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A Soldier’s Spoon

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Nikolai Donia became one of the over 34 million soldiers mobilized into the Red Army during World War II, and also one of more than 8.6 million to die. His family never saw his body and likely had only a mass grave to visit. They did, however, have his spoon.

Shortly before being killed defending Moscow in December of 1941, while convalescing from wounds, Donia gave his wife his spoon. He inscribed it with the dates of milestones in their life together, including the birth of their daughter in May of 1939 and son in July of 1941. That he gave her a spoon is telling, as it was one of the most valued items a soldier had and the only thing that officially belonged to them. Before Donia’s spoon became a relic—the last connection to a beloved husband and father who disappeared like so many others—it was a vital part of his day-to-day experience at the front. One soldier even quipped that “Without a spoon, just as without a rifle, it is impossible to wage war.”

Image of Russian soldier in tank eating food with a spoon. (Tanker senior sergeant E.P. Fёdorov eats in his tank, 1942. RGAKFD 0-57505.)
Tanker senior sergeant E.P. Fёdorov eats in his tank, 1942. RGAKFD 0-57505.

In my new book, The Stuff of Soldiers: A History of the Red Army in World War II Through Objects, I use a myriad of objects such as Donia’s spoon to tell the story of the war as never before. Each chapter takes a series of items to highlight the experience of soldiers during the war and show how a ragtag bunch of mostly amateurs defeated the Third Reich. Concentrating on stuff allows us to tell this story as never before. The immense diversity of the army, which included men and women, people aged 17 to 55, as well as people drawn from virtually all nationalities and backgrounds (including convicts, déclassé peasants and “former people”), meant that often the common material culture of soldiers was all that united these very different people. Due to the often paltry training soldiers received before being sent to the front (often as little as one month) the standard issue set of things was frequently all that separated soldiers from civilians. Mastering the use of these objects—how to shoot a rifle and dig a foxhole, but also how to wrap the lengths of cloth soldiers used in place of socks—was the process of becoming a soldier. Victory depended on learning to wear your tunic properly, use your weapon effectively, survive on sometimes substandard rations and excavate shelter from both enemy fire and the elements with a standard-issue spade.

Victory also depended on convincing soldiers, many of whom felt alienated from Soviet power, that this was their fight. Physical evidence of what fascism meant—mass graves, destroyed cities and villages, German diaries and snapshots documenting rape and murder—became central to propaganda efforts in the Red Army. Letters to and from the front were key to anchoring a soldier’s sense of self, allowing them to maintain connections with loved ones and make sense of the events they were engaged in.

The war led to a number of transformations, which objects bring into sharper focus. Looking at uniforms highlights how soldiers’ biographies were transformed by insignia and medals, which narrated their experiences at the front for all to see. They also showcase how the Soviet state rebranded itself as the inheritor of Russian military glory by adopting the uniform of the regime it had deposed. Following soldiers into the trenches they dug reveals how soldiers survived mechanized warfare and how the war became a crucial moment in urbanization, as foxholes evolved into cities with significant infrastructure. By focusing on trophies, we see how Soviet soldiers confronted the capitalist world and its incredible wealth in 1945 and how the USSR’s invitation to loot marked the Germans as a criminal, bourgeois nation. These are but a few of the revelations offered by The Stuff of Soldiers.

Brandon Schechter is an adjunct professor in the History Department and Harriman Institute at Columbia and a visiting scholar at The Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University. He is author of a chapter in Objects of War and The Stuff of Soldiers.

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