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The Sisters of Mercy

August 9, 2011

University of York – by Shane O’Rourke

The first shots of the Crimean War brutally demolished the austere façade of order, authority and discipline that Nicholas I had painstakingly constructed in Russia over the previous 30 years. The war mercilessly exposed the rottenness of the entire Nikolaevan system. In a particularly acute and bloody fashion, the rottenness was evident in the army’s medical service, which collapsed under the strain. The military hospitals – corrupt, incompetent and deadly – encapsulated Nicholas’s Russia. St Petersburg society was shocked by the stories of suffering emanating from the military hospitals in the Crimea, above all from Sevastapol, which achieved iconic status during the long siege.

A Russian hospital at Sevastopol. After E A Goodall, 1855. Wellcome Library

A Russian hospital at Sevastopol. After E A Goodall, 1855. Wellcome Library

Despite the shock and the manifest incompetence of the government, the upper echelons of society could only watch impotently as the suffering continued. Thirty years of authoritarian rule had effectively crushed any societal initiatives. In the midst of this paralysis, one woman, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, boldly issued a call for volunteer nurses to go to the Crimea. She and sympathisers in the medical profession set about coordinating the recruitment, organisation and dispatch of nurses to the war zone. These women, known as the Sisters of Mercy, made a signal contribution to the army medical service and became a permanent feature of the army.

Elena’s contribution to the foundations of the Sisters of Mercy has never been properly investigated, nor has there been a major assessment of the role of the Sisters of Mercy in the Crimean campaign. In addition, Elena’s call for volunteers had ramifications far beyond the important sphere of military health. It audaciously trampled over gender, class and political boundaries. It was the harbinger of the new order to be introduced by Alexander II, who came to the throne in the midst of the war. One of the assumptions that lay behind the reforms was a more involved, active citizenry. This was to be a gradual process whereby the citizenry, or at least the educated portion of it, would be invited to cooperate in the development of the society. This was a fundamental change in the ethos of a Russian state that up to this point had regarded any independent initiative from society as sedition and had treated it accordingly. Elena’s call for volunteers therefore represented a deep break with Russian tradition, and its implications went far beyond the stated objective of providing nurses for the army.

Shane O’Rourke is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, University of York.

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