Dr Michael Alexeevich Protopopov
THE IMPERIAL OFFICER'S
CODE OF HONOUR
The Imperial Russian officers’ class was drawn from the ranks of the nobility to serve the Emperor and the Empire.
This class was more than simply a stratum of Russian society, but an integral pillar of a thousand year old nation. The military not only defended the Empire but also provided a cohesive element which helped to make the Empire a strong and secure multicultural and multifaith brotherhood of nations.
Officers did not just happen, but were carefully cultivated from childhood to love their homeland and strive to serve her all their lives. For example, at the Emperor Alexander III Don Cossack Cadet Corps the motto was; “Surrender your life for the Motherland, your soul to God and your honour to no-one.” Or, at the Vilnius Cadet Corps – “Even one soldier in the field is nevertheless a warrior.” These mottos instilled in the cadets from a very early age a sense of duty and an awareness of the importance of their service to the Empire. This education continued throughout the formative years of military college to ensure that the graduating Junkers would be well versed in the culture of being an officer and a gentleman.
The Russian language arts, prior to 1917, with their rules of proper manners, carried within themselves lessons of respect. The genres of etiquette such as greetings, farewell statements, expressions of gratitude, apologies, congratulations, requests, expressions of condolences, refusals, denials, and objections, all ensured a strong sense of behaviour and discipline in each officer. It was not enough to know the military arts, being an officer was a culture in itself, which strengthened the moral standards of the whole of Russian society.
Being an officer also meant having a sense of responsibility not only to the Tsar and Empire, but towards all of society. The principle of Noblese oblige. To act honourably in dealings with all manner of people and especially with one’s subordinates. To earn the trust and respect of subordinates was of paramount importance as, in the time of war, fighting side by side meant to put one’s live in the hands of one’s fellow soldiers. To do so was possible only when a sincere bond of trust between officers and enlisted men was established. This can be illustrated from an incident in my own family during the First World War, where my father seeing that the Cossacks under his command were tired and disheartened and on the verge of refusing to take orders, suddenly jumped out of the trenches and shouting, “Lads follow me,” charged the Austrian lines. The Cossacks immediately responded and charged also. Later my father asked the Cossacks why they did not hesitate to follow him, they replied, “We have been together so long, Your Excellency, that we now either live or die together.”
Such a bond could only have been forged by mutual respect and trust. It reflected a relationship built on an understanding that the officer was, as it were, a father figure and the junior ranks trusted him, and entrusted to him their lives.
Finally, the underlining principle of all Russian military service was reflected in the words: “Above all, loyalty to the officer’s Oath, is not a heroic act, but a duty!”