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Amazons of the Red Army
World War II saw hundreds of thousands of women take part in the Soviet war effort by fighting on the frontlines. And Maria Ivanovna’s experiences were shared by many of them.
HUNGRY FOR REVENGE
It was not during World War II that women first began to appear in the Russian military: they took part in World War I not only as nurses but also as soldiers, and the communist squads of the Civil War also had tens of thousands of female combatants according to the (likely exaggerated) available data. Yet, as in other countries, the employment of women in the military was viewed by the Soviet leadership as a temporary solution. And women were not exactly eager to volunteer to serve in the army either. Their lack of enthusiasm is well-illustrated by the fact that hardly any female volunteers participated in the armed conflicts between the Russian Civil War and the beginning of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, there was a fundamental change in both the attitude of the authorities and the fighting spirit of women: they began joining the Red Army and the various volunteer units by the thousands, mostly as support staff. During World War II, altogether 800 thousand Soviet women served in the Red Army, of whom some 500 thousand had been conscripted, while the other 300 thousand had joined their fighting compatriots as volunteers.
Most of the latter group were between 18 and 25 years of age. The majority of women were assigned to the medical staff, the signal corps, or air defense units, but there were also many female drivers. Unlike with men, the conscription of women was more heavily regulated by the authorities: while men had to be sufficiently healthy and in acceptable physical shape to join the Red Army, they were not required to meet education criteria, for example. Under the ordinances in place, the women least likely to be conscripted were non-ethnic Russians with a peasant background, as only those who were able to read and write Russian were allowed to join a combat unit.
Even though the vast majority of volunteers were Russian nationals from urban areas, there were quite a few exceptions, as there were hardly any families that had not been affected by the war in some way. And this should come as no surprise: during World War II, altogether nearly 27 million Soviet citizens (including 16 million civilians) lost their lives as a result of an event related to the fighting. A tremendous tension had been built up in the citizenry, which in most cases was manifested as a lust for revenge against the German invaders.
No wonder, then, that as the war went on, an increasing number of women came to decide to get involved in the effort to expel the invaders, and not just as medics, nurses, telephone operators or cooks, but as soldiers. Although in most cases they were driven by the aforementioned thirst for vengeance and the desire to protect their country, there were also those who wanted to erase the “stain” left on their family name by the arrest of a close relative for political reasons.
THE GREY SOLDIER GIRL
Presumably with one eye on the expectations of the populace, Soviet military leaders would generally make sure that female soldiers were assigned positions that would minimize their chances of getting captured by the enemy. Of course, leaders of the various units did not always appreciate female volunteers, and it often came down to a woman’s perseverance whether they were ultimately permitted to join their comrades in the fight for their country.
The previously-mentioned Lance Corporal Maria Ivanova Morozova, who later became the chief accountant of the Minsk Automobile Plant, was not yet 18 when the war began. After completing a course she began working as an accountant, while also participating in a training program offered by the cadre. When the Komsomol, the Soviet communist youth organization, called upon the young people of the country to take up arms in defense of their homeland, Ivanushkina, along with many of her peers, was inspired to head to the front to help the Red Army beat back the Germans, who were getting dangerously close to Moscow. She was rejected multiple times due to the strict selection criteria, but when she traveled to the Central Committee of the Komsomol with a group of similarly persistent youth, she and her mates were finally given the chance to fight.
Ivanushkina and her fellow volunteers were prepared for battle at a female sniper training academy before getting assigned to the 62nd Rifle Regiment. Their superior could have been their father, and that is precisely how the colonel treated his new soldiers at first. However, once he saw how capable they were, he regretfully took back his earlier comments about them being unfit for war. Disdain for female soldiers was not exclusive to the colonel leading the 62nd Rifle Regiment of course; it was an attitude shared by many in the Red Army.
During her first mission, Maria Ivanovna found it hard to keep her hands steady, as she came to the realization that her target, a German officer, despite being an enemy combatant, was a human being first. Many veterans reported having similar experiences. In another interview by Svetlana Alexievich, another former Red Army sniper, Klavdia Grigorievna Krohina, spoke about trembling in her whole body after killing her first German soldier. Target practice was easy, she said, but confronting flesh-and-blood humans was an entirely different story. It took a horrifying incident to change her outlook: after she saw the charred bones of her compatriots in a burned-down house in an East Prussian village, she no longer had difficulty killing the enemy. She returned home from the front at the age 21, her hair having turned white.
Maria Ivanovna Morozova also pulled the trigger eventually. She hit her target, but never found out whether she had killed or just wounded him. She would go on to take down 74 other enemy soldiers in the war and receive 11 military decorations for her performance, but she was never able to forget the horrors she witnessed. As she confessed to Svetlana Alexievich, she was unable to sit through a war movie and even in her elder years she still had dreams about the war. At such times, when she finally woke up she could barely believe she was alive.
There was no shortage of female soldiers like Morozova and Krohina in World War II: some 2 thousand Soviet women served as snipers during the conflict. Among them was the most successful female sniper in history, Ludmila Pavlychenko, who killed 309 enemy soldiers. The Kyiv University history student was among the first to volunteer to serve in the Red Army, but she was also nearly rejected after being told that she should perhaps consider being a nurse instead. However, she was eventually assigned to the 25th Rifle Regiment, where she did not perform very well at first; but after she lost one of her closest comrades, her aim began to improve. She was severely wounded four times and became a high-priority target for the Germans, but Ludmila, one of the greatest heroes of the Soviet Union, managed to survive the war, which, for her, had lasted “only” one year, as in the fall of 1942 she began traveling the Allied countries of the West to persuade them regarding the necessity of opening a Western front.
There were very few women in the Soviet Navy, but the various branches of the air force – such as the bomber and fighter fleets – did employ female volunteers, which was a rarity among the belligerents of World War II. Among these women, the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment – the so-called “Night Witches” – became especially famous. The female pilots were given the nickname Nachthexen (Night Witches) by the Germans, who found the noise of the Soviet planes reminiscent of that of witches on flying broomsticks (which, of course, begs the question of when the Germans had ever heard witches fly.)
By the end of the war, the Night Witches had flown over 30 thousand missions and dropped 23 thousand tons of bombs on the enemy from their wood-and-canvas Polikarpov Po-2 aircraft, which had originally been designed for crop dusting and pilot training (and which the pilots allegedly decorated with flowers). As the young Witches closed in on their target, they would idle their engines, and thus the enemy soldiers would only hear a whizzing sound before realizing what was about to happen. The pilots only flew by night – with no radio or radar, using only a map and compass – since their beat-up, technologically obsolete aircraft was too slow for day missions. And despite these less-than-ideal circumstances, they were remarkably successful. Since the small bombers had open cockpits, the pilots would nearly freeze to death during the winter, and if their planes were hit, they did not have much of a chance of survival, as they did not even have parachutes to offer them a sliver of hope.
There are only two known female ace pilots in history, both of whom fought in the Red Army during World War II. Lidya Litvyak, who was born to a Jewish family in Moscow and started her military career in the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment before being transferred to the Stalingrad front, who claimed 12 victories. Her close friend, Yekaterina Budanova, claimed 11 (5 of which were shared victories according to some historians). Both of them were shot down in the summer of 1943. The remains of Litvyak (whose father had been labeled an enemy of the people and executed by the NKVD in 1937) were only identified in 1979, and since up to that point there had always been the possibility that she had been captured by the Germans, she was awarded the title ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’ only posthumously, in 1993.
In an interview conducted in the 1980s by Svetlana Alexievich (who would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015), Maria Ivanovna Morozova, the retiring chief accountant of the Minsk Automobile Plant, talked about her frontline experiences: “Even if you come from there alive, your soul will ache. Now I come to think of it, I’d rather be wounded in a leg or an arm, let my body ache instead. But this way, it is my soul that aches instead… It aches so bad.” Besides “Ivanushkina”, World War II saw hundreds of thousands of women take part in the Soviet war effort by fighting on the frontlines. And Maria Ivanovna’s experiences were shared by many of them.
Did you know?
Machine gunner Manshuk Mametova was the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union award for gallantly fighting against the German invaders.
Each pilot of the all-women unit of the Soviet Air Force, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, dubbed “Night Witches” by the Germans, flew more than 800 missions by the end of World War II.
By 1943 around 8% of Red Army troops were women, so almost one out of ten Soviet soldiers belonged to the fairer sex.