Red Corpses: A Microhistory of Mass Graves, Dead Bodies, and Their Public Uses

Keywords: death studies, mass graves, civil war, Urals


What happens to corpses produced by armed conflicts? This question may seem simple: most bodies are buried, more or less quickly, in mass graves. However, the time between death and the moment when the human remains are inhumed deserves to be studied. This article focuses on the situation in the Urals at the end of the Civil War (1918–1919). The fights between the Bolsheviks and their opponents resulted in many casualties. The Bolsheviks gave a fundamental, and rather unusual, importance to the bodies of ‘their’ dead and attached a specific political significance to them. They developed a politics of corpses, using them in public space to assert their power. The bodies of dead Red fighters were brought back to symbolic places, resulting in impressive public funerals across the city of Yekaterinburg in 1918. Their burial sites became contested territories, protected by the authorities but derided by their opponents. After their final victory in 1919, Bolsheviks displayed their dead as proof of the cost of their struggle. Mutilated bodies were shown to carry the stigmata of sacrifice. The inventory and identification of victims became a central and immediate requirement. Inquiry commissions questioned witnesses and looked for mass burials and abandoned corpses. Mass graves were searched, cadavers exhumed and made visible. The public use of corpses was, however, not limited to identification purposes. The display of dead bodies, which is not unusual in Orthodox culture, took on a special political dimension. There was mass dissemination of the sight of death through these public monuments and the use of photography. We must especially stress the topographical importance of the displayed death: the exhumed bodies were used to tell of victory, to make control of the territory explicit. The memorialisation of some mass graves completed the process. In Yekaterinburg, but also in more distant localities, monuments were erected. They were meant to materialise the sacrifice of so-called ‘communards’ and the peculiar place of the Civil War in the narrative of the new Bolshevik regime, honouring the memory of the dead and mobilising the living. 

Author Biography

François-Xavier Nérard

Dr., Maitre de conférences en histoire contemporaine, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

17, rue de la Sorbonne, 75005, Paris, France.

ORCID 0000-0003-1397-1554


Anichkov, V. P. (1998). Yekaterinburg – Vladivostok (1917–1922) [Yekaterinburg – Vladivostok (1917–1922)]. Moscow, Russkii put’. 364 p.

Arzel, L., Foliard, D. (2020). Tristes trophées. Objets et restes humains dans les conquêtes coloniales (XIXe – début XXe siècle). In Monde(s). No. 17, pp. 9‒31.

El Kenz, D., Nérard, F.-X. (2011). Commémorer les victimes en Europe : XVIe‒XXIe siècles. Seyssel, Champ Vallon. 339 p.

Fureix, E. (2013). La France des larmes : deuils politiques à l’âge romantique (1814‒1840). Seyssel, Champ Vallon. 515 p.

Ganin, A. V. (2006). Ataman A. I. Dutov [Ataman A. I. Dutov]. Moscow, Tsentrpoligraf. 622 p.

GASO [State Archive of Sverdlovsk Region]. Stock R-511. List 1. Dos. 82, 235.

Iskra [Iskra]. (1865). No. 11.

Johnston, Т. (2011). Being Soviet. Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Press. 240 p.

Kamyshlovskie izvestiya [Kamyshlovskie Izvestiya]. (2018). July 26.

Koselleck, R. (2011). Les monuments aux morts, lieu de formation de l’identité des survivants. L’expérience de l’histoire. Paris, Hautes Etudes, Gallimard, Le Seuil, pp. 135–160.

Laqueur, T. W. (2015). The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton Univ. Press. 711 p.

Medvedev, A. I. (1960). Po dolinam i po vzgor’yam [In the Valleys and on the Hills]. Moscow, Voenizdat. 152 p.

Medvedev, A. I. (1964). Po dolinam i po vzgor’yam [In the Valleys and on the Hills]. Sverdlovsk, Sredne-Ural’skoe knizhnoe izdatel’stvo. 219 p.

Muzei istorii Ekaterinburga [Museum of the History of Yekaterinburg]. Ed. khr. 1075.

Nérard, F.-X. (2014). Détruire les croyances en dévoilant les reliques : un épisode de l’iconoclasme bolchevique après 1917. In Fureix, E. (Ed.). Iconoclasme et révolutions de 1789 à nos jours. Seyssel, Champ Vallon, pp. 222–231.

Nérard, F.-X. (2017). Of Time and Things: Uses of Objects from Soviet Mass Graves. In Les Cahiers Sirice. Vol. 2. No. 19, pp. 77–92.

Nora, P. (1989). Between Memory and History : les lieux de mémoire. In Representations. No. 26, pp. 7–24.

Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. N. Haven, Yale Univ. Press. 389 p.

Slukhi v Rossii XIX‒XX vekov. Neofitsial’naya kommunikatsiya i “krutye povoroty” rossiiskoi istorii [Rumours in Russia in the 19th‒20th Centuries. Non-Official Communication and the “Big Twists” of Russian History]. (2011). Chelyabinsk, Kamennyi poyas. 362 p.

Smele, J. D. (2015). The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World. Oxford, N. Y., Oxford Univ. Press. 423 p.

Smith, S. A. (2009). Bones of Contention: Bolsheviks and the Struggle against Relics 1918–1930. In Past and Present. Vol. 204. No. 4, pp. 155–194. DOI 10.1093/pastj/gtp023.

Strod, I. Ya. (1961). V yakutskoi taige [In the Yakutsk Taiga]. Moscow, Voenizdat. 185 p.

Traverso, E. (2018). Mélancolie de gauche : la force d’une tradition cachée (XIXe – XXIe siècle). Paris, La découverte. 232 p.

TsDOOSO [Centre for Documentation of Public Organisations of Sverdlovsk Region]. Stock 41. List 1. Dos. 126.

Ural’skii rabochii [Ural'skii Rabochii]. (1918). Febr. 17, 19; Apr. 7. (1919). Aug. 6, 12. (1924). May 25.

Veber, M. I. (2014). Antibol’shevistskoe povstanchestvo na Urale v gody Grazhdanskoi voiny (1918–1919) [The Antibolshevik Rebellions in the Urals during the Years of the Civil War (1918–1919)]. Dis. … kand. ist. nauk. Yekaterinburg, S. n. 309 p.

Vlast’ naroda [Vlast' Naroda]. (1918). September 1.

Znamensky, P., Gallice, G. (2010). Sous les plis du drapeau rouge. Paris, Ed. du Rouergue. 348 p.

How to Cite
Nérard, F.-X. (2021). Red Corpses: A Microhistory of Mass Graves, Dead Bodies, and Their Public Uses. Quaestio Rossica, 9(1), 138–154.
Problema voluminis