Women at war
EVAN MAWDSLEY admires a new book telling the stories of female snipers in the Soviet-German war
The activity of Red Army snipers during the Second World War became widely known outside Russia after the filmEnemy at the Gates (2001), based loosely on the experiences of Vasily Zaytsev. Less familiar in the west is the role of female snipers, used only by the Soviets and trained in considerable numbers from 1942 onwards.
Many of those whose stories are told in this book were trained at a special sniper school for women set up at Veshniaki, near Moscow. They were then assigned in small teams within infantry battalions. Lyuba Vinogradova argues that the use of young women as snipers was not based on any inherent gender superiority for this role. It came about because, after two years of catastrophic losses, the number of available young men had greatly declined. Acting as snipers was only one of many roles in which women, in their hundreds of thousands, supplemented or replaced men in the Red Army.
As the author admits, this book is not about the ‘ big picture’, but about the particular. It does not deal at length with training, the overall military effect of snipers, the depiction of women snipers in wartime propaganda, or moral questions involved in such a direct form of killing. Rather, it is about the experience of individual people.
One of the most detailed threads follows Roza Shanina, who was killed in 1945 and left diaries and letters, and who was celebrated in contemporary propaganda. But the book’s research is based mainly on dozens of interviews conducted in 2009–13. This was a last chance to record the stories of veterans who had now reached the age of 85–90 years. The approach is roughly chronological, from 1943 until the battles in Germany in 1945.
The book is well structured, despite a narrative that moves back and forth between fronts and individuals. The reader gets a remarkable sense of the poverty of life in the Soviet Union before and during the war, but also the close relationships within families, especially between mothers and daughters. In front-line service, a crucial dimension was the unique relationship with the (female) hunting ‘partner’ and the other members of their teams. Vinogradova also brings out problems of relationships
Many Soviet civilians continued to question the moral character of these female soldiers
with male soldiers, both the rank and file and the officers and notes that, postwar, many Soviet civilians continued to question the moral character of these female soldiers who had mixed with men at the front.
Vinogradova was a researcher with Anthony Beevor, and her extensive research and broad knowledge of the campaign on the eastern front are evident here. The stories are fluently translated by Arch Tait, there are excellent photographs throughout, and overall the book provides a powerful account of how many young women lived, fought and died.
Thousands of women, most no older than 20, trained as snipers and were sent to the eastern front, supplementing the decimated numbers of male fighters in the Red Army