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20 September 2018

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The Committee for the Wounded

Author: Tamara Eidelman
Translation: Nora Seligman Favorov

July/Aug 2014
Page 22   ( 3 pages)

Summary: Two hundred years ago, in the wake of the Napoleonic war, Russia established a committee to take care of soldiers wounded in war.


Gogol’s Dead Souls features a famous episode in which local officials in the provincial town the protagonist Chichikov is visiting are trying to figure out just who this fellow is and why he is purchasing deceased serfs. At one point the postmaster suddenly comes up with the idea that Chichikov is in fact a certain Captain Kopeykin, and he launches into a story about said captain:

“After the campaign of eighteen-twelve, my good man,” the postmaster began, despite the fact that the room contained not just one good man, but a whole six of them, “after the campaign of eighteen-twelve, there was a Captain Kopeykin sent back among the wounded. It may have been at Krasny and it may have been at Leipzig, but imagine – he had his arm and leg torn off. Well, back then they didn’t make any of those, you know, provisions for the wounded; that something-or-other fund for invalids was put in place, in a manner, much later. Captain Kopeykin sees that he has to work, but the only arm he has is his left one. He pays a visit to his father back home and his father says: ‘I have nothing to feed you; I, you can imagine, am barely able to come up with bread for myself.’ And my captain Kopeykin decided to set out, my good man, to Petersburg to see whether the sovereign might show him any monarchical mercy: ‘here it is, so on and so forth, in a manner of speaking, I sacrificed my life and spilled my blood…’ ”

Kopeykin, of course, was not granted a pension and winds up turning to a life of crime. In the final version of Gogol’s novel, the postmaster’s story is cut short when his audience reminds him that, seeing as how Chichikov has all his limbs, he could not possibly be the one-armed, one-legged brigand Kopeykin. In earlier drafts, however, the story continues and has Kopeykin escaping to America and writing a letter to the tsar, who is moved to set aside “capital for invalids” – a fund to aid wounded veterans.

In reality, of course, nobody needed the colorful Kopeykin to understand that Napoleon’s invasion and the campaigns that followed left in their wake legions of severely disabled Russian Army veterans. A few months after the arrival of Russian troops in Paris and Napoleon’s capitulation, on August 18, 1814 (which happened to be the first anniversary of the bloody Battle of Kulm), Alexander I established the Committee for the Wounded. Later, on the hundredth anniversary of his reign in 1877, this charitable organization was renamed in Alexander’s honor.

At first, only “indigent crippled officers,” unable to survive on their pensions and therefore in need of additional financial assistance, were eligible to apply for relief, and it was only later that the committee began to address the needs of the “lower ranks.” Back then, when social “safety nets” were unheard of and most people with disabilities could, at best, count on relatives, friends, or individual benefactors for help, the Committee for the Wounded provided a much needed source of assistance for a great many people. This was especially important since the Russian Empire was often at war, and every time the tsar sent troops to the Caucasus, the Balkans, Central Asia, or the Far East, a fair number of them were bound to come home with debilitating injuries.

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