Mourning deaths and constructing afterlives in the Red Army at war

Authored by: Steven G. Jug

The Routledge Handbook of Death and the Afterlife

Print publication date:  June  2018
Online publication date:  June  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138682160
eBook ISBN: 9781315545349
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter examines the development of soldiers’ ideas and practices about frontline death as distinct without losing all connection to peacetime precedents. Drawing from scholarship on death and mourning, memory, gender, subjectivity, and combat motivation, this chapter analyzes Red Army troops’ and propagandists’ divergent responses to frontline deaths in war. Focusing on death at the front, this chapter adapts the approach of death studies scholar Tony Walter, who cautions that scholars must ‘look not only at the beliefs about life after death, but also the social and bodily context in which such beliefs are or are not plausible’ (Walter, 1996). Accordingly, this chapter is organized around those three categories after a brief sketch of the prewar context of beliefs and treatment of bodies for a particular social group: Soviet political and military elites. This chapter unfolds in four parts. First, it considers bodily context through wartime burial organization. Second, this chapter explores contrasting descriptions of slain soldiers’ bodies in propaganda and actual burial practices of frontline combatants. Third, this chapter analyzes Red Army beliefs about death through the mourning or lack of it in response to different types of frontline death, with further emphasis on the divergence between propaganda and the rank-and-file. Fourth, this chapter engages the social dynamics implicit in burial and belief-development by investigating how soldiers produced symbolic afterlives for comrades by writing condolence letters and vowing revenge within them. This study treats the wartime context as crucial to understanding the difference in beliefs as well as practices, since soldiers’ distinct position as regular witnesses of death in battle set them apart from both propagandists and family members at home.

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