The Women’s Battalion of Death in the field.
When World War I began, Russian law prohibited women from joining the army. Nonetheless, women found ways to fight with the Russian army. Some women took the “traditional” route and disguised themselves as men, taking advantage of the general confusion to bypass medical inspections and other formalities. Others applied directly to unit commanders for the chance to enlist. As the war went on and manpower shortages became dire, individual commanders chose not to enforce the law. When women couldn’t convince a commander to let them enlist, they often appealed to a higher authority. (At least one invoked the memory of Nadezhda Durova to strengthen her case.) The number of petitions became burdensome enough that in June 1915—ten months after Russia entered the war—the army established a policy for dealing with them. Thereafter, all requests were referred to the tsar for his personal approval.
In 1917, the February Revolution brought with it the possibility of change. The Provisional Government proclaimed all subjects of the empire free and equal citizens, with the rights and duties that went with citizenship. Many women assumed their new status included their right as citizens to bear arms in their country’s defense. By the spring of 1917, the idea of an all-female military unit was in the air. Individual women proclaimed their desire to serve. Women’s groups sent petitions to the government asking for permission to form all-female military units.
At the same time that women were eager to join the army, men on the front were desperate for the war to stop. For two and a half years, the army had suffered shortages of food and materiel, heavy casualties, and brutal defeats at the hands of the Germans. From the perspective of the front line, the February Revolution had done nothing to improve their lot. The Provisional Government was no more effective at running the war than the imperial government it replaced. The introduction of democracy to the military decision-making process in the form of soldiers’ committees resulted in endless wrangling about every action and made it difficult for officers to enforce orders. In fact, many units voted to remove their officers, and then followed up the vote with force. Morale was low and the desertion rate was high. In May, units at the front experienced mass mutinies. It was not clear that Russia could continue to fight.
Many people thought an all-female battalion was the solution, believing the presence of women in the trenches would raise morale, or at least shame male soldiers into fighting.
In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers.
Bochkareva’s story is similar to that of women who joined the army disguised as men in earlier centuries. She was born into a desperately poor peasant family and went to work at the age of eight. When she was fifteen, she married a local peasant, Afanasi Bochkarev, in an attempt to escape her father, who was an abusive alcoholic. Afanasi proved to be as brutal as her father. She fled again, this time with a petty criminal named Yakov Buk. They lived together for three years. When Buk was arrested for fencing stolen goods in May 1912, Maria followed him into exile in Siberia, where he began to drink heavily and became physically abusive.
When the war began in 1914, Bochkareva saw it as an opportunity to escape. She traveled to her childhood home of Tomsk and attempted to enlist in the Twenty-Fifth Tomsk Reserve Battalion. The commander explained it was illegal for women to serve in the imperial army. Bochkareva pushed. The commander sarcastically suggested she ask the tsar for permission to enlist—not that far-fetched a suggestion as it turned out. Bochkareva convinced (or perhaps bullied) the commander to help her write a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II. To the amazement of everyone, and the possible chagrin of the commander, she received a thumbs-up from the tsar.
With the tsar’s permission, she enlisted in the Fourth Company of the Twenty-Fifth Reserve. Her unit was sent to the western front in February 1915. For two years she served with distinction. She was wounded three times—the third time a shell fragment pierced her spine, leaving her paralyzed. She learned to walk again and returned to the front. She earned several military honors for valor, including the St. George Cross.
Bochkareva was an avid proponent of an all-female brigade. She began to recruit for the First Women’s Battalion of Death as soon as she received approval to form the unit, helped by the Petrograd Women’s Military Organization. Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.
The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.
Bessie Beatty, an American journalist who reported on the Russian Revolutions and the subsequent civil war for the San Francisco Bulletin, spent ten days living with the battalion in its barracks. When she asked the women why they had enlisted, many told her it was “because they believed that the honor and even the existence of Russia were at stake and nothing but great human sacrifice could save her.” Others joined because “anything was better than the dreary drudgery and the drearier waiting of life as they lived it.” A fifteen-year-old Cossack girl from the Urals, who managed to enlist despite the requirement that all volunteers be at least eighteen, joined because her father, mother, and two brothers had all died in battle. “What else is left for me?” she asked Beatty.
On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit, the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders. Bessie Beatty trumpeted the significance of the unit and the event to her readers. This was “not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun throughout the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse—machine gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.”
Two days later, Bochkareva and her soldiers left for the Russian western front. Kerensky sent the unit to an area that suffered from dangerously low morale. A few days before the women arrived, a regiment had been forced to disband due to massive desertions. Their posting was deliberate—a test as to whether the presence of women would affect the morale of male soldiers.
The First Women’s Battalion of Death experienced its first taste of battle on July 9 as part of an offensive against a German position. When the order came to attack, nothing happened. Three regiments of the infantry division to which they were attached convened their soldiers’ committees and debated whether or not to fight. After several hours, the women, anxious to prove their worth, decided they would advance without the support of the other regiments. Joined by a few hundred male soldiers, they advanced with few casualties. Eventually, more than half the soldiers in the division joined them in the advance. Together they took the first and second lines of the German trenches.
The women and a few male soldiers held off six German counterattacks on their position. They retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Before retreating, they captured two machine guns and a number of Germans, including two officers, who were not happy about being taken prisoner by women. One officer was so distraught with the shame of being captured by women that the Russian women tied him down for fear he would commit suicide—a variation of the Yoruba rage at finding they had retreated before an army of women.
The First Women’s Battalion of Death inspired the creation of similar units throughout Russia. Between five thousand and six thousand women volunteered for combat. The Provisional Government established fifteen more official units; grassroots women’s groups organized at least ten others. Several of these units saw active duty.
Despite the success of the First Women’s Battalion of Death at the front, military authorities believed the units were more trouble than they were worth. The units were formed as a means of improving morale among male troops. Instead, male soldiers became increasingly hostile to the presence of women soldiers over the course of the summer. By September, the military had stopped enlisting women and was discussing proposals to disband existing women’s combat units.
In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a relatively bloodless coup. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and began demobilizing the army, including the all-female units. Because the great experiment of women soldiers was publicly linked with the Provisional Government, many women soldiers were branded as counterrevolutionaries during the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule and suffered violence at the hands of their countrymen. Some joined anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Others enlisted in the Red Army, which welcomed women during the civil war—though most of them were placed in noncombat positions.
Maria Bochkareva fled to the United States, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson to plea for the United States to intervene in Russia. (And took the time to “write” her memoir.) She returned to Siberia in 1919 and organized a women’s paramedic unit on behalf of the White Russians. She was captured by the Bolsheviks on Christmas Day 1919, tried as an enemy of the state, and shot on May 16, 1920. She was thirty years old.
Russia’s women soldiers were celebrated during the First World War, but they were conspicuously absent from Soviet histories of the war and the revolution that followed it because of their connection to the failed Provisional Government. Nonetheless, they would serve as a precedent when Soviet Russia once again faced an external enemy in the form of Nazi Germany.