The history of the Russian Red Cross goes back to the middle of the XIX century when the Holy Cross Community of Sisters of Mercy (Krestovozdvizhenskaia obshchina sester miloserdija), the world’s first female medical organization that focused on care for the wounded and sick soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856), was opened in Saint Petersburg on November 05, 1854 during the Exaltation of the Holy Cross feast by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. That association was organized in the then capital of the Russian Empire on the initiative of the outstanding Russian surgeon Nikolay Pirogov (25.11.1810-05.12.1881). Between December 1854 and January 1856 more than 200 Russian nurses were employed in the Crimea.
After ratification of the First Geneva Convention by the Russian Emperor Alexander II in 1867 he approved the Statute of Society for the Wounded and Sick Warriors under the patronage of the Empress Maria Alexandrovna (May 03, 1867). Owing to the humane ideas accepted as the principles of that society, it attracted outstanding Russian scientists who began to shape it into an organization of the social masses. In 1879 that organization changed its name to the Russian Red Cross Society (Российское общество Красного Креста, РОКК). The Emperor, all the Great Princes and Princesses as well as many senior secular officials and representatives of the higher clergy became its honorary members.
The Russian Red Cross Society sent medical detachments to France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, to Ethiopia during the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-1896, and to South Africa during the Anglo-Transvaal (Boer) war of 1899-1902.
Soon after the October Revolution of 1917 the Chief Directorate of the Russian Red Cross Society was disbanded, its movable and immovable property as well as financial resources on its accounts were nationalized. Outcome of the work of the Committee for redeployment of the Russian Red Cross Society was reflected in the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic No.642 dated August 07, 1918 “On Russian Red Cross Society”. The document signed by Vladimir Lenin and Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich, Chief executive officer of the Council of People’s Commissars, and published on August 10, 1918 in the issue No.170 of the “Izvestia of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee”, particularly stipulated that “Council of People’s Commissars acknowledged the need to confirm that it attaches considerable importance to uninterrupted activities of the Russian Red Cross Society”, that “enjoys the patronage and protection of the highest governing institutions of the Republic”.
Six months after the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics was formed (December 30, 1922), representatives of the Red Cross societies of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Armenia and Georgia as well as of the Red Crescent of Azerbaijan signed a declaration on the establishment of the Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR on May 29, 1923 (Союз обществ Красного Креста и Красного Полумесяца СССР, СОКК и КП). That Union commonly known and hereinafter referred to as the Soviet Red Cross was a voluntary public organization responsible for cooperation with International Red Cross bodies; assistance to victims of natural hazards, disasters and military actions; prevention of various diseases; training of military sanitary personnel; assistance to medical service in care of the sick; blood donation propaganda.
Since mid-1920s numerous first-aid posts and obstetrical stations, mainly in remote and backward districts of Extreme North, Siberia and Central Asia, have been established by the Soviet Red Cross activists. Extensive network of childcare institutions, e.g. outpatient clinics, camps, sanatoria, playgrounds and nurseries started operations also at that time.
“Regulations on the Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR” was adopted by the Council of People’s Commissars on September 01, 1925. In the same year Young pioneer camp Artek (“Артек”), the most popular and prestigious summer vacation camp of the Soviet Union, was built by funds of the Central Committee of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (the largest republic of the USSR in 1922-1991). The Soviet Red Cross initiated the establishment of the air medical service that contributed to timely medical care for thousands of sick persons.
The Soviet Red Cross was officially recognized by the International Committee of the Red Cross on January 03, 1928 and joined League of Red Cross Societies in 1934.
According to the Charter of the Soviet Red Cross adopted on February 17, 1934, All-Union congress was declared the supreme ruling body of the Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and its delegates were elected at congresses of republican societies. All-Union congress that convened once every four years, elected Executive Committee of the Soviet Red Cross as well as Auditing commission.
Since its establishment, Executive Committee of the Soviet Red Cross was engaged in arrangement of mass medical defense training of population, instruction of medical personnel, stocking of equipment for Red Cross units in the event of a war, as well as in special tutoring of treatment facilities personnel of Red Army units and formations. Since 1927, one of the forms of health education activities led by the Executive Committee was establishment of study groups, sanitary squads and sanitary posts at various institutions and enterprises. Special paramilitary training of nurses started in 1928. First air ambulances were built at the request and by funds of the Soviet Red Cross in 1927, and by the end of 1934 air ambulances squadrons and units were raised in Moscow and Soviet republics.
Executive Committee of the Soviet Red Cross supervised Central committees of Red Cross in each republic of the USSR, which in turn directed activities of territorial, regional and municipal committees of Red Cross. Institutions and enterprises were directed to raise primary cells of the Soviet Red Cross. Municipal committees of Red Cross of Moscow and Leningrad were placed under the direct leadership of the Executive Committee of the Soviet Red Cross.
At one time or another, Executive Committee apparatus consisted of Presidium secretariat and various departments responsible for organizing issues, sanitary and health-improving, medical defense, medical sanitary issues, assistance to political émigrés, external relations, search for Soviet and foreign citizens, etc. Besides that, Executive Committee structure included several separate divisions, e.g. construction, training, as well as tracing bureau, lottery committee and registry.
In 1930s a large number of industrial enterprises including sanitary fittings plants, optical instruments and devices manufacturing factories, spinning and weaving plants, hairdressing salons and bathhouses had been run by Executive Committee of the Soviet Red Cross. It also managed numerous sanatoria, holiday houses and other medical treatment and preventive care facilities.
Soviet Red Cross activities became incredibly significant in the late 1930s in an increasingly complex and competitive international environment. That was the time when the primary mission of the organization was shifted to the strengthening of the medical defense of the USSR. The emphasis had been placed on training of medical personnel capable of treating wounded servicemen in the event of war, and on conduction of first aid training courses for workers on the basis of factories, plants and enterprises in case of exposure to chemical warfare agents on the home front. All available propaganda tools were mobilized to reach population, including mass media, cinematograph, radio, lectures and talks.
However, despite country-wide promotion of an image of the Red Cross in 1930s as a generally accessible mass structure, it mainly embraced urban population, and membership was not always available to villagers. Thus, propaganda campaign mentioned above was focused on townspeople who enjoyed full access to newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and motion pictures. It’s worth mentioning here as well that mass character of the membership in the Red Cross was not purely voluntary always and everywhere, e.g. female Komsomol members were forced to join organization and had no possibility to reject such offers.
Over the last prewar years the Soviet Red Cross was turned into the mass public paramilitary organization with its functions exclusively restricted to the medical defense of the USSR. Phasing out of the Soviet Red Cross commercial activities which had already begun in 1934, was completed on the eve of 1939. Thus, according to the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars dated December 03, 1938, all economic and medical activities were exempted from jurisdiction of the Soviet Red Cross, and more than 6,100 institutions were taken over by various state agencies. Since then, the Soviet Red Cross mainly focused on establishment of schools and training courses for paramedics and junior medical staff.
As a result of that hard work within two and a half years tens of thousands of well-trained nurses and sanitary assistants were sent to the front and base hospitals during the Great Patriotic War. Red Cross members were involved in treating wounded and sick in evacuation hospitals, assisted in transportation of injured by rail, road and waterways, came to the aid of evacuated persons.
Prior to the establishment of the public organization “Soviet War Veterans Committee”, Executive committee of the Soviet Red Cross cooperated with international organizations of the Resistance movement participants, former WWII front-fighters and veterans.
In the post-war years Soviet Red Cross focused on promotion of medical and sanitary public awareness, enforcement of sanitary and hygiene activities to assist health authorities, creation of primary Red Cross and Red Crescent cells, health posts and sanitary squads at plant facilities, collective farms, state farms and various institutions.
The very first (or at least first known to the author) description of distinctive uniform introduced for the Soviet Red Cross personnel was published in the “Dress Regulations for Sanitary Squads of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies” that appeared on pages of “On Red Cross Duty. Bulletin of the C[entral] C[ommittee] of the R[ussian] R[ed] C[ross] S[ociety]” magazine (1929, No.7).
New uniform for the Soviet Red Cross personnel was introduced in 1936 and was described in the “Red Cross and Red Crescent Uniforms” booklet issued the same year in Moscow by the Executive Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Model 1936 uniform details will be dealt with below.
Double-breasted overcoat made of dark blue woolen cloth with lay-down collar and two side pockets. Overcoat had wide half-belt and deep pleat at the back. Skirts were made of dark blue woolen cloth with two box-pleats.
British cut jacket made of dark blue woolen cloth was intended for casual wear, while sport type blouse was worn in the field.
Overcoats, jackets and blouses had metal buttons with dark oxidized surface that bore either Red Cross or Red Crescent stamped symbols.
Dark grey traditional “Ushanka” or “Shapka-finka”, i.e. fur cap with ear flaps that can be tied up to the crown of the cap, or fastened at the chin to protect the ears, jaw and lower chin from the cold was worn as winter headgear. Dark blue beret was intended for wear during the rest of the year. Both caps and berets had metal cockades of either Red Cross or Red Crescent pinned to the front of headgear: bright red equilateral cross or half-moon painted on white circular badges.
Men also wore double-breasted overcoat that was made of dark blue woolen cloth with lay-down collar and two side pockets. Just like female model, it had wide half-belt and deep pleat at the back.
British cut jacket made of dark blue woolen cloth as well as trousers worn over boots were introduced for casual wear. Service jacket made of dark blue woolen cloth and riding breeches were worn during field work. Summertime uniform consisted of jacket, service jacket and trousers made of dark blue cotton cloth.
Overcoats, jackets and service jackets had metal buttons with dark oxidized surface that bore either Red Cross or Red Crescent stamped symbols.
Dark grey “Shapka-finka” described above was worn during winter, while dark blue cloth peaked cap with lacquered leather visor was regulation headgear for the rest of the year. Metal cockades of either Red Cross or Red Crescent were attached to the front of “Shapka-finka” and visor cap. Both caps and berets had metal cockades of either Red Cross or Red Crescent pinned to the front of headgear: bright red equilateral cross or half-moon painted on white circular badges.
Despite the lack of detailed description of “Shapka-finka” that was worn in wintertime by the Soviet Red Cross personnel regardless of gender, it may be assumed that in terms of cut, fabric and fur used during manufacture it was similar to the Shapka (Finka) introduced for commanders of the Red Army according to the Order of the Revolutionary Military Council, the supreme military authority of the USSR, No.14 dated January 31, 1931.
Badges of rank in the shape of metal five-point stars, pentagons, circles and semi-circles covered with dark blue enamel were the same for male and female personnel. The were pinned to green sleeve flaps with white piping and emblem of the Soviet Red Cross sewn on front side of left sleeves next to cuffs.