Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Nurses across Borders: Displaced Russian and Soviet Nurses after World War I and World War II

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Nurses across Borders: Displaced Russian and Soviet Nurses after World War I and World War II

Article excerpt

Abstract. Russian and Soviet nurse refugees faced myriad challenges attempting to become registered nurses in North America and elsewhere after the World War II. By drawing primarily on International Council of Nurses refugee files, a picture can be pieced together of the fate that befell many of those women who left Russia and later the Soviet Union because of revolution and war in the years after 1917. The history of first (after World War I) and second (after World War II) wave émigré nurses, integrated into the broader historical narrative, reveals that professional identity was just as important to these women as national identity. This became especially so after World War II, when Russian and Soviet refugee nurses resettled in the West. Individual accounts become interwoven on an international canvas that brings together a wide range of personal experiences from women based in Russia, the Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere. The commonality of experience among Russian nurses as they attempted to establish their professional identities highlights, through the prism of Russia, the importance of the history of the displaced nurse experience in the wider context of international migration history.

Many readers, whether historians of Soviet Russia or not, are familiar with the first great wave of Russian emigration during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). The conditions of war and revolution led to a flood of émigrés to many parts of Europe, China, North America, and beyond. With the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, many of these émigrés became "stateless"-a status many retained throughout their lives or until they finally received citizenship in another country after World War II.1 This article focuses on Russian and Soviet nurses because their experience opens a window into what could be described as a unique chapter in migration history. The peculiar Russian and Soviet historical experience highlights a range of problems that arose once these displaced persons sought employ- ment as nurses.

Rather than focus exclusively on World War II, however, this article also provides a retrospective historical analysis of Russian nurse migration and transmigration that spans the period from just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the resettlement of displaced persons during the 1950s and 1960s. The full context of the processes of war and revolution, as well as broader international political, social, and cultural developments-especially those pertaining to the nursing profession-facilitates a greater understand- ing of the conditions in which ordinary Russian and Soviet citizens who were nurses coped with the immense changes in the first half of the 20th century. It also highlights important issues such as statelessness, professional status, transnational migration, and their impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.

The first years of the 20th century in Russia were turbulent ones. The 1905 revolution, World War I, abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, February Revo- lution (February 1917), and Bolshevik Revolution (October 1917), followed by the civil war (1917-1922), created conditions of extreme political, social, and economic instability and dislocation. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir I. Lenin, were in power and rallying the worker and peasant masses against their ideological enemies-the "bourgeois" classes. Nurses, who had until then been closely associated with religion and aristocratic patrons-and in fact were called "Sisters of Mercy" (sestry wiiloserdiya)-were in a vulnerable posi- tion once the socialist state was declared. During the Russian Civil War, "Red" Bolshevik forces fought against "White" forces (an assortment of generally anti-Bolshevik groups including former Tsarist military officers and "foreign interventionists"). Nurses fought on both sides, whether as Sisters of Mercy or Bolshevik "red sisters."

The first wave of emigration occurred during and after the civil war, owing, among other things, to the defeat of the White armies, political insta- bility, and worsening economic and social conditions. …

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