Eager to prove themselves, women served the Red Army as nurses, medics, cooks and clerks—but also as snipers, surgeons, pilots and machine gunners.
On June 21, 1941, the day before Nazi Germany sprang its surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, Natalia Peshkova, a 17-year-old Muscovite, graduated from high school with hopes of becoming a journalist. She was a member of the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth, or Komsomol, and she immediately ran to its headquarters to volunteer for the war. Like hundreds of other Muscovite girls, she was assigned to be a medic in a newly formed militia unit (opolcheniye), where she learned basic first aid and rudimentary military skills. Just four months later her militia division first entered battle in the defense of Moscow, was encircled and got badly mauled. Peshkova and her comrades at the battalion aid station escaped the enemy cordon after days of hiding and evading the Germans. She was then assigned to the regimental aid station of a regular infantry division.
Not content with nursing, in 1943 Peshkova sought combat duty and secured an assignment to the 71st Tank Brigade of the 3rd Guards Tank Army as a Komsorg (Komsomol organizer) for a tank battalion. There, her first battle was to earn the trust and respect of the male soldiers. The Komsorg was the third highest-ranking officer in the battalion and was expected to lead by example in battle, which she did. Peshkova was wounded three times—first in a bombing attack on her aid station, twice more in ground combat by artillery and small-arms fire. Years later she recalled one particular encounter: “I found myself face to face with a German, at the opposite corner of a log house. I guess he was trembling like me. I always wore trousers; perhaps he didn’t recognize that his rival was a girl. I was extremely frightened. I never saw a person who could kill me so near.” She couldn’t remember the outcome.
For heroism in combat Peshkova was awarded the Order of the Red Star.
Natalia Peshkova was just one of some 800,000 women who served in the Red Army during World War II—several hundred thousand of them under fire—and their experiences demolish the stereotype that women are too weak physically and emotionally to withstand the stresses of combat.
Communist Party propagandists proclaimed that under the Soviet order women were equal to men socially and legally, but it was not a given that women could join the army wholesale in peace or war. During World War I women had served in the Imperial Russian Army as both nurses and combatants. As many as 50,000 women served in the fledgling Red Army during the Russian Civil War. But despite those experiences and the egalitarian rhetoric of the Soviet regime, there was no consensus on the need for women to serve in the armed forces, nor was there much demand by women to do so—as is made clear by the complete lack of female volunteers for the conflicts with Japan in August 1939, Poland in September 1939 and Finland from November 1939.
June 22, 1941, changed all that. The German invasion sparked an immediate flood of both male and female volunteers. The Soviet people, especially Russians, understood the Nazi invasion to be an extraordinary threat to their entire nation. Still, the Red Army initially accepted few of the tens of thousands of women who volunteered; most were directed to Red Cross courses for aspiring nurses. A month later Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the creation of volunteer citizens’ shock battalions and communist battalions, as well as militia regiments and divisions for civil defense.
These units accepted women in all capacities, from infantry to signalers, medics, cooks and clerks. When the state converted these units into regular Red Army regiments and divisions in 1942, women were allowed to continue serving in their existing capacities.
The women who volunteered for military service were overwhelmingly Russian; few women of the Soviet Union’s many ethnic, racial and national minorities enlisted or were later conscripted. Russian female volunteers came primarily from urban areas and were either workers or university students, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, mostly single and childless, and typically well educated. Most belonged to the Komsomol, membership in which was generally a prerequisite for social and economic mobility.
The majority of women volunteered to serve in support roles, but many wanted to be frontline medics. A small number actually wished to serve as combatants. Lidia Alekrinskaia, for one, wrote to her draft board:
I was born in 1922, am a Komsomolka [female Komsomol member] and in recent years completed the 10th grade of the Blagodatenskoi middle school. I can bandage, give first aid to the wounded, look after the wounded, and, if necessary, I will go so far as to fight the fascists, with rifle in hand.
Altogether, about 310,000 women volunteered for and were accepted into service in the Red Army either directly or through the shock and communist battalions and militia units. A further 490,000 were conscripted beginning in August 1941. The People’s Commissariat of Defense (NKO) first ordered the Komsomol to deliver 30,000 women with at least seven years of schooling to become nurses and 30,000 more with at least four years of schooling to become medics. Also that August the Komsomol delivered 10,000 Komsomolkas to the army specifically for duty as radio, telegraph and telephone operators, as well as linemen. In March 1942 the state initiated the regular mobilization of women for service in the army.
The NKO insisted on special standards for females: Women, unlike men, would be selected on the basis of education, including complete literacy in Russian, their level of “culture”—meaning character, self-discipline and deportment—health, physical strength and inclination for military specialties. Informal criteria included being single and childless. The requirement for literacy in Russian clearly was a discriminatory act against national minorities and peasants. As a result, the demographics of conscripted females matched those of the volunteers.
The weeding-out process for women was far more selective than that for men. Only health and fitness standards applied to men, and those were rather lax. The average female volunteer and conscript was, therefore, a cut above the average male soldier, an important consideration when comparing the performance of the two.
The army assigned the vast majority of female conscripts to the medical, signal and anti-aircraft defense services. In those fields the percentages of women are astonishing: 41 percent of doctors, 43 percent of surgeons, 43 percent of veterinarians, 100 percent of nurses, and 40 percent of nurses’ aides and combat medics were female. Nearly half of all traffic controllers were female, and tens of thousands of vehicle drivers were women. Some 200,000 women mobilized by the Komsomol served in the anti-aircraft forces, as ground crews, searchlight operators, observers, radio operators and political officers. The Red Army assigned tens of thousands of women to communications work at the regiment level and higher, and thousands more served as administrative personnel.
In 1942 the Red Army adopted a policy allowing women to fight as snipers, riflemen and machine gunners. They were also permitted to crew tanks, and the Red Air Force organized three women’s air regiments—albeit relying almost entirely on women who were already pilots when the war began. Some women, such as well-publicized machine gunner Zoia Medvedeva, were already serving in these capacities, thanks to regimental commanders who acquiesced to their pleas. For the duration of the war all women who took up arms to fight at the front did so on a volunteer basis, often having to overcome male resistance to their requests. When unit commanders refused their services, women just moved on to the next regiment until they found a commander who would accept them. How many women became trigger-pulling soldiers is unknown. Nearly 2,500 were trained as snipers, and many others became snipers without formal training. The female snipers were trained a platoon at a time and then sent to an infantry regiment for distribution among combat infantry battalions.
The call for volunteers revealed that the pool of women anxious to shed blood in combat was rather shallow. This despite the fact that in 1942 Vsevobuch, the paramilitary organization responsible for pre-conscription training, had begun teaching thousands of young women to use mortars, machine guns, submachine guns and rifles. The initial call for women attracted only 7,000 of the 9,000 necessary to form the first brigade. When it appeared the requisite number of volunteers was not forthcoming, the Komsomol, which handled recruitment for the Women’s Volunteer Rifle Brigade, resorted to institutional pressure to enroll enlistees. Recruitment followed the usual pattern of attracting young, urban and educated Russians. More than 1,000 women already serving at the front in male units transferred into the brigade, but they and many others were bitterly disappointed by the army’s failure to post the unit to the front line. Once they understood the brigade was slated for only guard duties, some of them deserted to the front to rejoin combat units. The female soldiers were also disappointed that most of their officers were men, and that most weren’t even competent leaders.
When the brigade completed its training in January 1944, the NKO transferred it to the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). The NKVD then assigned the brigade to perform rear-area security duties, primarily to safeguard the lines of communication. The brigade performed such duties through July 1944, and then the army disbanded it without explanation. The short life of the brigade and the decision to scrap plans for other such units indicate some level of conflict in the government over the role of female ground formations. Apparently, neither ideology nor need was pressing enough to overcome male reluctance to the formation and deployment of all-female ground combat units, despite the obvious willingness of some women to serve as combatants.
The Red Army never forced women into combat, and those who served as snipers, infantry, tankers or artillery gunners sought out such assignments on their own initiative. They had to obtain the permission of the respective regimental commander, which could take much persistence and argument. Others had already earned the respect of their fellow soldiers and officers as frontline medics and were then allowed to take up combatant duties. As a result, it was the exceptional female volunteers who engaged in killing the enemy. In contrast, most men on the firing line were conscripts with no choice of assignment. Available evidence suggests women performed their combat tasks exceptionally well. While their reaction to killing and the stress of combat was similar to that of men, they persisted out of a sense of duty, hate, patriotism, vengeance or comradeship.
Sniper Antonina Kotliarova, for example, recalled that the killing was “horrible.” Yet, her performance on a two woman sniper team was indistinguishable from that of a male sniper. Each day she lay an arm’s length from her partner, Olga, not moving, not making a sound, body parts going numb, looking for targets. “I would say: ‘Olia, mine,’” Kotliarova recalled. “She would already know—she wouldn’t kill that one. After the shot I would only help her observe. I would say, for example, ‘There, behind that house, behind that bush,’ and she would already know where to look. We took turns shooting.”
Despite two decades of socialist-feminist rhetoric, Soviet male soldiers frequently resisted the presence of female soldiers in or near combat. Some commanders adamantly refused to accept women into their units. When the “idiots” at his division personnel office sent one engineer battalion commander two female platoon leaders—whose job was to clear minefields—the officer justified his rejection of the women by saying his sergeants could do that just as well, adding: “I considered it unnecessary for women to go to the front line. There were enough of us men for that. And I also knew their presence would cause no end of trouble with my men, who had their hands full as it was. It would’ve been necessary to dig a separate dugout for them, and besides, for them to be giving orders would have involved a lot of problems, because they were girls.”
Nonetheless, several hundred thousand women did serve in the forward combat zone in a wide variety of capacities, and tens of thousands died there.
Soviet historiography gave only tworeasons for women’s service: patriotism and vengeance—motivations assigned to volunteers and draftees alike. Vera Danilovtseva said that when the war began, “I, of course, immediately imagined myself Joan of Arc. My only desire was to go to the front with a rifle in my hands, even though I had never hurt a fly until then.” Women often invoked the image of Joan of Arc, with its connotations of ordinary people defending the nation. One popularized example of the vengeance motif was that of M.V. Oktiabr’skaia, who sought to join the army to avenge the death of her husband, an army commissar. The army initially denied her request, so she raised money and paid for the manufacture of a tank, which, crewed by women, she was then allowed to command in battle until her 1944 death in action.
The ideology of the Russian Revolution, with its promised equality for women, evidently played a significant role in the psyche of the volunteers and the willingness of draftees to report for conscription. Elena K. Stempkovskaia, a radio operator in a rifle battalion in early 1942, expressed her feelings about serving in the army in a letter to her boyfriend:
My darling, I have found my place in life, a place which allows me to defend our beloved motherland. I am lucky as never, ever before.
Like Stempkovskaia, many women found military service a liberating experience and an expression of female equality. Maria Kaliberda expressed the feelings of many women when she wrote:
We wanted to be equal—we didn’t want the men saying,‘Oh, those women!’ about us. And we tried harder than the men. Apart from everything else we had to prove that we were as good as them. For a long time we had to put up with a very patronizing, superior attitude.
Some women enlisted or reported for conscription to be with friends and family or to conform to societal and peer pressure. The need for acceptance also played a role: In late summer 1941 Maria I. Morozova traveled to Moscow to enlist because, in her words, “Everybody was fighting, and we did not want to be left out.” Soviet propaganda stressed that everyone had a responsibility to contribute to victory, and this also affected young women’s decision making. “I knew I was needed at the front,” Zoia Khlopotina recalled thinking. “I knew that even my modest investment would count in the great common undertaking of the defeat of the enemy.”
Other women joined because their fathers or husbands had been arrested during Stalin’s prewar purges, and they wanted to clear their families’ names by a show of loyalty to the regime. Many more reported for duty simply because the state called them, and they were unwilling to accept the consequences of draft evasion.
Once in the military, female soldiers apparently were able to cope with the physical and emotional demands of war— although evidence on this subject is lacking. Red Army Sergeant Sergei Abaulin remembered: “Throughout the many combat operations, it was necessary for us to complete many 50- to 60-kilometer foot marches in a 24-hour period and then join battle from the march. Even the infantrymen were exhausted to the limit. However, for us artillerymen it was necessary to roll, carry and drag our not-so-light guns by hand too, but nobody grumbled or whined. Among us soldiers were many women, who also courageously transcended all the adversity.”
“We have gone into the attack with our platoon and crawled side by side with them,” combat medic Lelia Nikova told one war correspondent. “We have fed soldiers, given them water, bandaged them under fire. We turned out to be more resilient than the soldiers. We even used to urge them on.” Yet, she confessed, “Sometimes, trembling at night, we would think, Oh, if I were at home right now.”
Not all female soldiers were likely as tough, courageous and resilient as Nikova, but the historical record is devoid of any negatives regarding women in the service. That there were no discipline problems with women is simply unrealistic, but determining the extent of misbehavior will have to wait for greater archival access. It is known that female miscreants, unlike male miscreants, were not sentenced to terms in penal companies but subject only to demotion in rank and time in prison.
More indicative of the performance of female soldiers, perhaps, is the fact that nearly 90 women were awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, their nation’s highest medal for valor. More than half received the medal posthumously. More than 30 were pilots or aircrew, many of whom flew hundreds of combat missions, including double ace Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak. Sixteen were medics who died rescuing men in combat. Three were machine gunners. Two were tankers. Snipers included Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko, credited with 309 kills, and the team of Privates Mariya Polivanova and Natalya Kovshova, jointly credited with more than 300 kills.
The International Committee of the Red Cross awarded another 15 Soviet women the Florence Nightingale Medal for rendering medical aid under fire.
Other than combat, the most difficult aspect of military service for Soviet women was their interaction with male soldiers. Despite the claim women were equal to men, most Soviet men looked down on women, preferred they keep to their traditional, subordinate roles and resisted serving under them. Women received a mixed reception at all levels, and the most controversial aspects of women’s wartime service related to their roles as commanders (particularly of men) and in trigger-pulling assignments.
Women in all areas of Soviet military service faced another major challenge—sexual harassment. Over the course of the war the People’s Commissariat of Defense never established guidelines for fraternization between male and female soldiers, between male and female officers, or between male and female officers and enlisted personnel. Romantic relationships frequently developed despite unofficial admonishment, which sometimes degraded individual and even unit performance. Anecdotes abound about officers neglecting their duties because they were either arguing over women or fraternizing with women. Where women served together in groups or as units and had a feminist consciousness, their interactions with male soldiers tended to be healthier. However, in situations where women served in small numbers or as isolated individuals, there tended to be widespread sexual exploitation of them by their superiors.
The most common form of sexual harassment was for commanders—both single and married—to take a “marching field wife,” usually referred to by the Russian acronym PPZh. Sometimes these relationships were consensual, but often there was obvious coercion. It was the rare officer with authority over women who did not have a PPZh. Most officers considered it their right to have a PPZh, with the higher rank getting first choice. Enlisted men resented officers for pursuing such relationships, especially those commanders who ordered their men to stay away from women.
On the other hand, women could manipulate officers’ desire for sex and companionship to improve their circumstances. A PPZh certainly received preferred treatment, including lighter and safer duties, better food and quarters, and rides in vehicles with their “husbands” when other women had to walk. Other women could tolerate this favoritism if they thought the couple was in love, but intense resentment would spring up between a PPZh and the other women of a unit if the relationship were seen as self-serving.
Women’s participation in the Red Army on such a large scale did not represent a dramatic reordering of gender roles in Soviet society—which suggests the experience of these women at war may also apply to other types of societies. Lessons learned about Soviet women in World War II—lessons being relearned in today’s armies —include that highly motivated and carefully selected women make good soldiers; that only a minority of women who desire to become soldiers actually want to engage in armed combat; but that women can and will fight and kill.
The World War II use of women by the Soviet Red Army appears to have been successful, thanks to such common factors as intense patriotism, a rigorous selection process, carefully managed demographics and use of women in combat on a volunteer basis. Likewise, the most serious obstacle to the success of women’s service was, and remains, that of traditional male attitudes.
For further reading Roger Reese recommends his own Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought: The Red Army’s Military Effectiveness in World War II, as well as War’s Unwomanly Face, by Svetlana A. Aleksievich.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.