Women at war

EVAN MAWDSLEY ad­mires a new book telling the sto­ries of fe­male snipers in the So­viet-Ger­man war

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - MacLe­hose Press, 304 pages, £20 Evan Mawdsley is the au­thor of Thun­der in the East: The Nazi– So­viet War (Hod­der, 2005)

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

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