Women in the Russian and Soviet military


Women in the Russian and Soviet military

Women in the Russian and Soviet military, as in other nations, have played an important role in their country's military history, in particular during the Great Patriotic War. Despite performing various duties in the armies throughout Russian history, it was in the 20th century that women began to be given a more prominent role. Women of Russia and the Soviet Union played a significant role in World Wars, especially during World War 2; arguably a greater role than in other combatant nations, although attitudes towards their contribution was occasionally paternalistic and reluctant.

World War I

Women served in the Russian armed forces in small numbers in the early stages of the war, but their numbers increased after heavy Russian losses such as at the Battle of Tannenburg and Masurian Lakes and a need for increased manpower. One such recruit was Maria Bochkareva who served with the 25th Reserve Battalion of the Russian Army. After the abdication of Nicholas II of Russia in March 1917, she convinced interim prime minister Alexander Kerensky to let her form a women's battalion. The Women's Battalion of Death recruited women between the ages of 13 and 25 and appealed for support in a series of public meetings, enlisting approximately 2,000 soldiers. The Battalion fought during the June Offensive against German forces in 1917. Three months of fighting dwindled their numbers to around two-hundred and fifty.

The Women's Battalion was disbanded after a failed political revolution known as the Kornilov Affair. Its leader, General Lavr Kornilov, had been strongly supported by Bachkarova, and the Women's Battalion were identified as potential sympathizers. The majority of the battalion's members were reformed as the First Petrograd Women's Battalion. This group was at the Winter Palace on the night of the Bolshevik Revolution, along with an untrained cadet detachment and a bicycle regiment. They mounted a stiff resistance but ultimately fell, although there were only 5 deaths in the storming of the Winter Palace. The triumphant Bolsheviks officially disbanded the group.

Several women pilots are known from the First World War. Princess Eugenie M. Shakovskaya was assigned duty as an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, having volunteered for the Imperial Russian Air Service in 1914 (one of the world’s first female military aviators) and flew missions with the 26th Corps Air Squadron in 1917 for nine months. Because of her connections to the Imperial family she was demobilized after the October Revolution. Lyubov A. Golanchikova was a test pilot who contributed her airplane to the Czarist armies; Helen P. Samsonova was assigned to the 5th Corps Air Squadron as a reconnaissance pilot. And in 1915, Nedeshda Degtereva had the distinction of being the first woman pilot to be wounded in combat while on a reconnaissance mission over the Austrian front in Galicia.

World War II

Women played a large part in most of the armed forces of the Second World War. In most countries though, women tended to serve mostly in administrative, medical and in auxiliary roles. But in the Soviet Union women fought in larger numbers in front line roles. Over 800,000 women served their Motherland in World War II; nearly 200,000 of them were decorated and 89 of them eventually received the Soviet Union’s highest award, the Hero of the Soviet Union. They served as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles. [ [http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/aureview/1982/jan-feb/obrien.html Women and the Soviet Military ] ] Very few of these women, however, were ever promoted to officers.

Aviators

For Soviet women aviators, instrumental to this change was Marina Raskova, a famous Russian aviator, often referred to as the ‘Russian Amelia Earhart’. Raskova became a famous aviator as both a pilot and a navigator in the 1930s. She was the first woman to become a navigator in the Soviet Air Force in 1933. Raskova is credited with using her personal connections with Joseph Stalin to convince the military to form three combat regiments for women. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women pilots to fly combat missions. These regiments flew a combined total of more than 30,000 combat sorties, produced at least thirty Heroes of the Soviet Union, and included at least two fighter aces. This military unit was initially called "Aviation Group 122" while the three regiments received training. After their training, the three regiments received their formal designations as the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment and the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Land forces

The Soviet Union also used women for sniping duties extensively, and to great effect, including Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya and Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko (who killed over 300 enemy soldiers). The Soviets found that sniper duties fit women well, since good snipers are patient, careful, deliberate, can avoid hand-to-hand combat, and need higher levels of aerobic conditioning than other troops. Women also served as machine gunners, tank drivers, medics, communication personnel and political officers. Manshuk Mametova was a machine gunner from Kazakhstan and was the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union for acts of bravery.

Partisans

Women consistituted significant numbers of the Soviet partisans. One of the most famous was Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, who earned the Hero of the Soviet Union award (February 16, 1942).

The youngest woman to become a Hero of the Soviet Union was also a resistance fighter, Zinaida Portnova.

Post 1945

After the war, most women left the armed forces. Those that stayed to make a career in the post-war armed forces saw old attitudes return and promotion and opportunities more difficult. Also, some military academies closed their doors to women despite the supposed official policy of equality. In 1967, the Russian Universal Military Duty Laws concluded that women offered the greater source of available combat soldiers during periods of large scale mobilisation. Thus, several programs during the height of the Cold War were set up to encourage women to enlist. Participation in military orientated youth programs and forced participation in the reserves for ex-servicewomen up to the age of 40 are some examples. Universities contained reservist officer training which accompanied a place in the reserves themselves, especially for doctors. But some roles open to women during the war were later barred.

Women have had the legal right to serve in the Russian Armed Forces throughout the post Cold War period. In 2002, 10% of the Russian armed forces (100,000 of a total active strength of 988,100) were women. ["The Military Balance 2002-2003, International Institute for Strategic Studies"] However continuing attitudes towards women in Russian life are demonstrated by activities such as Miss Russian Army.

References

* 'Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat' by Reina Pennington and John Erickson (Foreword) ISBN 0-7006-1145-2
* 'Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45' by Henry Sakaida and Christa Hook (Author) ISBN 1-84176-598-8

Further reading

*Jennifer G. Mathers, [http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EXI/is_2000_Fall-Winter/ai_73063469 Women in the Russian Armed Forces: A Marriage of Convenience? - Statistical Data Included] , Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military, Fall-Winter, 2000


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