The year was 1807. Napoleon and his Grande Armée, having defeated the vaunted Prussian army the year before, was on the move again, and the Russian army was marching west to meet him. Among the multitude of Russian units was the Polish Lancer Regiment, whose recruiting parties rode alongside its line of march, trying to fill vacancies in its ranks. One rainy night in March a young man presented himself to one of those parties and politely asked to join the regiment. His only answer to the captain’s questions about his background was that he was a Russian nobleman who left his family to join the military in spite of its disapproval. The volunteer, who called himself Aleksandr Sokolov, enlisted as a ‘gentleman-ranker.’ Nobody suspected that this slim, dark-eyed man was, in fact, a young woman named Nadezhda A. Durova.
Turbulence awaited Nadezhda even before her birth on September 17, 1783. Her mother, Aleksandra Aleksandrova, was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Ukrainian landowner. Out of many suitors, she gave preference to a dashing hussar officer, Andrei Durov. Aleksandra’s father was appalled at the prospect of his daughter marrying a Russian and a soldier to boot. He categorically forbade the union, but Aleksandra eloped.
When she found out she was pregnant, Aleksandra dreamed about the beautiful baby boy she was going to have. The first labor pains, however, came as a shock. After a very difficult birth, she demanded to see her son, only to be presented with a girl with thick, dark hair, screeching at the top of her lungs. Aleksandra turned away in disgust.
Soon after Nadezhda’s birth her father’s regiment received orders to move to another town. Since it was peacetime, married soldiers’ families were allowed to accompany them. One day on the march, Nadezhda’s mother was in a particularly foul mood. Her daughter had kept her up all night, the carriage was uncomfortable and the road was bumpy. Incensed with the girl’s incessant crying and the nanny’s futile efforts to pacify her, Aleksandra grabbed her daughter and threw her out the window of the moving carriage.
Hardened veteran cavalrymen gasped in horror. Her father galloped back from the head of his troop. He dismounted, picked up his bleeding, unconscious daughter and placed her on his saddle. To everyone’s surprise the girl lived. From that time on, Aleksandra was allowed to take no part in raising the infant Nadya, as Nadezhda was called for short. One of Durov’s troopers was assigned as a mentor to the little girl. From the very beginning Nadya’s favorite toy was an unloaded pistol. She loved to pull the trigger to hear the clicking noises.
Two diametrically opposed forces were pulling at Nadya’s young life: a demanding, unforgiving mother and a caring, loving and understanding father. As the years went by, two more daughters and a son were added to the Durov family. Andrei retired from the army and settled on his estate near a small village he owned. For his military service he was appointed chief of police.
The more Nadya’s independent spirit grew, the more her mother tried to break her. The girl was forced to spend countless hours sewing and crocheting, for which she had neither talent nor interest. She much preferred to ride through the nearby fields on her father’s horse, Alchides. Aleksandra’s constant lamentations about a woman’s subservient role in society and family instilled in Nadya a deep-seated resentment for her own sex. Her skin, tanned by the sun, was also marred by chicken pox. Her manners, influenced by living among soldiers from infancy, grew less and less ladylike. She felt stifled in her mother’s house.
When Nadya was 18 she jumped at the chance to escape by accepting a marriage proposal from a junior court clerk named V. Chernov. In 1803 she gave birth to a son, Ivan. However, while her memoirs often describe events of her life in minute detail, Nadezhda Durova was strangely reticent about her husband and son, and what prompted her to leave them and return to her father’s house shortly after giving birth. Perhaps she found married life stifling as well.
She continued to lead an unhappy life. According to her memoirs, in 1806 ‘family disappointments’ drove her to leave her father’s house once and for all, to ‘escape the sphere, predetermined for me by nature.’
Durova’s memoirs describe how she left home at age 16 and attached herself, posing as a man, to a passing Cossack regiment. Other sources claim that she fell in love with a Cossack officer and left with him when she was 18 years old and separated from her husband and son.
Once in the Polish Lancers, Durova received her baptism of fire at Guttstadt on May 22, 1807. Throughout the action, the Lancers did not fight as a regiment–instead, each squadron would make a charge and then rotate to allow a fresh squadron to take its place in line. Either in her excitement, or simple ignorance of what was expected, Nadya joined in every squadron’s assault until an officer from another such unit noticed her with his squadron and chased her away.
In addition to displaying her inexperience, the battle first showcased Durova’s bravery. While returning with her own squadron after a charge, she saw several French dragoons surround a Russian dragoon officer and knock him off his horse with a pistol shot. Without a second thought, Nadya lowered her lance and charged. Startled, the French dragoons scattered. Showing more nobility than judgment, Durova then lent the wounded officer her horse to get him to the nearest field doctor. She was able to recover Alchides much later–after Cossacks had stolen her saddlebags, packed with food, personal possessions and her overcoat. She spent several very uncomfortable and wet nights before she replaced the lost items with those pilfered from troopers killed in action.
During the Battle of Heilsberg on June 10, a shell exploded directly under Durova’s horse. Miraculously, neither mount nor rider received even a scratch. At Friedland on June 14, her memoirs described the casualties suffered by her regiment as being ‘more than half.’
After the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit by Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Aleksandr I on July 12, 1807, Durova’s life took a drastic turn. Earlier that year she wrote a letter to her father informing him of her whereabouts and asking his forgiveness for her running away from home. Andrei now began taking steps to have his daughter returned to him. At the same time, rumors about a girl in his cavalry eventually reached the tsar, who inquired about her. Both Durova’s squadron and regimental commanders, still in the dark as to ‘Trooper Sokolov’s’ true identity, had only the best things to say about ‘him.’ Durova was summoned for a personal audience with the tsar at St. Petersburg. Aleksandr was very impressed with her and granted her permission to stay in the army. He also awarded her the Cross of St. George for saving the life of an officer and commissioned her as a cornet (second lieutenant), with permission to join the regiment of her choice. She chose the Mariupol Hussars, known for a large number of Russian aristocrats serving in its ranks. Aleksandr provided her with initial funds to purchase a new, flashy uniform and equipment as well as a direct allowance. Finally, in order to maintain her male guise the tsar chose a new last name for her, after his own: Aleksandrov.
Besides the tsar, only a few very senior officers knew Durova’s true identity. Nevertheless, rumors and stories about an Amazon cavalrywoman began to circulate among the officers. At first she was terrified of being found out. After hearing conflicting descriptions of herself, however, her fears diminished. As she recorded later, some people claimed she was of giant height, some said she was beautiful, some said she was ugly.
Durova felt uncomfortable around other women. On at least two occasions women recognized her true identity and addressed her as ‘Miss.’ Her fellow officers often joked that Aleksandrov was too shy and afraid of women.
Durova’s cover was almost blown during riding practice, when her new horse sent her sailing over its head. Nadezhda landed hard and lost consciousness. She came to just in time to discover that her friends, who had rushed to her aid, had removed her jacket and cravat and were about to unbutton her blouse so she could breathe easier. This ‘undressing,’ as she described it later, was the only time she came close to being found out.
Durova later transferred to the Lithuanian Lancer Regiment, frankly attributing her request to her own inability to live within her means. Lancer regiments did not require as much expenditure of funds as hussar regiments did.
Durova returned to combat during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and again fought with outstanding courage. At the Battle of Borodino in September she received a severe contusion to her knee, caused by a glancing blow from a spent cannonball. Rather than go to the hospital, she immediately offered her services as a staff orderly to Field Marshal Mikhail I. Kutuzov, who knew her true identity and gladly accepted her offer. After the decimation of the Grand Armée in the winter of 1812, Durova went on to participate in the 1813 and 1814 campaigns to topple Napoleon from power, during which she received several more decorations.
Napoleon’s return to France, the Hundred Days and the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, brought the Napoleonic wars to an end at last. In 1816 Durova, heeding her father’s requests to help him run the family estate, retired from the army with the rank of captain. By that time, her mother had died. In the postwar years, Durova continued to wear man’s clothing and referred to herself as a man, even with people who knew her from childhood. She admitted that she did ‘fancy women’s clothing’ but never wore a dress herself.
Bored with life in a small provincial town, Durova began to write. Her younger brother Vasily introduced her to the famous poet and writer Aleksandr S. Pushkin, who became a great admirer of her work and published it in his literary magazine, Contemporary, in 1836. It was also Pushkin who gave her the moniker ‘Cavalry Maiden.’ Besides her memoirs, Durova wrote four novels and numerous short stories between 1836 and 1840.
Nadezhda Durova lived out the rest of her life in the small town of Yelabuga, dying in 1866 at the age of 83. Fittingly, she was buried in a man’s clothing, with full military honors.
In the 1940s, Soviet playwright Aleksandr Gladkov wrote a play, A Long Time Ago, dedicated to Nadezhda Durova. When Eldar Ryazanov directed The Hussar Ballad in the 1960s, one of the film’s central characters was based on her.
The Durov family crest, in existence for more than 500 years, proudly proclaims, ‘Service to the Country.’ Although she never disclosed her true identity during her active duty career, Nadezhda Durova upheld the family motto, serving her country as well as any man did.
This article was written by Victor Kamenir and originally published in the April 2004 issue of Military History magazine.
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