Pilots (L-R) Tonya Rozova, Sonia Vodyanik and Lida Golubeva before a combat mission. Source: ITAR-TASS
Although wars are often fought by men, the image of war has a female face in the cultures of many nations. In Russia, this image is crystallized in the solemn, severe face of the Motherland.
It is an image that appeals to the instincts of soldiers to strongly defend the weak – and, in this form, it has been known in Russia as long as Russian history itself.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Czar Alexander I made the Greek Laskarina Bouboulina an admiral.
Not only had Bouboulina built an impressive Greek rebel fleet, but she had also personally led the assault on the fortress of Nafplio in 1821. The list of Russian female admirals has not yet extended beyond this one single example of a Greek woman of the 19th century.
The first mention of a female soldier in Russia dates back to the 17th century. It was then, during the Peasant War of 1670–1671, that the “Russian Joan of Arc,” Alyona Arzamasskaya, was in charge of a detachment of more than 2,000 rebels who had sought refuge at the fortress of Temnikov (in present-day Mordovia).
When the fortress was taken, Alyona was charged with witchcraft and subsequently tortured and condemned to death by burning as a heretic and bandit. The German traveler and contemporary Johann Frisch compared her to an Amazon, who was “superior to men in her unusual courage.
Even after her detachment was defeated, she fought on formidably, and killed another seven or eight men.”
Despite the distinctly masculine appearance and manners of some of the ladies who led Russia in the 18th century, the great gains the Russian Empire won at that time were a primarily male affair. However, the War of 1812 (also known as the Napoleonic Wars), was the first campaign in which women were decorated.
According to a decree of February 8, 1816, the medal “In Honor of the Patriotic War of 1812” was struck to recognize the widows of the generals and officers who had died in the fighting, as well as the women who had staffed the hospitals and nursed the wounded. In all, 7,606 such medals were presented to these women.
Similarly, the War of 1812 was the first in which a woman served in the ranks of the regular army. Twenty-three-year-old Nadezhda Durova went down in history as the “Cavalry Maiden,” and, with the active support of the czar, she served under the name of Alexander Alexandrov – first in the Hussars, and then in the Lancers.
Durova distinguished herself at one of the most decisive battles – the Battle of Borodino – where she was seriously concussed.
A century after Durova, Rimma Ivanova became the second woman in the history of the Russian army’s ranks. She had enlisted in a medical battalion under a male name. When the truth was revealed, she continued to serve under her real name.
Lydia Litvyak was the highest scoring Russian female air ace during WWII. She flew around 150 sorties, shooting down six enemy planes and a static observation dirigible; she shot down another six enemy planes in joint action with her fellow pilots.
Lydia Litvyak was killed on August 1, 1943, during a dogfight. Her remains were only found in 1979. She was posthumously awarded the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union.
On September 9, 1915, after both her senior officers were killed in action, she led her battalion into an assault on enemy trenches, during which she received a fatal shrapnel wound to her hips. She was just 21 years old.
On the personal intervention of Czar Nicholas II, a decree confirmed on her the posthumous title of Officer of the Order of St. George, 4th Class – the highest military decoration of its era.
If the service of only one woman in the army’s ranks during World War I is known, then during the years of World War II – when the scale of the tragedy was far greater – many thousands of women gave their lives for the armed forces.
Partisans, signals officers, scouts, and nurses – nearly 100 such women were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Women fought on the front lines. The famous sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko served in some of the fiercest battles and personally killed 309 enemy soldiers and officers. At the time, injury forced her demobilization from the armed forces.
The famous sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko in Sevastopol, 1942. Source: ITAR-TASS
She was only 25 years old. Female snipers claimed the lives of more than 11,280 enemy soldiers and officers.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, a celebrated aviator of the era – Marina Raskova – made a personal application to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet, asking permission to form a female air squadron.
However, the number of female volunteers was so great that three squadrons were formed instead of just one.
The female pilots of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment took part in the defense of Moscow, in the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk, making over 9,000 sorties and shooting down 38 enemy aircraft.
In the wake of the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment came the 587th and 588th Bombardment Squadrons. Their female bomber crews won respect for their tenacity and air conflict skills.
On July 2, 1943, when nine soviet Pe-2 bombers delivered an attack on the village of Kievskaya in the Kuban region, eight German fighters rushed to engage them. The female bomber crews met the enemy with concentrated fire power.
During the course of the dogfight, they shot down four of the German fighters and returned to base, having sustained no losses.
The tradition of female aviators continues today. Recently, Russia’s first all-female helicopter squadron was formed and named Colibri (after the graceful tropical hummingbird).
It is common to see women in the Russian army these days. The fairer sex has won the right to wear their epaulettes alongside the men, following their valor in the most severe of tests in Russian history. In total, approximately 50,000 women serve in Russia’s armed forces today.
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