Female death battalions: Russian Wonder Women of 1917
Russian troops fighting the Central Powers in WWI had lost all morale and spirit by summer 1917. The Provisional Government – which ruled the country after the fall of the monarchy – decided to form a female battalion and send women to the front to shame men into fighting.
The president of the State Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, spent the spring giving agitation speeches in the army, explaining to the confused soldiers who they were fighting for since the tsar was overthrown.
“The responsibility for Russia, which rested before on the shoulders of the Tsar and his Government now rests on the people, on you. This is what freedom means. It means that we must, out of our own good will, defend the country against the foe,” soldier Maria Bochkareva remembers Rodzianko’s words in Isaac Don Levine’s book ‘Yashka.’
Female Death Battalions would not have been possible without Bochkareva. Rodzianko was adamant to meet the rare bird that spring – a woman in battle was an unthinkable concept for the Russian Army.
Bochkareva earned her position as a soldier by pure chance: after being rejected by the commander, she wrote to the Tsar and to everyone’s surprise, received a positive answer allowing her to enroll.
Women in the army were frowned upon back then; even sisters of mercy had a dubious reputation in the eyes of the public.
So when Rodzianko, War Minister Alexander Kerensky, and General Aleksei Brusilov concocted their plan, one of their main fears was that this could backfire and leave a stigma on the whole Russian Army.
Bochkareva fiercely defended her idea, but not the women per se:
“I know that only discipline can save the Russian Army. In the proposed battalion I should exercise absolute authority and insist upon obedience,” journalist Levine quoted her as saying in 1918.
In early summer 1917, nearly 2000 women of different social backgrounds and nationalities enlisted. That number was reduced to 300 during training.
Some women left because they felt that Bochkareva was too tyrannical and that it went against a new world order of equality that the people were anticipating after the demise of the monarchy.
On July 4, a ceremony was held near the St. Isaac Cathedral in St. Petersburg where the newly-formed battalion received their military banner.
This led to other female battalions being formed across the remnants of the Empire: in Kiev, Minsk, Poltava, Baku, Odessa, Vyatka, and other cities.
A feminist and revolutionary, the world’s first future female minister, Aleksandra Kollontai heavily criticized the initiative:
“Two hostile female worlds stand before each other. On one side – bourgeois feminists with their death battalions,” Kollontai wrote in a scathing article in July 1917.
“On the other – an army of working women, a proletarian red army, fearlessly fighting to protect the most important and great cause of all: the world workers’ solidarity!”
On July 21, Bochkareva’s battalion fought for the first time, repulsing 14 German attacks in three days.
Although their performance was praised as heroic, victory came at a price too high: out of 170 people, Bochkareva lost 30 and up to 70 were wounded. She herself had to spend a month and a half in the hospital after that battle and was promoted to Second Lieutenant.
Such great losses did not pass unnoticed, and towards the end of August, General Kornilov issued a decree banning the use of female battalions in action, moving them to the rear. Many women resigned as that was not their plan: they enlisted to fight for their motherland.
One of the battalions (without Bochkareva herself) defended the Winter Palace from the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution of 1917. When the women capitulated, at least three of them were raped, and at least one committed suicide.
Once the Bolsheviks gained power, their strategy was to exit the Great War action, and they dissolved the Imperial Army, disbanding the female battalions along the way.
In 1920, Maria Bochkareva was executed by the Bolsheviks for aiding the anti-communist White movement. There are rumors, however, that she survived because when her file was opened in 1992, no statement of the execution was found.
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