To search and to remember: Denis Andreevich von Meck about a project "Immortal Regiment of the First World War"

23:26 28.06.2022 •

Heroes of war years live in songs, poems, novels and memoirs of contemporaries. but, perhaps, they are closest to us in the ranks of the Immortal Regiment. Denis Andreevich von Meck, coordinator of the movement and President of the International Charitable Foundation named after Nadezhda von Meck, tells us about the project "Immortal Regiment of the First World War”, its meaning for the country and the world.

 

- How did the idea of creating an Immortal Regiment of the First World War appear first? Which public and scientific organizations supported this initiative?

- Everyone knows the Immortal Regiment of the Great Patriotic War, which is infinitely dear to all patriots of Russia. It is encouraging to see that the life of heroes of those years continues, among other things, thanks to development of the civil-patriotic movement. I find it important as well to remember the first global military conflict of 1914-1918 - the Great or "forgotten" War. It was very interesting in many aspects and was actively studied by Soviet historians through the prism of a new ideology. Of course, there are also works of emigrants which are still largely unknown to a wide audience. Nowadays, new scientific and popular books on this topic appear all the time, memoirs are published, archival records are unsealed. Moreover, in the era of digital museums, libraries and archives it is much easier to find information about your ancestors than 20-30 years ago. I think that the Immortal Regiment of the First World War will help us to get to know our homeland better which means that we will be even more proud of it.

As for organizations, so for the moment my initiative has found understanding in the Moscow branch of the Russian Military Historical Society (RMHS) which holds a thematic event for several years on the first of August - the day of remembrance of Russian soldiers who died in the First World War. Everything is usually very solemn, with the participation of young people, historians, veterans and representatives of the Ministry of Defense.

- When and where did the first march of the movement participants take place? Which historic events is this place associated with?

- The event took place on the first of August last year, but it would not be quite right to call it a march since only I came with a portrait. I wanted to remember Attal Nikolaevich von Meck, an officer of the Preobrazhensky Life-Guards Regiment who gave his life for the Fatherland during the Brusilov Offensive. The participants of the meeting gathered in Memorial Park complex of the heroes of the First World War (Sokol district) where the Moscow City Fraternal Cemetery of the victims of the First World War (destroyed during the Soviet years) was located. I cannot state that such events have never taken place before, but in any case I hope that there will be more and more participants in the Immortal Regiment of the "forgotten" war every year.

 

- Yes, heroes are alive as long as they are remembered…What does the Immortal Regiment of the First World War project mean for you personally? Which of your ancestors took part in the fighting or served their Motherland behind the front line?

- The lives of many of my closest ancestors are inseparable from the First World War. Some of them volunteered for the front, some decided to get special military education and some spared no effort and money for medical service. I was lucky to find in the file of the Russian State Military Historical Archive (RSMHA) a list of documents about my ancestors’ presentation with awards from the Russian Red Cross. Unfortunately, the documents themselves were lost, but the surnames, names of ambulance trains, geographical names, awards and other details valuable for a researcher can be read quite clearly. There is a true story behind each record worthy of eternal memory and compatriots’ respect. My great-great-grandfather Nikolai Karlovich von Meck was appointed a special commissioner for supplying the army with provisions and did a first class job without exaggeration. Almost all products for the army, especially perishable ones, ran out on the territory of the European part of the Russian Empire already in the first year of the war, and it turned out to be vital to arrange their transportation from Siberia. While fulfilling the state task Nikolai Karlovich created at least seven huge cold storage warehouses with unique equipment, and the best expert of the country -Mikhail Trofimovich Zarochentsev who was hired for the Moscow-Kazan railway helped him. In addition, at the initiative of Nikolai Karlovich, about two thousand "glacier" (refrigeration) wagons transporting products to the front were built. He also equipped a warehouse at the Kazan railway station, and I find reports on its activities simply amazing. About two million units of things necessary for soldiers in the trenches (bandages, clothing items etc.) were sent to the active army already in the first year of work. Heading one of the largest transport enterprises in Russia, Nikolai Karlovich successfully adapted it to military needs. For example, in Murom, he converted workshops into an enterprise for repair and construction of armored trains. It became a large plant (now JSC Muromteplovoz) in the Soviet years which continues to grow and develop. Using all available resources, Nikolai Karlovich conducted tests of armored vehicles on his railway, organized training of medical assistance dogs in Prozorovka (now Kratovo). The first "graduates" were taken to the active army by one of his sons, Mark Karlovich von Meck, who became a combat officer. He produced shells at his own factories and developed technical instructions for other enterprises adapted to military needs. Besides, representatives of the von Meck family handed over a large number of trucks and cars to the army, and Nikolai Karlovich's son Attal was enlisted as a volunteer in an army mechanized section due to his significant driving experience which was quite rare at that time. Already during the war he realized that the country needed officers more than drivers and got accelerated training in the Page Corps[1]. In December 1915 Attal Nikolaevich became a lieutenant of the Preobrazhensky Life-Guards Regiment known for its heroism during the Brusilov Offensive, and on July 15th, 1916 he was killed in his first battle near the village of Trysten. Thanks to the assistance of Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna the body of the officer faithful to his duty was taken from the battlefield and buried in the territory of the parish church of his parent’s estate Voskresenskoye.

- Probably, the words "... someone puts on a saber, and we put on love[2]” are about such officers. Love for home, compatriots, Motherland – big and small…

- Love for the Motherland manifests itself in different ways, but it is always about actions. For example, the personal Secretary of Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, Vladimir Vladimirovich von Meck invested a lot of work in the development of scouting in Russia continuing the diligence of Alexander Karlovich von Meck, chairman of the Moscow Society for contribution to physical development. He became one of the founders and vice–chairman of the "Society for the promotion of the organization of Young Scouts of Moscow" ("Russian Scout"). Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's brother Ippolit, a retired general who worked with Nikolai Karlovich von Meck on the board of the railway was involved in the initiative as well. It is interesting that the scout classes were held on the territory of the Moscow-Kazan railway where Nikolai Karlovich began to build a garden city for his employees shortly before the outbreak of the war (this was the beginning of the construction of Zhukovsky). In addition, within the framework of one of his enterprises with about forty thousand employees he established an anti-alcohol commission with local sobriety committees which reminded society of its duty to the Motherland in their own way. And even before the outbreak of the First World War, Nikolai Karlovich opened an agronomic "university" on wheels which trained more than fifty thousand peasants in seven provinces in just one year. The initiative turned out to be very useful since during the war every farmer had to do the work of two or sometimes four men. And the new knowledge literally saved people from hunger.

Returning to Vladimir Vladimirovich von Meck I would like to note that heroes can be found not only on the battlefield. During the Russian-Japanese War (1904-1905) he built an ambulance train using his own money, supervised placement of wounded in Japan and Manchuria. After the outbreak of the First World War Empress Alexandra Feodorovna invited him to lead all her medical trains, warehouses and flying detachments. And in 1917 the Russian Provisional Government appointed Vladimir Vladimirovich von Meck as the head of all military trains of the military department: his knowledge, energy and experience impressed the new government very much. His wife Varvara, cousins Xenia and Feofani Bennigsen served as nurses on ambulance trains taking care not of their own, but of other people's lives, cousin George von Meck led trains and warehouses belonging to Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, Count Emmanuel Bennigsen was a special commissioner of the Russian Red Cross Society.

 

- Yes, heroic feats are sometimes imperceptible...Where would it be worthwhile to try and find information about relatives who participated in the First World War? Are there any public archives as well as electronic ones?

- It is not difficult to make an appointment to visit the Russian State Military Historical Archive (RSMHA) located near Bauman Moscow State Technical University (MSTU). It is much more difficult to understand where to start your search if you have never visited an archive before. RSMHA consultants are usually quite responsive, but I would recommend collecting data for your request carefully. It is important to clarify in which troops, where and in what rank your ancestor could serve, how he distinguished himself in the service, where he received special military education. Numerous forums are also very useful as people there can help you to determine a branch of military, approximate years and awards even based on a single photo from your family archive. Valuable resources, such as the National Electronic Library of the Russian Federation (нэб.рф) and the State Catalog of the Museum Fund of Russia (госкаталог.рф), are also available to everyone without exception. These digital archives contain unique documents including copies of newspapers and magazines from the First World War known only to profile specialists. There are also digitized reports of the Russian Red Cross and similar organizations where you can just enter a surname in the search bar and then everything depends on how common it is. Unfortunately, the name and patronymic were rarely indicated at that time, so you may find a namesake instead of your ancestor. It makes sense to work in electronic archives every month since new data appears quite often. And our digital age also offers a technology invaluable for historical research: facial recognition in photographs. Some people consider it to be an invasion of privacy, but it can really help to find a close person among several dozen colleagues and even meet distant relatives unexpectedly. In my personal opinion, this technology is very promising for history as a science.

- It seems that everyone can make their own historical discovery, even if not global…

- Of course, and not only with the help of archivists, but also thanks to "occasional" meetings with experienced researchers or even experts in military history. Despite silence and general atmosphere of concentration, it is possible to find benevolent like-minded people in the archives who are ready to suggest how to conduct a search most effectively.

 

- Is the younger generation interested in the project, in particular history students? Did any of them take part in last year's march?

- Eighty percent of the participants of such events are young people open to new knowledge. No doubt some of them choose the First World War as the topic of an abstract, a thesis or a future dissertation. At the same time, there are grants and competitions available not only to history students. I published a work prepared by a Bauman Moscow State Technical University student dedicated to the fate of Attal Nikolaevich von Meck at my website http://von-meck.info and must say that it is brilliant in every sense (http://von-meck.info/von-meck.info/222). Maxim Sinitsyn did a great job in the archives and prepared an article at a professional level without any special education. I learned about this talented young man only when his work had already passed the competitive selection.

 

- Are marches of the Immortal Regiment of the First World War held in other cities of Russia and, if so, in which ones?

- I know for sure that such marches took place in different cities, for example, in Kaliningrad, but it is difficult to say where else and how many people joined them. I believe it is important for participants of the events to get acquainted, keep in touch, strengthen information, material and organizational basis of the movement, particularly with the help of competitions and grants. However, five years ago there was a serious discussion in the media whether the "Immortal Regiment" should be related only to the Great Patriotic War.

-How would you describe the international meaning of the project? Are there any examples of how historical memory brings countries and nations closer together?

- In my opinion, the Immortal Regiment of the First World War can unite many people far beyond the borders of our country. First of all, the Russian Empire was geographically much larger than today's Russia, and secondly, there are many descendants of Russian officers and other participants of the First World War who would like to restore the memory of their ancestors abroad. Modern technologies give us a chance to make discoveries literally on any continent!

In general, the international meaning of the First World War is an extensive and ambiguous topic. As you know, there were many immigrants from Germany on the territory of the Russian Empire in those years, including government officials and senior officers. Due to anti-German sentiment some Russian citizens had to change their surnames or even patronymics, and so did my ancestors. It is worth mentioning that the enemies of Russia were called Germanic people in order not to offend Russian Germans who were considered local since the time of Empress Catherine II. Another interesting historical example is the cavalry "Wild Division" which included not only Russian nobles (including Mark Nikolaevich von Meck[3]), but also two foreign princes - Persian and French. And finally, the First World War destroyed four empires: Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German. Memory of this war certainly brings nations closer together at least because it divided their destinies into "before" and "after".

 

- Could you please tell us a little about plans for the development of the movement? Is it possible to create a website like https://www.moypolk.ru/ or an electronic chronicle of the First World War in Russian?

- There are several websites dedicated to the First World War at the moment, but the main thing is to choose a wise development strategy. One can expand the portal of the Immortal Regiment of the Great Patriotic War, add information about the new movement to available historical websites or create a separate portal entirely dedicated to heroes of the First World War. It is most important for society to declare the need to remember forgotten heroes and their feats, to actively seek support not only from RMHS, but also from government organizations.

 

- "No one is immortal, everything will fade away, but the good name lives on forever”,- said a Persian poet and thinker Saadi many centuries ago. At the end of our talk I would like to ask: what can people far from history and archival work do for the sake of the memory of heroes and their good names in your opinion?

- Every "small" thing is important here. Those who have not yet found their heroes in archive files or digital catalogs can participate in the project as well. Reporting on radio and television, editing articles, maintaining websites and groups in social networks or at least publishing information on your own page… All this will tell millions of people why names of heroes of the Immortal Regiment of the First World War are dear to society.

 

- Denis Andreevich, thank you for a detailed description of the project and a great historical overview. I hope that thanks to active and concerned participants of the movement the Immortal Regiment will go around the world in the future.

 

The interview text was prepared by Irina Chepaykina.

 

[1] A military academy in Imperial Russia which prepared sons of the nobility and of senior officers for military service.

[2] A song from a Soviet movie “The Gorgon’s Head” (music by Alexander Zhurbin, lyrics by Vladimir Shlensky).  

[3] http://von-meck.info/personalii/mecks/mark-nikolaevich