Women in the Russian and Soviet military

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The common historical perception of the woman in the Soviet Army is that of a heroic, highly motivated, well-disciplined, tenacious soldier fighting in defense of the Motherland. Growing out of the Soviet experience of World War II, in which more than 8 percent of the Soviet Union’s mobilized troops were women,[1] the image may reflect more the propaganda efforts of the Soviets than reality.[2] Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was one of the first contemporary societies to employ women extensively in its armed forces. Women served as “women soldiers” in World War I,[3] fought in the Revolution, and even provided combat units during World War II, when three women’s air regiments flew combat aircraft and 23 of their fliers were named Hero of the Soviet Union.

World War I[edit]

Women served in the Russian armed forces in small numbers in the early stages of the war, but their numbers increased after heavy Russian losses such as at the Battle of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes and a need for increased manpower. One such recruit was Maria Bochkareva who served with the 25th Reserve Battalion of the Russian Army. After the abdication of Nicholas II of Russia in March 1917, she convinced interim prime minister Alexander Kerensky to let her form a women's battalion. The Women's Battalion of Death recruited women between the ages of 13 and 25 and appealed for support in a series of public meetings, enlisting approximately 2,000 soldiers. The Battalion fought during the June Offensive against German forces in 1917. Three months of fighting dwindled their numbers to around two-hundred and fifty.

The Women's Battalion was disbanded after a failed political revolution known as the Kornilov Affair. Its leader, General Lavr Kornilov, had been strongly supported by Bachkarova, and the Women's Battalion were identified as potential sympathizers. The majority of the battalion's members were reformed as the First Petrograd Women's Battalion. This group was at the Winter Palace on the night of the Bolshevik Revolution, along with an untrained cadet detachment and a bicycle regiment. They mounted a stiff resistance but ultimately fell, although there were only 5 deaths in the storming of the Winter Palace. The triumphant Bolsheviks officially disbanded the group.

Several women pilots are known from the First World War. Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya was assigned duty as an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, having volunteered for the Imperial Russian Air Service in 1914 (one of the world’s first female military aviators) and flew missions with the 26th Corps Air Squadron in 1917 for nine months. Because of her connections to the Imperial family she was demobilized after the October Revolution. Lyubov A. Golanchikova was a test pilot who contributed her airplane to the Czarist armies; Helen P. Samsonova was assigned to the 5th Corps Air Squadron as a reconnaissance pilot. And in 1915, Nedeshda Degtereva had the distinction of being the first woman pilot to be wounded in combat while on a reconnaissance mission over the Austrian front in Galicia.

World War II[edit]

Women, members of Sydir Kovpak's partisan formation in Ukraine

Women played a large part in most of the armed forces of the Second World War. In most countries though, women tended to serve mostly in administrative, medical and in auxiliary roles. But in the Soviet Union women fought in larger numbers in front line roles. Over 800,000 women served in the Soviet armed forces in World War II; nearly 200,000 of them were decorated and 89 of them eventually received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union. They served as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles.[4] Very few of these women, however, were ever promoted to officers.

Aviators[edit]

For Soviet women aviators, instrumental to this change was Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviator, often referred to[by whom?] as the ‘Russian Amelia Earhart’. Raskova became a famous aviator as both a pilot and a navigator in the 1930s. She was the first woman to become a navigator in the Soviet Air Force in 1933. Raskova is credited with using her personal connections with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to form three combat regiments for women. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women pilots to fly combat missions. These regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 combat sorties, produced at least thirty Heroes of the Soviet Union, and included at least two fighter aces. This military unit was initially called Aviation Group 122 while the three regiments received training. After their training, the three regiments received their formal designations as the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Land forces[edit]

The Soviet Union also used women for sniping duties extensively, and to great effect, including Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya and Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko (who killed over 300 enemy soldiers). The Soviets found that sniper duties fit women well, since good snipers are patient, careful, deliberate, can avoid hand-to-hand combat, and need higher levels of aerobic conditioning than other troops. Women also served as machine gunners, tank drivers, medics, communication personnel and political officers. Manshuk Mametova was a machine gunner from Kazakhstan and was the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union for acts of bravery.

Partisans[edit]

Women consistituted significant numbers of the Soviet partisans. One of the most famous was Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who earned the Hero of the Soviet Union award (February 16, 1942).

The youngest woman to become a Hero of the Soviet Union was also a resistance fighter, Zinaida Portnova.

Post 1945[edit]

After the war, most women left the armed forces. Those that stayed to make a career in the post-war armed forces saw old attitudes return and promotion and opportunities more difficult. Also, some military academies closed their doors to women despite the supposed official policy of equality. In 1967, the Russian Universal Military Duty Laws concluded that women offered the greater source of available combat soldiers during periods of large scale mobilisation. Thus, several programs during the height of the Cold War were set up to encourage women to enlist. Participation in military orientated youth programs and forced participation in the reserves for ex-servicewomen up to the age of 40 are some examples. Universities contained reservist officer training which accompanied a place in the reserves themselves, especially for doctors. But some roles open to women during the war were later barred.

Women have had the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces throughout the post Cold War period. In 2002, 10% of the Russian armed forces (100,000 of a total active strength of 988,100) were women.[5]

The current tally of woman in the Russian Army is standing at around 115,000 to 160,000, representing 10% of Russia’s military strength.

The Russian army runs the Miss Russian Army beauty contest for attractive female Russian soldiers. Colonel Gennady Dzyuba, of the Defense Ministry, said of the 2005 contest that "Those who have served, especially in hot spots, know the importance of women in the armed forces.”

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jim Rogers, “Soviet Women,” Soldiers, March 1978, p. 13.
  2. ^ Edd D. Wheeler, “Women in Combat: A Demurrer,” Air University Review, November–December 1978, p. 66. The author describes their combat role as “an exercise in public relations, designed to impress the outside world with the underdog position of [Russia].”
  3. ^ The combat role of women in the Revolution is addressed by Vera Broido, Apostles into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II (New York, 1977). Their combat role in World War I is addressed in “Russia’s Women Soldiers,” Literary Digest, 25 August 1917.
  4. ^ Women and the Soviet Military
  5. ^ The Military Balance 2002-2003, International Institute for Strategic Studies
  • 'Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat' by Reina Pennington and John Erickson (Foreword) ISBN 0-7006-1145-2
  • 'Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45' by Henry Sakaida and Christa Hook (Author) ISBN 1-84176-598-8

Further reading[edit]

World War II[edit]

  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union" Journal of Military History (April 1993), 57:301-323. online edition
  • Cottam, K. Jean. "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Ground Forces and the Navy," International Journal of Women's Studies (1980) 3#4 pp 345–357
  • Cottam, K. Jean. "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Rear Services, Resistance behind Enemy Lines and Military Political Workers," International Journal of Women's Studies (1982) 5#4 pp 363–378
  • Cottam, K. Jean. Soviet Airwomen in Combat in World War II (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983)
  • Krylova, Anna. Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (2010)
  • Krylova, Anna. "Stalinist Identity from the Viewpoint of Gender: Rearing a Generation of Professionally Violent Women-Fighters in 1930s Stalinist Russia," Gender & History (2004) 16#3 pp 626–653.
  • Markwick, Roger D. "A Sacred Duty": Red Army Women Veterans Remembering the Great Fatherland War, 1941-1945," Australian Journal of Politics & History, (2008), 54#3 pp. 403-420.
  • Maubach, Franka; Satjukow, Silke. "Zwischen Emanzipation und Trauma: Soldatinnen im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Deutschland, Sowjetunion, USA)" Historische Zeitschrift, (April 2009), Vol. 288 Issue 2, pp 347–384
  • Merry, Lois K. Women Military Pilots of World War II: A History with Biographies of American, British, Russian and German Aviators., (2010).
  • Pennington, Reina. Wings, Women & War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat, (2007).
  • Pennington, Reina. "Offensive Women: Women in Combat in the Red Army in the Second World War" Journal of Military History, (2010) 74#3 pp 775–820

External links[edit]