The 1918 Flu Pandemic In Russia

I’m a historian by training and even if I’m not officially using my degree (I mean, aside from the writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills I learned while completing my degree—I say this to emphasize that humanities degrees do help you in the workplace, everyone!), I love encountering random historical things. I mean, there’s a reason this blog is called Fluent Historian. I wouldn’t have called it that and kept that name if I weren’t a huge history buff.

Anyway, one of my recent discoveries is a fascinating photo essay on The Atlantic called The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Photos From a Century Ago. It contains thirty black-and-white photos from 1918 and 1919, when the so-called Spanish Flu swept across the world and killed 20 to 40 million people. That’s more than the casualties of World War I (15 million). That could be more than World War II (66 million) as well (it’s hard to tell since casualty figures for World War II vary, as do the figures for World War I)*. Nevertheless, it’s a ton of people.

The photo that caught my attention is the second one. Here’s a direct link to it. And here it is, below.

Courtesy of the National Archives

According to the article, the caption from the National Archives reads: “February, 1919. U.S. Army at Archangel Front, Russia. Funeral of member of crew of U.S.S. Ascutney. Three members died in Archangel and many were sick with influenza.”

As morbid as this sounds, I find that to be so fascinating. For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the Russian Civil War as I am (and that’s probably most of you, because my obsession knows no bounds! 😉 ), that picture is from the doomed Allied intervention in Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. After Lenin and his nasty band of followers seized power in 1917, the Russian Civil War broke out. You see, a large amount of people realized the Bolsheviks and their leadership, especially Lenin, were a bunch of nasty pieces of work and didn’t want to be ruled by such people. During the war, the (largely) pro-monarchist Whites fought the Reds (Bolsheviks). There were also the anarchist Greens, the anarchist Blacks of Ukraine, and even a group called the Blues. As you can see, identifying yourself by a color was all the rage.

Anyway, Allied forces also intervened in the war, though I would argue their involvement was too little, too late. The flu pandemic was sweeping the world during this time—even though I know about both the Spanish flu and the Russian Civil War, I hadn’t specifically thought of them as occurring at the same time, even though they obviously did. And as we can see from the photo above, American soldiers were sent to fight in Russia, with some dying and being buried there. Just a fascinating bit of history for you this week.

*Note: Casualty figures for the flu come from this Stanford site. The ones for World War I and World War II come from Matthew White’s excellent book Atrocities.

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