Medals of Imperial Russia

Page © Micheal Shackelford --
Text by Tim Tezer and Micheal Shackelford.
Some images provided by Sam Clark

-The Order of St. Andrew the First Called, was Imperial Russia's highest ranking order. The order was named for Andrew, whom Jesus called first to be one of His Disciples, who was popularly thought to have traveled and evangelized in the region that would become Russia, eventually martyred on an X-shaped cross. For this, Andrew is taken as the patron saint of Russia. Hence the blue cross saltire symbol used on this order, and the Imperial Russian Navy ensign.
Though the 1700s and 1800s, The Order of St. Andrew was bestowed mostly to royalty and heads of state, but also for great accomplishment in war. While not at all common during the Great War, we've included it here in case you see it around some notable's neck in formal photographs. There was only one class, usually worn from a light blue sash over the shoulder.

- The Order of Alexander Nevsky was planned by Peter the Great as an exclusively military merit award, but he died before it had been awarded to anyone. During the reign of his wife Catherine, the order was established (1725) and bestowed on notable civilians as well as military heroes. Thus, the order had both civil and military awards, the latter being designated (after the mid-1800s) by crossed swords placed diagonally between the arms of the cross-shaped badge. The badge was worn at the left hip on a solid scarlet moire sash. A star of the order was worn on the left breast.

- The Order of St. George, Imperial Russia's highest exclusively military order, was instituted in 1769 and came to be considered among the most prestigious military awards in the world, ranking just below the Order of St. Andrew the First Called. The order was awarded to officers and generals for special gallantry, such as, personally leading his troops in rout of a superior enemy force, or capturing a fortress, etc. Before membership in the Order could be granted, a candidate's case had to be investigated by a council composed of Knights of the Order.

1st Class worn on sash across chest, with star

2nd Class worn at neck, with star

3rd Class worn at neck, w/o star

4th Class worn as badge on chest.

The Order of St. George's distinctive ribbon -- three black stripes on an orange background -- was so familiar and carried such prestige, that Stalin borrowed it for a military decoration during World War II, despite the fact that these were the traditional colors of the Romanov family. The order came in four classes, awarded sequentially for individual acts of gallantry. The highest classes were rarely awarded.

-The St. George's Weapon was an additional award associated with the Order of St. George, though rarely given . An officer could be bestowed with a gold saber, inscribed "For Gallantry" and marked with a small enamel St. George cross and with the black and orange St. Geroge's ribbon for the sword knot. High ranking officers, such as generals or admirals could receive the St. George's Weapon with inset diamonds as an added distinction. The gold weapon was an independent award, not an extra class within the order, but holders of the golden weapon were considered holders of the order.

- The Order of St.Vladimir was instituted in 1782, originally as a civil order of merit, such as for life saving or famine relief. There were four classes. During the Crimean War, it was awarded for military merit as well. If awarded for deeds in arms, crossed swords were placed between the cross arms. To be included in the Order of St. Vladimir (of any class) also granted the recipient hereditary noble rank. After 1826, only the Order of St. George shared this distinction.
A person would be awarded the order's lowest class for the first heroic act. A second meritorious act could be rewarded with the next higher class and so on. Usually only the badge of the highest class was worn. If a recipient had been awarded a lower class with swords, for valor in battle, crossed swords would be set between the cross arms. If the recipient went on to be awarded a higher class, but in peace time, small crossed swords would be set across the upper cross arm.
The Order of St. Vladimir can sometimes be seen in medal groups of non-Russian Allied soldiers, including examples awarded by the White Russian armies after the fall of the Czar. It ranked above the Order of Saint Anne, and below the Order of Saint George. The order of St. Vladimir, fourth class, can be seen as the solitary decoration worn by Czar Nicholas II in the photos taken of him during his final days of captivity before he and his family were executed.

- The Order of St. Anne, which ranked just below the order of St. Vladimir in the Imperial Russian hierarchy, was originally an award from Schleswig-Holstien, named by the Duke of Holstein after his wife, Anne Petrovna (Peter the Great's daughter). It became a Russian award in 1742, when the prince of Schleswig-Holstein ascended the Russian throne as Czar Peter III. It came in four classes. The top three classes could be awarded with swords for gallantry in action or military merit in times of war.
The 1st class was worn on sash, but with the star on the right breast. The 2nd class was worn at the neck. The 3rd class (shown above) was worn as a breast badge suspended from the order's ribbon.
The lowest (4th) class of the order was marked by "St. Anne's Weapon." A small badge of the order was attached to a steel edged weapon (appropriate to the branch of service of the recipient) inscribed "For Gallantry." The gold edged red ribbon of the order made up the sword knot.

- The Cross of Saint George. Associated with the Order of Saint George, but for enlisted men and NCO's, the Cross of Saint George came in 4 classes. Like the Order of St. George, the St. George cross was awarded for acts of distinction under arms. An enlisted man or NCO would be awarded the 4th class cross for his first brave act. A second notable act could then bring him the 3rd class cross, etc. The first class and second class were in gold, the first class with a bow on the ribbon. The third and fourth classes were in silver, the third class marked by a bow. The ribbon was the same as for the order of Saint George.
Over two million Saint George Crosses were distributed during the Great War and before the abdication of the tsar., going to soldiers, nurses and members of the Red Cross. Commanders in the field could award the St. George Cross on the spot.

- The St. George Medal. Awarded for merit in combat. Associated with the Order of St. George, but ranking below that of the the St. George Cross.
The St. George Medal came in four classes, like the cross. Gold medallions for 1st and 2nd class (shown). Silver medallions for 3rd and 4th. A bow on the ribbon denoted 1st class and 3rd.
The medal was awarded for merit to other Allied soldiers as well as Russians. British Corporal Waller, for instance, was awarded the St. George medal 1st class for his presumed role in shooting down German Ace Max Immelmann in June 1916.

- The St. Anne's Medal for Soldiers was a separate medal for enlisted men and NCOs. Foreign military personnel also received St. Anne's Medals for action in service to Russia during WWI, showing up among both Allied and German soldiers' awards.


- The Medal for Zeal was awarded for meritorious service to the Russian government, in times of war and peace. It came in 4 classes: the large gold medal, small gold medal, large silver medal, and small silver medal.


- The Medal for Mobilization in World War I: the only medal instituted by the Russian Empire specifically for World War I. It was awarded for general meritorious service in connection with mobilization for the war. Instituted in early 1915, it was a small bronze medal with a blue ribbon. Reverse


- Russo-Japanese War Medal. This is a service medal for a conflict that predates the Great War, but is included here since it was not uncommon to see among Great War soldiers' awards. This service medal was awarded in 1914, marking the 10th anniversary of the war with Japan. Since Russia did not 'win' that war, the Russian government was reluctant to issue any commemorative medals for the conflict. Veterans finally prevailed in seeing a medal issued. Following Russian custom, campaign medal ribbons were made with the colors of existing orders. For the Port Arthur medal, the colors of the Order of St. George and St. Alexander Nevsky. Examples exist in brass or bronze and in silver. Some have plain ribbons and some have the 'bow'. I do not know if these mark classes or grades, since this was a campaign medal, not a merit award. They may represent variations in style or issue only.

Polish Orders

Background --
The Kingdom of Poland had chivalric orders as other nations did, though the continued existence of Poland as a nation proved problematic in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The Congress of Vienna (1815) recreated the Kingdom of Poland, with Czar Alexander of Russia appointed as King of Poland. Following the November 1830 'Insurrection', Poland was almost completely absorbed into the Russian Empire. By this way, Polish orders and awards passed into use by the Russian government. These were awarded by the czars to Poles for distinguished service, but were awarded to foreigners as well.
Following the Great War, the Treaty of Versailles retraced the steps of the Congress of Vienna over a hundred years earlier and recreated an independent Polish nation. The Republic of Poland revived some Orders and awards and issued some new ones regarding the war. See Poland Medals page

- Order of the White Eagle (Orden Belogo orla). Instituted by King Lasislas I of Poland in 1325. Reorganized by King Augustus II of Poland, Duke of Saxony. It became a Russian Imperial Order following the absorption of Poland into Russia in 1831.
As a Russian Order, a black, double-headed imperial eagle with outstretched wings was added behind the red and white enameled cross with the white enameled eagle. The badge hung from an Imperial Crown.
The Order of the White Eagle was a one-class order. Riband: a sash of dark blue moire worn over the right shoulder. Star: was worn on the left breast.
Following the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the provisional government continued to award Russian orders, though in the case of the Provisional Government's White Eagle, the imperial crown was removed -- replaced by a bow.

- The Order of St. Stanislaus. First instituted in 1765 by Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, last king of Poland prior to the partition. The order ranked second only to the White Eagle.
As a Russian Order, double-headed imperial eagles replaced the Polish eagles between the cross arms. The Order came in three classes:
Knight's Grand Cross, worn on sash. Star.
Commander, worn at the neck.
Companion, worn on the breast.
Swords were added for a military award in war.

The Provisional Russian government continued to award the Order of St. Stanislas. Companion crosses were awarded to both British and German servicemen in recognition of their aid in fighting the Bolsheviks.

When "Old Russia" fell, and Soviet Russia emerged, all the old orders were dissolved. While the White Eagle and Virtuti Militari were reestablished in the new Republic of Poland, the Order of St. Stanislas was not. Its tradition was taken and continued by a new Polish order: the Polonia Restituta.

- The Order "Virtuti Militari" (for Military Merit) The was established in the late1700s by King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland as the highest military decoration for gallantry the Polish nation bestows upon it's soldiers for acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. The VIRTUTI MILITARI is equivalent to the American MEDAL OF HONOR or the British VICTORIA CROSS.
It came in 5 classes:
First Class, Black enamel cross edged in gold, with crown, worn on sash, star on breast.
Second Class, Black enamel cross in gold, with crown, worn at the neck. star on breast.
Third Class, Black enamel cross (smaller), no crown.
Fourth Class, Gold cross with black lettering.
Worn on breast
Fifth Class, Silver cross with black lettering.
Worn on breast

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