“Warfare is…the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart…”
– John Keegan, A History of Warfare
One of those “insignificant exceptions” that Keegan dismisses so readily was a little scrape that Russians call the Great Patriotic War (Velikaya Otchestvennaya Voina). We call it the “Eastern Front.”
In truth, women have always participated in war: Often as victims, as cheerleaders or as trophies. But sometimes, they appear on the battlefield as combatants. Until very recently, men have written all the military history. So warrior women who don’t fit conventional gender roles have been marginalized, delegitimized, or, like Joan of Arc, sanctified after martyrdom.
In a desperate fight for survival, even Stalin was willing to modify traditional patriarchal attitudes about the role of women.
The 1917 Russian Revolution gave Russian women legal equality. In Soviet practice, this meant the right to work as hard as men, with the additional burdens of housekeeping and child care. After Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion on June 22, 1941, many young women seeking enlistment to fight the Germans were turned away, told to work in the factories, or enrolled for nursing training to serve as field medics.
In the first months of World War II, the Red Army suffered massive losses of manpower and equipment. In a desperate fight for survival, even Stalin was willing to modify traditional patriarchal attitudes about the role of women. As early as 1931, anticipating a global war, the Communist Party had mandated universal military training for boys and girls beginning in elementary school. Thousands of young women learned to handle rifles in a nationwide network of shooting clubs. Some achieved top scores in marksmanship. A 1934 Soviet film about the Russian Civil War, Chapaev, starred Varvara Myasnikova as Anka, the machine gunner, who became a role model for a generation of girls.
By one estimate, 800,000 served in the Red Army during World War II. Many filled “traditional” non-combatant roles – as nurses, cooks, or clerks, but thousands fought with weapons in their hands and a few rank with history’s deadliest snipers. As soldiers who kill deliberately with cold precision, snipers are a powerful test case for the capability of women in combat.
For most Soviet women snipers, the weapon was the 1932 model Mosin-Nagant, a .30 caliber (7.62mm) bolt-action rifle, with a 5-round internal magazine originally adopted by the Tsar’s army in 1891. Sniper versions of the Nagant were selected for accuracy, and fitted with a 3.5-power fixed-focus scope copied from German Zeiss optics. Some elite snipers received new semi-automatic Tokarev SVT-40 rifles, which fired the same 7.62 x 54mm cartridge as the Nagant, but had a detachable 10-round box magazine.
As soldiers who kill deliberately with cold precision, snipers are a powerful test case for the capability of women in combat.
In March, 1942 a Central Women’s School of Sniper Training was established in Vishniaki, a village 8.7 miles outside Moscow. The school recruited women aged 18-26, physically fit, with at least seven years of education. School Director was Nora P. Chegodayeva, a graduate of the famous Frunze Military Academy who had fought as a communist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the war, the school graduated 1,885 snipers and instructors.
Women were thought to make good snipers, because they could endure stress and cold better than men, and they had “more patience” to wait for the perfect shot. A special few achieved recognition and fame.
For service in the Great Patriotic War some 11,635 people were eventually awarded the gold star of Hero of the Soviet Union (equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor, or the U.K. Victoria Cross). Of this total, only 92 (0.08 percent) were women, and of these, only 6 (6.5 percent) were rated as snipers. Five of those six were killed in action. Women aviators, with a glamorous combat role that made for better propaganda, tended to collect more medals.
Hero of the Soviet Union Maj. Lyudmila M. Pavlichenko was the top-scoring woman sniper of all time, with 309 confirmed kills, of which 36 were enemy snipers. A rifle club sharpshooter before the war, she had worked as a grinder at the Kiev Arsenal and earned a Master’s degree in history. Wounded in June 1942, she was pulled out of combat and sent on a propaganda tour of the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, becoming the first Soviet citizen welcomed at the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Woody Guthrie even wrote her a song.
Hero of the Soviet Union Maj. Lyudmila M. Pavlichenko was the top-scoring woman sniper of all time, with 309 confirmed kills, of which 36 were enemy snipers.
More typical was the experience of Privates Mariya S. Polivanova and Natalya V. Kovshova, a spotter and sniper team killed in action together near Novgorod on August 14, 1943. Wounded and out of ammunition, they waited until German troops approached their trench, then detonated their grenades.
Tanya M. Baramzina had been a kindergarten teacher before the war. After the German invasion, she trained to become a sharpshooter while attending nursing school. After scoring 16 kills on the Belorussian Front, she was selected for a parachute raid behind German lines. She killed another 20 Germans before taking charge of caring for the wounded when her unit was surrounded. Captured by the enemy, she was tortured and executed.
About 500 women snipers survived the war. Their interviews and memoirs consistently report that while women serving as non-combatants were considered fair game for sexual harassment and worse, women combatants were off limits, and the men they served with strictly enforced this rule. After the war, the combat role of women (except for those glamorous aviators) was gradually written out of Soviet history as the Communist Party promoted more traditional gender roles, emphasizing the sisterly and motherly qualities of female field medics, for example. Research by a new generation of Russian historians, like Anna Krylova, offers some valuable insights for the ongoing debate over “women in combat,” which is too often long on emotion and short on facts.