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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Maria Bochkareva (1889-1920) and The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death (May-November 1917)
I feel like it's mostly well known that Russian women fought during the Second World War (think Rachel Weisz in "Enemy at the Gates"). What caught my interest, though was that female soldiers on the front in the 1940s were nothing new for Russia; they made their mark decades prior in the First World War . . .

Maria "Yashka" Bochkareva is a bit of a folk hero for those who know about her. She was a peasant girl from Novogrod and had lived through two abusive marriages before making her way into a reserve battalion of the Imperial Russian Army once the First World War started in 1914. It probably goes without saying that a woman in the army was unique - she actually had to get personal permission from Tsar Nicholas II himself to get in. Likewise, like all others "different" from the norm, she had to endure sexual harasment and more from her male peers . . . that is, until she proved she was just as tough a soldier as any of them. In the following two years of war, "Yashka" had been wounded twice, decorated for bravery thrice, and promoted to sergeant.

By mid 1917, things in Russia were extremely volatile. Political outrage and revolutionaries caused chaos from inside the country; low morale, lack of materiel and a determined enemy grinded at the soldiers from the outside. A Provisional Government took control over the country after the "October Revolution", and the Tsar was forced to abdicate his position. Again, without saying, this kind of turmoil does not bode well for morale on the front lines . . . or anywhere, for that matter.

That's where Sergeant Bochkareva comes back into the story. In May of 1917, she stood before the new parliament and voiced her desire to create a new battalion: a women's battalion.

Actually, I'm not completely sure whether this was Yashka's idea to form this battalion or the Provisional Government's idea to task her with building it. Either way, all sides liked the idea. There was powerful propaganda value in women soldiers who might boost the morale of the men on the front, after all. In any case, female attention was full and undivided, and over 2000 women immediately volunteered for this new women's battalion. Of those 2000, about 300 - mostly peasants - managed to make it through the harsh training and discipline and formed what was known as the "1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death".

Cheery title, eh?

Once the Battalion was made official in time for the "June Offensive", they were freighted off to a battlefield near Smorgon (in modern-day Belarus) and attached to the severely demoralised 525th Kiuruk-Darinski (or Kuriag-Daryjuski) Regiment, taking up an empty section of Russian trench.

The whistle blew. The Women's Battalion went over the top and charged across no-man's land at the German trenches . . . . . and they captured the German's first line of trenches. And then the second. The women repelled a German counter-attack and went on to capture a third trench.

The men "supporting" the battalion's action found German stores of vodka and got themselves drunk before Bochkareva could give the order to destroy the remaining alcohol . . . true or not, the Women's Battalion was nevertheless on their own when the Germans pushed them back to their starting trenches.

Despite that hang-up, Bochkareva (newly promoted to Lieutenant) and her battalion returned with six killed, 20 wounded, and 200 prisoners - Yashka herself was among the wounded, knocked unconscious by an artillery shell. Still, for a World War I battle, a 300-strong unit coming back with only 26 casualties is almost unheard of.

About two hundred women soldiers continued to fight at the front until after the Bolshevik Revolution in October (when the Communists took over Russia and formed what would become the Soviet Union); with growing hostilities from soldiers on the front and the government further into the country, the Battalion of Death was soon disbanded.

Maria Bochkareva's efforts were not without merit. After the formation of the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death, several other women's battalions came into existence - one of which was even part of the defense of the Winter Palace as the revolutionaries took over the country. Ultimately, with the various changes in government and increasing pressure to end the war, the powers that be refused to spend more resources on what was an experiment that did not have the morale-boosting effects intended. Russia was now out of the war, and the Bolsheviks were eyeing the women soldiers (including Bochkareva) as potential dissidents.

Maria Bochkareva was caught in 1918 by the Bolsheviks after they learned of her contact with The Whites (the other faction during the Russian Civil War that came after the Great War). Sentenced to be executed, she was given a reprieve and allowed to leave the country. She fled to America, first to San Francisco and eventually to New York where she would write (well, dictate) her memoirs of her experiences. She even went on to meet with President Woodrow Wilson of America and King George V of Britain, among other things.

I imagine she probably could have lived quite happily in the west with a little fame and no more fighting . . . but I guess that just wasn't who she was. She was strongly against the Bolsheviks, and in 1918 went back to Russia to form a new Women's Battalion for the Whites.

She failed. A year later, she was captured by the Bolsheviks; another year later, she was executed by firing squad for "being an enemy of the people".

So ends the story of Maria "Yashka" Bochakareva. It's quite late as I write this and I can't really think of any good final thoughts for this whole deal. Actually, I will say this: after writing at this post for about an hour now, it's somewhat amazing to think that the majority of this story actually took place in the span of three years. In three years a peasant girl formed and commanded a battalion of criticised yet formidable women soldiers, was exiled to the west where she met two world leaders, came back to her homeland to fight in a civil war, and was ultimately captured and executed.

Honestly, I think the story speaks for itself.

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(Left: "Yashka" Bochkareva; Right: The Women's Battalion of Death.)

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