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

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

1915, Diary of S. An-sky: A Russian Writer at the Eastern Front — A Roads Classic

Translated from Russian by Polly Zavadivker
Indiana University Press, 2016
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Firsthand information about the Great War’s Eastern Front from a Russian perspective has always been at a premium primarily because of the illiteracy of the vast majority of the tsar’s soldiers. For years, researchers had only the writings of the various commanding officers such as Brusilov, Gurko, or Denikin to gain a picture of the hardships that existed from Riga to the Romanian border, but these works were a bit tainted by the sour grapes of defeat and revolution. Maria Bochkaryova, commander of the famous Women’s Battalion of Death, held one of the few front fighter’s views of the war, but it was still liberally salted with images that were too heroic. In this work we have something unique: excerpts from a diary of a Russian civilian engaged in dealing with the problems of civilians in the zones of war and occupation in 1915 Galicia when tsarist battalions were ascendant to Austro-Hungarian forces. Before I can continue the review, there are a few facts that I have to make clear in order to give the reader a better understanding of the demeanor of the times as well as stimulate curiosity for the overall story. I strongly recommend a little research along the areas briefly covered below. The translator provides copious notes explaining who people are and defines certain events as they relate to the text, but you can get lost without a little knowledge in brief.

S. An-sky (Third from Left) with a Group of Fellow
Jewish-Russian Intellectuals

First of all, there is the author: S. An-sky is a penname for Shloyme Zanvil Rapoport, a Jewish writer, ethnographer, and revolutionary who was born near Vilna in Lithuania in 1863. He was one of the few Jews afforded an education in tsarist Russia. He was exiled from Russia around 1899, during which time he traveled to Paris and Switzerland. In 1901 he was instrumental in establishing the Russian Social Revolutionary Party, or SR. In 1905, back in Russia, he began a lifelong project of recording and preserving Russian Jewish culture. He made numerous trips to the Jewish Pale in which he talked with residents about their lives and traditions. He was a proponent of establishing Yiddish as an official language, and at a later date, he tried to gather support among the Russian Jewish leaders for the Jewish League which was formed under British auspices to fight for the Allies in Palestine. He was exiled from Bolshevik Russia after the SR uprising in 1919.

Second, there is the Jewish Pale. As most know, tsarist Russia was very anti-Semitic. Starting with the reign of Catherine the Great, the tsars tried to drive the Jews out of Russia; however, the acquisition of portions of the kingdom of Poland in the 18th century vastly increased the Jewish population within the empire and made the task of exclusion near impossible. As a consequence, the tsars decided to limit the area in which Jews could live. This area was loosely defined as existing from the Black Sea in the south to the Gulf of Riga in the north and from the western Ukraine to the borders with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Within that area, Jews had no political rights and were excluded from living in most cities. Jews lived for the most part in small villages and were not allowed to move without special permission. This segregation from Russian society perpetuated Jewish culture, which remained somewhat unchanged for nearly 200 years; however, attitudes towards Jews began to change in the early 20th century. The old traditions were in danger of being tainted. The culture was disappearing because of forced deportations and the influx of non-Jewish colonists in the Pale who took the place of those who left. S. An-sky saw a need to document the age-old culture for future generations.

Third, in Austria-Hungary the Jewish population had equal rights with any other ethnic group,  including owning property and government involvement. In Galicia, nearly 11 percent of the population was Jewish, with a third living in the cities engaged in various mercantile ventures. In addition, the Jewish population found a niche in government. Nearly 58 percent of the province’s civil servants were Jewish. In September 1914, tsarist soldiers invaded Galicia and occupied the province as far as Gorlice-Tarnow. Those who did not flee with the Austro-Hungarian armies were stripped of citizenship rights and the right to engage in business under the Russian occupation laws. This meant that commerce between cities and villages came to an end and the civil government and all its facilities, which included aid to the poor, ceased to exist. Furthermore, army commanders enforced a Russification of administration, schools, and commerce. Overnight, the Russian language replaced any other language.

A Russian General Visits a Hospital in Occupied Galicia

S. An-sky was an observer, and above all else, he listened to those who spoke to him. In his diary are reports of atrocities committed by both sides during the conflict and occupation of Galicia but primarily by the Russians. He does not voice opinions or philosophize about the abhorrent behaviors in his entries, although he does add the grains of salt to reports on occasion to show that there is some exaggeration on the part of the reporter. The reader also sees that the author is very nationalistic. What we can glean from the pages is how hard living from day to day was in the occupied area, especially for the Jewish populations who went from equal rights to none at all and became the subjects of government-directed suppression and Russian soldiers’ discrimination.

Examples are: under the orders of Russian area commanders Jews were not allowed any government jobs; Jewish shops and farms were looted and destroyed without compensation or criminal prosecution; Jewish men, women, and children were jailed, beaten, and murdered; whole Jewish villages were burned to the ground because of suspected spying activities. Rape was so rampant that funds were raised in Petrograd to open facilities to take care of victims; Jewish leaders were held as hostages even though there were equally patriotic Poles and Ruthenians; and, worst of all, the majority of the population became homeless because of the looting, murders, and burnings. The list goes on and on. The reader very clearly gets a picture of a countryside devoid of law, a real aftermath of an apocalypse. S. An-sky launched himself into this mess as a purveyor of charity from Jewish agencies, which had government patronage, in Russia. He distributed money and coordinating the shipment of necessary clothing, medical supplies and food to destitute populations

The Diary of S. An-sky is short, not in the tradition of other Russian works of thousands of pages, and to the point. The first portion of the diary minutely portrays another level of the war that so many researchers and writers miss: the civilian experience. It also shows how the tsarist government was changing its attitude toward the Jewish population and the resistance to the changes by conservatives. It is well worth reading and considering in depth not only as a prelude to the Holocaust but for an understanding of the discrimination which existed in Eastern Europe. The second portion is less engaging since it deals with the author’s time in Petrograd trying to raise awareness of the Jewish problems in the occupied area and in inserting Jews into the political arena of the war government.

The reader will have to do some research into political and literary personalities of 1915 Russia as well as understand the shift in the government’s view on the Jewish question to follow some of these entries. As stated before, the translator does provide copious notes to help the reader navigate, but not all of them are conclusive. As an aside: S. An-sky’s other book, The Enemy at his Pleasure, published in 1920 after the author’s death as The Destruction of Galicia, is a more filled-in version of the diary. It also includes problems encountered as the Russians retreated in 1916–1917 and includes the results of the scorched earth policy observed by the Russian army.

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. Michael, thank you for this fine review. The book sounds most illuminating.
    I wonder how well annotated is _The Enemy at his Pleasure_.

  2. I really appreciate the introductory background information you supplied here, Michael. It's hard to imagine living under such circumstances. "The Enemy at his Pleasure" has been on my bookshelf for some time--now I plan to read it. Thank you!