yet her skirts are in front. Almost like she’s sitting on the shoulder of one of the centre figures, front row. And the men don’t come across as being aware of her presence. There is clear perspective in relation to the various bodies and positions of the men but not of the woman. Perhaps it’s just me! Or could it have been possible to add her afterwards for propaganda purposes maybe? Forgive the intrusion – I really don’t feel qualified to mention these thoughts but…. !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sandra, technically it would be possible to add the nurse to the group of men by cutting her out of a different photo and then pasting her onto this one, but I think all that monkeying around would be obvious to us, especially at the level of magnification visible in the scans above. The group is well-lit, and I can almost guarantee that the nurse’s uniform is cleaner than the men’s shirts! I also brightened the scans just a little (3%) before posting them, to make the men in the back more visible. The nurse is probably sitting on a stool of some kind. The balding fellow sitting below her to the left (her right) may be holding her stool to keep it stable, because he’s sitting very close to her but not directly under her. In any case, thank you for offering such an interesting theory!

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  10. Cette photo cache beaucoup de mystères . J’ai pensé , avant d’avoir lu le résultat de votre recherche, que la femme était une religieuse . Je vois aussi des visages et des yeux en souffrances ou absents ( malades psychiatriques ? )
    Merci pour ce partage et ce travail de recherche qui doit être passionnant !
    Bon dimanche à vous .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Merci, Pierrette! My research was inconclusive, but Russian visitors to the blog have said that they think the photo was taken at a military hospital, and that the men were most likely Russian. I do enjoy investigating these old photos, even when the search doesn’t lead to a clear answer. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. Have a great week! Brad

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