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Article

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This article examines epistolary writing from the front, focusing on a selection of attributed letters from Russians soldiers on the front lines throughout the 20th century. A letter from the front is a personal document, which, when examined from a historical perspective, can function as a socio-historical document that reveals relationship the writer’s relationship to historical events and their context and circumstances. At the same time, a letter from the front functions as a personal egodocument that reflects the discursive practices of the period, and one that shapes the dominant forms of written communication. For the purposes of this article, we have limited ourselves to letters by individuals whose relationship to war was a professional one– a relationship that naturally underwent change throughout the twentieth century. What are the similarities and differences in how military professionalism was understood during the Boer War in Transvaal, the Russo-Japanese War, the First and Second World Wars, or the relatively recent war in Afghanistan and campaigns in Chechnya? A socially-oriented narrative analysis of letters from the front, penned by Russian soldiers in different wars throughout the twentieth century, offers the opportunity to note the through-lines of these letters that relate to the themes of war as work, the evolution of military professionalism, the ethics of war, and public discourse regarding it. It is significant to note that the symbolic meaning of war as an event of national proportions gradually disappears from these letters, until there is no trace of the sacredness of the Motherland and its borders. The discourse changes and the war loses its pathetic and heroic dimensions. This leads to a great variety of discourses within these letters, which have been emptied of the machinery of propaganda, but which nevertheless retain traces of ideology. There is a variety of distinct narrative styles in these communications with those back home, in the nation; thus, it is possible to replace discussions of the war itself with a description of the war as a work experience, as a collection of episodes of military actions and quotidian incidents, as career experience and achievements, as a self-reflexive narrative on the topic of war. The war, in these later letters, is laid bare as an experience of problem-solving – and of survival.