During the First World War, heroes and soldiers who “sacrificed their lives for the Fatherland” were seen ambiguously in various segments of Russian society. The article analyzes the representation of those fallen at the two poles of Russian culture: in the official discourse generated by the high and middle class urban ‘educated society’ and in the ‘common’ discourse of villagers and urban dwellers who were culturally close to them. The study draws on official accounts, periodicals, popular literature, folklore (songs, poems, laments), peasant’s letters, and recorded conversations.
The official patriotic discourse sacralized and romanticized the images of the fallen heroes. In the traditional rural culture, attitudes towards the death on the battlefield and the posthumous fate of those fallen were articulated within different discourses, to which the binary opposition “hero” vs. “not hero” was not central. Here, the war victims were often regarded as needless sacrifices. Not only were they believed to be lost forever for their loved ones and for the communities they had belonged to, but also as disadvantaged and facing trouble in their afterlife. However, at both poles the ideas were changing in the course of the war. In the official ‘romantic-heroic’ discourse, the emphasis initially was on heroic deeds of brave individuals and gradually shifted towards the image of anonymous, sublime and tragic mass sacrifice, producing a cult of fallen soldiers. The warfare techniques changed, and the widespread use of weapons of mass destruction and of longrange artillery restricted the individuals’ opportunities for showing courage and led to depersonalization of heroes. This depersonalization crisis was resolved in the official discourse by way of a gradual equalization of “heroes” and “the fallen”.
The ‘popular’ front-line discourse took a rapid way from peasant fatalism and religiously motivated self-sacrificing victimhood, which was involuntary and not reflected upon, toward cynical and cold-blooded desacralization and depreciation of this sacrifice. These two discourses had little in common besides the religious motivation and the rhetoric of heroism. They were inherently different in terms of contents and articulation intensity.
In a revised form, both discourses were later to be used by the Bolsheviks to compromise patriotism in Tsarist Russia and to develop Soviet rituals for honoring the “soldiers of the revolution”.