Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Russian Nurse in War and Revolution: Memoirs, 1912-1922

by Tatiana Varnek 
translated by Kimball Worcester
Blurb, 2021
David F. Beer, Reviewer

Unidentified Frontline Nurse with Drozdovite Volunteer Army Unit, January 1918

This book opens with a full-page photograph of Tatiana Aleksandrovna Varnek, probably taken when she was in her early fifties. I was immediately struck by her face: that of an attractive woman who had seen much that was terrible but who had endured due to an innate strength, compassion, resilience, and sense of duty. Later in life she wrote down in Russian a detailed account of her experiences from 1912 to 1922, and fortunately for us these memoirs are now available in English through a very readable translation by Kimball Worcester.

Born in 1892 to an upper-class family, Tatiana Varnek enjoyed all the comforts and privileges of her pedigree in prewar Russia. Summers were spent in the Caucasus at her family’s estate and she was educated at a Women’s Gymnasium, finishing there in 1912. She might have continued to enjoy a relatively comfortable life while following her interest in drawing, but at the urging of a friend she “got carried away” and entered training to become a reservist nurse at the highly regarded and demanding Kaufman Community nursing school.

The 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War had revealed how the country might need professional nurses in the future, and 1914 was to prove how apt this foresight was. The demands of nursing school soon tested Tatiana’s resilience to the full, but she persisted—even persuading a younger brother at home to let her practice on him—and she was among the 50 percent of students who passed the final exams. Then began her hospital practicum, which weeded out even more would-be nurses:

In the first few days, many just couldn’t take it and left. We worked in the horrible Obukhovskaya Municipal Hospital. It was huge and so old it seemed that the walls had absorbed all the smells. The air was vile, poverty all around: the linens and blankets were old and grey, no comforts at all; it was impossible to get anything we needed. There weren’t even enough thermometers… After my first day at work, I went home and washed myself relentlessly, gargled cologne, and just couldn’t get rid of the disgusting hospital smell. I couldn’t even eat dinner [p. 3].

But her next sentence reveals the inner strength that was to serve her so well in the future: “Nevertheless, I kept on working.” Then she enjoyed a family vacation, was tempted to return to her drawing skills, yet as soon as war broke out and mass mobilization occurred, she decided without hesitation to serve as a nurse.

We now become almost breathless as we follow Tatiana’s adventures. Her nursing application is answered by “Come immediately.” From then on much of her life is spent around trains, either as a traveler or as a working nurse. Translator Kimball Worcester provides a helpful note (p. xi) on the "Railway War" carried out by the Russian Army. These were armored trains deployed to carry out warfare over the extensive railway system of the country. Such units necessitated care for the wounded and some trains were devoted to hospital work. Medical units also existed at some stations where doctors and nurses were posted. This system continued to some extent after the Revolution during the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the White Army—the latter being commonly referred to as the "Volunteer Army. "

At times we find Tatiana posted to a field hospital or an infirmary. With the retreat from Galicia many wounded were evacuated and what was sadly to become a common situation developed:

Suddenly an order came in…to come to the station for bandaging: the wounded had been hurriedly evacuated from all the frontline hospitals, infirmaries, and detachments in Galicia. There weren’t enough hospital trains, so they loaded them in freight trains and sent them off to the Lvov station, one train after another…As we bandaged the wounded from one train, another pulled up or was already waiting behind [p. 22].

At one point during the Brusilov Offensive she and another nurse are ordered to report immediately to Riga, not to a field hospital but to a huge Red Cross office building being used to accommodate casualties. This is what they faced:

. . . the casualties in the recent battles were terrible. All the hospitals were overflowing, and there weren’t enough medical trains, so the offices were littered with the wounded… There were so many wounded that they filled not just the corridors but also the wide staircase landings…mostly just lying on the floor, a few on stretchers [p. 35].

Conditions are even worse on the medical trains as the Russian front collapses. The nurses are assigned to a hospital train with shattered windows, no heat, and no washroom. An icy frost descends as they leave the station, and they find the train full of wounded lying on the floor. But, typical of her marvelous spirit, Tatiana tells us how they got to work right way with a "good attitude" and first separated the dead from the wounded and frostbitten. She then describes this arduous journey in detail (pp. 41-42).

The abdication of the tsar on 3 March 1917 caused considerable grief for these loyal nurses. The political situation reversed and the enemy became the Bolsheviks, but the need for nursing the wounded was as great as ever. Retreating trains are bombarded and attacked, no one is safe. Tatiana survives illness and bullets and continues her work. On 6 September 1918, she is assigned to a medical train which she is delighted to find is equipped like a hospital, with a "wonderful operating room" and a good surgeon (p. 135). But dying patients, terrible wounds, lice, and typhus will keep the nurses more than busy.

Tatiana, c. 1950 (?)

Civilian refugees now join the trains crammed with wounded fighters as the Red Army advances, and sick refugees make conditions inconceivably worse. Four patients are loaded into every two-person bunk and some nurses themselves become sick. On arrival at one station. . .

There were so many sick people that we could not unload our train… We tried to unload our patients at several Caucasus rail stations but were met everywhere with refusal… At one place they took a few. Many died on the way. We weren’t allowed into Mineralnye Vody, and we went back through the Caucasus, returning to Stavropol…The whole time we had to lock the cars so the delirious wouldn’t escape [p. 143-144].

Like so many, Tatiana finds herself joining family and others fleeing from the Communists. She eventually escapes through Constantinople and gets to Bulgaria. Even in retreat however, including a sea journey on an overcrowded ship, she does her best to take care of those in need. In exile she continues nursing, and her final entry in this amazing account simply states:

We went to Sofia and finally began to work on 20 August 1922. A grey, aimless life started, a battle for a piece of bread and nothing in our future. We were again refugees. It’s true, however, that we had the consolation of having stayed true to the army to the end and left only when it ceased to exist [p. 224].

She was true indeed, to her country and to her nursing profession. More than that—and this is frequently evident in her memoir—she had an energetic strength of character, an abiding concern for others, and the ability to always see good where good exists. Happily, after her war experiences she was to have a long life, marriage, and a son (p. 224).

She died in 1990, having left a gift to all of us through her memoirs of a terrible time, now available in English. I would love to have met her.

David F. Beer 


[The publication of Tatiana Varnek's memoir in English is with the gracious permission of the  Alexander Solzhenitsyn Russian Charitable Foundation (Moscow) and Russian Way Publishers (Moscow)

© Русский благотворительный фонд Александра Солженицына

© Издательство "Русский путь"]


  1. Splendid review! And an even more splendid and moving tribute to an extraordinary person! Thank you, Mr. Beer

  2. One of your best reviews. I too enjoyed this book and I recommend it to those of us who hunger for literature about the war on the Eastern front. Cheers

  3. Thanks for this fascinating story about this amazing woman!

  4. Another excellent review. Life just shows us that the real heroes are simple people that never give up.

  5. Thanks David, another book on an interesting topic, and an understudied perspective.

  6. Thank you to Kimball Worchester for her work in translating this memoir. It is obviously a labor of love giving the idiom and tempo the author intended.