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:
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.
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.
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.