Reviews Norm-breaking female soldiers. Russian revolutionary heores

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3:2017, p 90-92
Published on balticworlds.com on november 10, 2017

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Although Per Enerud’s book Let us die as heroes: Female soldiers in the Russia of the Revolution and the Civil War [Låt oss dö som hjältar: Kvinnliga soldater i revolutionens och inbördeskrigets Ryssland] is not primarily about women and war, the matter of women and war is nonetheless essential when reading the book, which deals with women who defied the norms of the day. The author is a freelance journalist and makes clear that his goal was not to write research but rather to create a journalistic report, to “talk about an exciting epoch by means of two concrete women, and about two concrete women by means of an exciting epoch”. This means that there are no footnotes, that the text is written entirely in the historical present, that the content becomes to some degree a kind of basic course in Russian history, and that the manner of addressing the reader is sometimes as casual as it is with the columnists of Metro, the free newspaper. But despite the unpretentious appearance, Enerud’s book is very much worth reading, and it contains many interesting reflections about Russia’s twentieth-century history.

The two women Enerud chose to study appear in many ways to be each other’s opposites. Maria Bochkareva was a poor peasant woman from Siberia who, despite her gender, was allowed to fight as a volunteer in the tsarist army in 1914, and who, after the February Revolution, organized a female “death battalion” for the Kerensky regime, which was sent to the front in the summer of 1917. During the civil war, Bochkareva allied herself with the Whites and was sent to Britain and the United States to mobilize opinion against the Bolsheviks. However, when she returned to Russia, she was captured by the Reds and executed.

 

Larisa Reisner belonged to an entirely different social and ideological milieu. She was part of a Baltic-German-Polish noble family in St. Petersburg, had a university education, spoke several languages, and spent time with famous writers and bards such as Maxim Gorky and Alexander Blok. Her father had leftist sympathies, and she was herself involved early on in the Bolshevik Party. During the civil war, she served as a political commissar in the navy. Before dying of typhoid in 1926, she managed to be a diplomat’s wife in Kabul and Comintern agent in Hamburg, as well as gain fame as a journalist and writer.

It is not only socially and ideologically that Bochkareva and Reisner seem to be each other’s opposites. A Swedish journalist from the newspaper The Social Democrat, who reported on the Russian Women’s Battalion in 1917, wrote that Bochkareva’s “by no means contemptible corpulence” made the uniform a bad fit, but on the contrary she would be “a pleasant hostess behind the jars of preserves and trays of cookies during a nice chat around the samovar in some small town out in the country”. The slender Reisner — the mistress of Anna Achmatova’s husband Nikolay Gumilyov (executed in 1921), of the Comintern leader Karl Radek (executed in 1939), and possibly also of Leon Trotsky (murdered in 1940) — is, on the other hand, described by contemporary witnesses as a rare beauty. She remained aristocratically refined even during the Soviet times, requiring cavalry horses for her regular riding tours through the freezing and starving Petrograd and arranging masquerade balls in the Admiralty’s halls for the city’s cultural elite. The costumes had been ordered from the costume collection at the Mariinsky Theatre.

The upper class girl who becomes a revolutionary is not unique — Alexandra Kollontai is another example from the same time and milieu — but what motivated Maria Bochkareva? Unlike Reisner, she left no written texts or private letters. We know her story only from a book of “memoirs” written as propaganda by a journalist during her United States trip in 1918, and from the interrogation records written up by the Cheka in connection with her arrest in 1920. Her upbringing with an abusive father ruined by drink seems to have been an extremely unhappy one. As an eight-year-old, she was forced to work in order to help support the family. During the Russo-Japanese War, when she was fifteen years old, she ran away with an ensign. He vanished to the front, and she instead married a former soldier — Bochkaryov — who was an alcoholic and abused her. She left him and joined up with another man who also abused her. Several times she tried to take her own life. At the outbreak of World War I, the tsarist regime imposed a ban on alcohol. This proved to be disastrous, since one third of the Russian state’s income came from the sale of vodka, but Bochkareva — in whose life vodka had caused so much misery — sensed like millions of other people in Europe in the summer of 1914, that “a new, more pure, happier, and holier world” was about to be born. She left the man who was beating her and walked on foot two hundred kilometers through the Siberian Taiga — to volunteer as a soldier! The commander in Tomsk rejected her, but she sent a telegram to the tsar who approved her wish to become a soldier.

Psychologically, it is easy to imagine that the military environment, with its “regulated brutality”, might seem like a refuge from more erratic tormenters at home. And because of her previous experiences, Bochkareva did not have any problems whatsoever adapting to the raw atmosphere among her comrades. She redefined herself as a man when wearing the uniform. The guys called her “Jaska” (the diminutive of Jakov, her partner’s first name), and brought her along when they went to the brothel.

The memoirs also indicate that she was an enterprising and resourceful person. Before the war, in order to support herself and her abusive, alcoholic husband, she worked laying asphalt and managed to advance to the position of foreman, responsible for twenty-five workers. (For a time she also ran a combined laundry, sauna, and tea room.) Although Enerud does not make a point of it in his work, Bochkareva acquired experiences that were unusual in tsarist Russia. The industrial sector was relatively small — barely three percent of Russian peasant households would generally hire additional help, and there was nothing like the rich spectrum of popular movements, political parties, and labor unions that existed in Western Europe that offered ordinary people leadership experience. For this reason, the Russian Army was in need of competent lower ranking officers in 1914. There were two NCOs for each Russian rifle company in 1914 — compared with twelve in each German rifle company. Obviously, this would influence the outcome of the war between Russia and Germany. When Bochkareva joined the tsarist army, she thus had leadership experience, which most of the 12—13 million Russian men inducted into the army during World War I were lacking. On the front, she distinguished herself immediately, was wounded three times and awarded several medals, and was quickly promoted to corporal.

When discipline began to break down after the tsar’s fall in the spring of 1917, she had had enough and wanted to leave the army. The President of the Duma, Pavel Rodzianko, met her during a visit to the front and ensured that she came to Petrograd. There, she was given the responsibility for training and leading a women’s battalion.

The women’s battalion would set an example, shame the men on the front, and thereby strengthen the faltering morale. The women’s battalion could also be put on display before foreign journalists as a symbol of the new, progressive Russia and generate goodwill and continued loans from the Western allies. Although the fall of the tsarist regime resulted in the introduction of soldiers’ committees for every unit, and a ban on all punishment, Bochkareva ruled with an iron fist. The recruits were buffeted by slaps in the face. The two thousand women who reported as volunteers were quickly reduced to about three hundred. These were all the more devoted, and were shipped away to the front, where in July of 1917 the Russian Army prepared for its last offensive during World War I. When Bochkareva’s battalion rushed out of the trenches, it had been reinforced so that two men were in the lead between each woman. After initial successes, the attack soon fell apart — though it was not primarily the female soldiers who failed. In October, when the Bolsheviks were taking over, Bochkareva’s battalion was still on the front, where, more or less alone, it continued fighting against the Germans. Only then was it disbanded, and Bochkareva commenced the odyssey that would take her to London and New York, and would end with the executioners of the Cheka.

Bochkareva’s battalion was only one of fifteen different female units established in Russia in 1917. Another was the battalion that defended the Winter Palace during the storming by the Red Guards. In total, about 5,000 women joined these units. Yet Bochkareva’s battalion was the only one that saw combat. As before in history, in Russia in 1917 genuine femininity was viewed as incompatible with the warrior identity. Bochkareva explained to the recruits on arrival that, now, “you are no longer women, but soldiers”.

In the Soviet Union, Bochkareva was conveniently forgotten. The same fate befell Larissa Reisner, who had a problematic class background and was too entangled with disagreeable figures such as Trotsky and Radek. Still, during World War II the Soviet Union was the only country that allowed women to have combat roles. They served as snipers and fighter pilots, and as medics on the front. The approximately 250,000 Soviet women who not only wore the uniform but underwent military training constituted less than one percent of the Red Army’s personnel from 1941 to 1945, but in a struggle that concerned the nation’s very survival, their efforts were of moral importance. As with Bochkareva’s death battalion, their presence would spur men on to sacrifice.

As Enerud points out, Bochkareva’s life story fits well with the Russian myth of “the holy idiot”. She lives a fairly ordinary Russian woman’s life until she suddenly receives a calling, and then she challenges the prevailing order in words and actions, turns everything upside-down in order to serve the Russian people, and in the end dies as a martyr at the hands of the irreverent Bolsheviks. According to the author, it is thus by no means impossible that she will be declared a saint in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where she has been increasingly celebrated in recent years, and where the need for heroes and role models has now become particularly acute.≈

Note: The review has previously been published in the Swedish magazine Respons, no. 5, 2015.

 

Låt oss dö som hjältar: kvinnliga soldater i revolutionens Ryssland [Let us die as heroes: Female soldiers in the Russia of the Revolution and the Civil War] Per Enerud, Carlsson Bokförlag 2014, 275 pages.