Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lyudmila Pavlichenko - Badass with a gun

It's all well and good to punch Nazis, but Lyudmila Pavlichenko (July 12, 1916 – October 10, 1974) did way more than that. She shot Nazis. And not just a few. As a soldier for the Soviet Army in World War II she sniped 309 of them.

Image description: Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform surrounded by women workers, with a quote on the left side: "Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country."

As gruesome as it might be to consider for many of us, at the time killing Nazis seemed to be the only way to stop their march across Europe, killing anyone they didn't deem worthy of living in their 'GroƟdeutsches Reich.' When the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941, in addition to reneging on their pact with Russian not to invade (one they hadn't actually planned to keep), they went in with the full intention of taking over the western part of the Soviet Union so they could fill it with Germans and use anyone left as forced labor to support their war effort.

Naturally, the Soviets didn't like this idea and immediately began to enlist in large numbers, men and women, to fight against this invasion. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was no exception. She wanted to use her skills as a sharpshooter to defend her country. She was a college student at the time studying history, but she was also handy with a rifle. As a teen she'd joined a shooting club when a boy friend of hers boasted about his achievements. She set out to prove to him that girls could as well, and by the time she was in college, she'd earned a reputation as a proficient markswoman.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform holding a rifle standing among trees.

When she showed up at the recruitment office, she was initially offered a job as a nurse, but they agreed to let her prove herself. They handed her a rifle and showed her a couple of enemy fighters across the field of battle. She convinced them by handily dispatching both, earning her place as a sniper. In fact, there were over 2,000 female snipers in the Soviet Army. But Pavlichenko was the best. Her successes in the field earned her the respect of her superiors and the admiration of civilians near and far. In fact, after just over a year of battle (in which she'd killed 309 Nazis or their collaborators) she was removed from the front when she was injured because her notoriety she'd become a target for the enemy.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform standing between Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (left) and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (right) in 1942
She took a position as instructor for other snipers, teaching them what she'd learned in the field, and eventually rose to the rank of General. She used her newfound status to bring international attention to the situation along the Soviet front line -- the "second" front -- where resources were scarce and funds were desperately needed for basic equipment like x-ray machines. She was invited to the US by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to travel throughout the US telling Americans about her experience.

I'm more than a little annoyed by, but totally unsurprised at, the ridiculously misogynistic questions and comments she received during her tour. "One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat." But I am absolutely energized by her amazing response to the treatment she received from American men. "Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?" Boom!

After the war, she returned to her study of history, and spent the rest of her life working as a historian with the Soviet Navy.

You can read more about her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt in the Smithsonian Magazine story "Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper"

There was a Russian film made about her life, released in 2015, Battle for Sevastopol [trailer]

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