For women, distinctions between non-combatant and combatant blurred during the Russian Civil War. The lucky ones lived far behind the lines in areas that were not exposed to the rapidly shifting fronts. Most were housewives, mothers, farm labourers, industrial workers, shopkeepers, telephone operators - in other words, ordinary people concerned with simply staying alive and finding enough food to eat at affordable prices.
Some chose the path of easy virtue, or were forced down that road because of adverse circumstances. According to Bolshevik statistics, the number of women involved in prostitution had gone over the 3 per cent mark in 1917, and, given the increasing privations of the civil war period, this number must have gone still higher. Indeed, first-hand military memoirs, both lied and White, record general acceptance and even appreciation for women who followed the camps cooking, nursing and engaging in occasional prostitution, sometimes the same woman in all three roles. By the early 1920s, after the wreck of the White Armies in the Far East and the general collapse of the economy, Oriental 'gentlemen' with the money to partake used the words 'prostitute' or 'kurvy' and 'Russian girl' interchangeably.
1'he Bolshevik Revolution afforded some women the luxury of promoting their particular version of feminism, such as the progressive visions espoused by the Bolshevik
The civil war in Russian Palekh art styie glorifying the role of the new Soviet woman: female, nurse (see medical bag), and soldier (Painting by A. Kurkin, Sovietsky Kudoshnik art card)
theorist Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai, who had been at Smolny with Lenin during the October Revolution, held various positions promoting the rights of women, including the post of Commissar of Public Welfare. Kollontai's views, however, were well ahead of their time and based on an agenda more suitable to rapidly developing Western nations. Although increasingly marginalized politically, she served the Bolsheviks loyally through to the 1940s.
Rather than promoting a separate movement for women or viewing feminism as an exercise in individual rights, Lenin's own wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, promoted the cause of women within the Party itself. Women were, in a sense, 'nationalized' and yoked with the men, equal in theory, as part of a team plodding along the path towards a new socialist dawn. To this end, women featured prominently in period posters and paintings in the roles of farm labourers, industrial workers, political activists, teachers, nurses and even soldiers, alongside their male counterparts.
Many foreign women were swept up in the events inside Russia, either by circumstance or by choice. British subject Doreen Stanford lived in Siberia from 1916 to 1920 while her father worked as a mining engineer south of Krasnoyarsk in an area frequented by the Red partisan leader Shchetinkin. Her memoirs portray the hardships experienced by the people in the rural areas touched by civil war. Katia Swan, with her husband Alfred, both members of the American Red Cross, spent 1918-21 working among needy and orphaned children who had been evacuated to the Urals and Western Siberia. Swedish nurse Elsa Brandstrom coordinated international relief agencies caring for and helping to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war left in Russia and Siberia after the end of World War One. These are notable examples, but only a few among many.
For female civilians, travelling in the heat of civil war could he a precarious undertaking, but it was sometimes safer than remaining in place. Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, a lady-in-waiting to the
Empress Alexandra, had been with the tsar's family at Tsarkoe Selo where they had been confined after the February Revolution in 191 7. When Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were transferred to the Kornilov House in Tobolsk, Siberia, in August, Sophie had remained behind for a surgical operation. Upon recovery, she determined to rejoin them, receiving her travelling papers in Petrograd from the Kerensky government on 6 November, one day before the Bolshevik Revolution. Only overcrowding on the train prevented the commissars of the new regime from discovering her identity.
She remained in contact with the royal family in Tobolsk only through letters that were highly censored by the local authorities, her own movements being under constant observation, '¡'hen, after the Bolsheviks had established their control more securely in April 1918, Nicholas, Alexandra and Marie were transferred to the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Sophie escorted the second party, consisting of Olga, Fatiana, Anastasia, Alexei and the household staff to Ekaterinburg in May.
By mid-July, the Whites and the Czech Legion were approaching the city and the Bolsheviks decided to liquidate the royal family to prevent their capture. Sophie was not present on the fateful night of 17 July when a Chekist squad under the command of Yakov Yurovsky shot Nicholas and Alexandra multiple times in the chest and head, nor did she hear the dull thuds of the rifle butts or the silent, probing work of the bayonets that dispatched their children. A week after her arrival, the Bolsheviks had ordered her and several members of the staff to return to Tobolsk.
After experiencing two weeks of chaos on the railways, her journey ended at Tiumen because Tobolsk had fallen to the Whites. The green and white flag of the Provisional Government of Siberia replaced the red flag at Tiumen in mid- July. Sophie rode in a Czech Legion train to Omsk in January 1919, travelling to Vladivostok the following month on board a former imperial court
train with Major-General Sir Alfred Knox, head of the British Military Mission in Siberia, and thereafter into exile.
Other women experienced even more dangerous conditions on the railways. Olga llyin, whose brother was chief engineer of the illustrious Izhevsk-Votkinsk Division, retreated with the Czechs and Whites from Kazan in autumn 1918 and spent 1919 in Omsk as a translator of American, French and English newspapers. Her second brother was in the White infantry while a third was a primary organizer of the Kazan Dragoons.
Before she successfully escaped to America, Olga became embroiled in the White retreat through the winter of 1919-20, a nightmare odyssey of hunger, disease, exposure, frostbite, partisan attacks and death. Those who could not find a place in the trains that were overflowing with desperate refugees rode sleds along the Great Siberian Highway, or Sibirsky Trakt. The Trakt was a frozen dirt road that ran parallel to the railway bed, and was only wide enough for two sleds to pass side by side. The even less fortunate walked.
The legend of women warriors had always existed in Russia, but not until 1917 were thousands brought together as soldiers. Had Russia not descended into revolution and civil war later that autumn, these would have seen active service on the Eastern Front in 1918. A peasant woman who already had been on active duty since 1915, Maria 'Yashka' Eeontevna Botchkareva organized the First Russian Women's Battalion of Death in 1'etrograd in May 1917. This unit fought valiantly at the front in July and was heavily bloodied.
As female volunteers stepped forward by the thousand, two more units, the First Petrograd Women's Battalion and the Second Moscow Women's Battalion of Death followed in June. The 1st Petrograd Women's Battalion received much attention from international journalists and was visited by the noted British feminist F.mmeline Pankhurst. The 3rd Kuban Women's Shock Battalion and the 1st Women's Naval Detachment activated in July.
Valentina Petrova, herself a Russian St George Cross winner for valour, just like Botchkareva, even approached Kerensky for permission to organize the women's Black Hussars of Death. One unit under formation in Baku sported the skull and crossbones on its flag with the motto, 'For the freedom of Russia - the Women's Battalion of Death'. Other units operated informally and even attached themselves to men's shock regiments that were already at the front.
Uncomfortable with what they viewed as bourgeois women with guns, the Bolsheviks labelled the women's units 'counter-revolutionary' and ordered their disbandment in November 1917. Some of these units retained their cohesion into the early months of 1918, an undetermined number of individuals undoubtedly dispersing into the new White, nationalist and even Red armies engaging in civil war.
Women, in fact, served in every army on every front in every phase of the Russian Civil
War. Their roles varied from administrative work to logistical support, to direct battlefield participation as combatants and nurses. Judging from contemporary memoirs, nearly all expected to be raped or worse if captured by an opposing force. In not a few instances, these fears were fully realized.
The young Kuban Cossack Marina Yuri ova was one example of a woman soldier who served in World War One then continued fighting in the Russian Civil War. Marina joined the Reconnaissance Sotnia (100 horse squadron) of the 3rd Ekaterinodar Regiment in 1914 at the age of 14. Over the next three years she was shot in the leg while blowing a bridge and received concussion from an exploding shell on the Caucasus Front. Then in Persia in 1917, while driving for the Red Cross, she received another more serious concussion resulting in shell-shock. In all, she received three St George Crosses for bravery.
After receiving treatment over the next year in various hospitals, including finally at Kazan, Marina was mobilized into Colonel V. O. Kappel's White forces fighting alongside the Czech Legion for possession of the city. Briefly assigned to defending the arsenal and ammunition factory, she was later shot in the shoulder by Red Guards while on reconnaissance. During the retreat from Kazan on 10/11 September she was evacuated by medical cart while under bombardment by Bolshevik aircraft. After recovery in a hospital in Omsk, Marina crossed the Trans-Siberian with the help of a Czech officer and emigrated from Vladivostok in April 1919.
Yashka Botchkareva, eager to continue the fight against the Central Powers, travelled to Archangel after the Allies landed in August 1918 and offered to raise a new women's Battalion of Death, Embarrassed, and not as able to envisage female combat soldiers as the Russians of 1917 had been, British General Sir Edmund Ironside sidestepped her plans. Still determined, Yashka travelled to Siberia in April 1919 and formed a women's medical detachment under Admiral Kolchak. After the defeat of the Whites, she returned to her
This photo's original caption is correct, but fails to credit the subject as Marina Yurlova. A duplicate photo exists, without the caption, in her memoirs Cossack Girl, (Allied photo card, l9l9,Bullock collection), home in Tomsk where the Cheka captured her. After four months of rigorous interrogation, she was executed on 16 May 1920.
One of the most remarkable women of the civil war period was a striking and charismatic Don Cossack, the granddaughter of Baron Fredericks, Varvara 'Varla' N., nicknamed 'The White Angel of the White Army' by her companions. After experiencing the horrors of the Bolshevik occupation of Taganrog in late autumn 1917, Varvara escaped to Novocherkassk to join the Volunteer Army in December at the age of 21, She enlisted under her own name in the Kornilov Shock Regiment (five other women of noble background joined under false names).
She was wounded three times in 1918 (shrapnel in the jaw, internal bleeding from the percussion of an exploding shell, and a knife wound to the left leg) and additionally survived the deadly Spanish influenza. In 1919 she took a dum-dum bullet to the left leg and
Pavlina Jvanovna Kuznetsova served as a machine-gunner on a tachanka in the 6th Chongarsky Division, 1st Horse Army (Painting by L. Kotliarov, Sovietsky Kudoshnik art card).
was hit again in the left knee while aboard a White armoured train north of Kharkov. Varvara killed at least two men - a Red Circassian in 1918 at close range, as well as
Pavlina Jvanovna Kuznetsova served as a machine-gunner on a tachanka in the 6th Chongarsky Division, 1st Horse Army (Painting by L. Kotliarov, Sovietsky Kudoshnik art card).
executing one spy in 1919. A crack shot, she probably accounted for many more at longer range.
Still suffering from her wounds, ill with fever and weakened from the privations of a long retreat, she evacuated Russia from the port of Novorossisk for England on 6 April 1920 with the help of the gallant and pro-White head of the British Military Mission, General Holman. Varvara withheld her last name from her autobiography, using the pseudonym 'Lul Gardo' for her 1930s publication, in order to protect those close to her still inside Russia. Even so, her only child, Eugenie, died of starvation in a Soviet prison.
The Reds also had their women soldiers, many thousands in the support services and many hundreds who took up arms. One splendid example was the 22-year-old beauty Larissa Reissner, who, according to literary critics, served as the physical prototype for 'Lara' in Boris Pasternak's monumental epic Doctor Zhtvago, In 1918, Reissner married Fedor Raskolnikov, commander of the Volga Flotilla, and served as the fleet's political officer in charge of intelligence during combat operations along the Volga and Kama Rivers from July through to November.
Larissa participated in the Red counter-attack on Kazan in September 1918. During those autumn days she worked closely with Trotsky and recalled in her 1920s book Front his inspirational 'holy demagoguery of battle'. Her feelings were reciprocated, Trotsky describing her in his memoirs as an 'Olympian goddess who combined a subtle, ironical wit with the courage of a warrior'.
During the winter of 1918-19, Reissner acted as naval commissar in Moscow before returning to operational duty aboard the Astrakhan-Caspian and Volga-Caspian Flotillas from June 1919 to June 1920. Here she pioneered the concept of mounted naval reconnaissance, taking part in the fighting against the Whites at Tsaritsyn and Astrakhan and against the British at Enzeli in Azerbaijan. She died of typhus in 1926 at the age of 30, after inspiring Pasternak's poem 'Lara' that same year.
The equally youthful Dr Raisa Azarkh served alternately as medical chief and political commissar on the Volga, Ukrainian and Far Eastern Fronts from 1918 to 1920. During these years, she astutely organized field and hospital facilities in Viatka, Kiev, Omsk and Krasnoyarsk. As commissar of the Viatka Special Division, she fought against the Whites in the Kama Valley in autumn 1918, then transferred to the Ukraine from December 1918 to July 1919.
VVhile in the Ukraine, Dr Azarkh established her mobile headquarters inside a railcar, medical wagon no. 202, which was occasionally attached to armoured trains for protection. She saw action against the troops of Petlyura, Grigoriev and Denikin while aboard armoured trains, finishing her civil war experience in Siberia and the Far East from autumn 1919 to autumn 1920.
Rozalia Samoylova-Zemliachka served as political commissar on the Southern Front in 1918-20. She spent November 1918 to September 1919 attached to the 8th Army fighting against the Don Cossacks, From 8 October 1919, at the time of the greatest danger to Moscow from Denikin's Whites, she fought in the heleaguered 13th Army. Her forte was political indoctrination, training and teamwork. Among her comrades she was known as a strict disciplinarian. Her enemies knew her as a middle-aged Jewess who dressed in black leathers and killed with passion.
Zemliachka demonstrated her revolutionary fervour after the evacuation of Wrangel's Whites in November 1920. Here, she played a prominent role in the massacre of 50,000 men, women and children in the Crimea along with her compatriot, the Hungarian communist executioner Bela Kun. For this 'political work' she received the Order of the Red Banner in 1921.
Alexandra 'Shura' Permyakova participated in the capture of Moscow during the October Revolution in 1917. After obtaining critical intelligence about White Guard strengths and positions, she joined the Red Guards in the assault on the Kremlin. In 1918 she stayed in Moscow, engaging in political work, writing a training course for commissars and combating black marketeers and counter-revolutionaries.
Shura spent 1919 on tlie Southern Front as chief of the political section of the 15th Inzenskaya Division, the division in which her husband was commissar. She remained on the Southern Front throughout 1920, taking part in the desperate hand-to-hand fighting at Kakhovka in October, where her husband was bayoneted.
The following month, Shura met lied commander Mikhail Frunze personally and volunteered to be in the advance group crossing the dangerous Sivash marshes at night, an adventure that outflanked the nearly impregnable White positions in the Crimea. Only 70 of the original 270 volunteers survived the treacherous bogs and gunfire. She won the Order of the Red Banner for conspicuous gallantry.
One Bolshevik female left a legacy of horror. The Whites discovered a ghastly charnel house of torture, mutilation and dismemberment after their occupation of Kiev in 1919. This dungeon had served as the unholy playground of the notorious Cheka agent known locally as 'Rosa'. British General J, F. C. Fuller, who had been sent out to inspect the White Tank Corps, travelled to Kiev and published an 'anonymous' article independently confirming these events for the international community.
Other women originally assisted the Bolsheviks but turned against them in the face of increasing state centralism or for patriotic reasons after the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. One example was Maria Spiridonova, a prominent leader of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries who had assassinated a tsarist general in her youth. Disenchanted with Bolshevik policies, Maria was a major force organizing her party's revolt in July 1918. Konstantin Paustovsky, attending an assembly of journalists at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, witnessed her dramatic announcement of the 'revolution' seconds before lied Guards began engaging the insurgents in the streets: 'Heels clicking, a woman in black, a scarlet carnation pinned to her blouse, ran across the stage towards the footlights... the woman held a small steel pistol. She raised her arm, pointed it at the ceiling and, with another clatter of heels, cried piercingly: "Hurrah for the rebellion!".' After the abortive coup, Spiridonova passed her remaining years in hiding, in exile or in prison until her final execution by Soviet security forces in 1941.
Another Socialist Revolutionary, Fanya Kaplan, had embraced the October Revolution but turned against the Bolsheviks for the same reasons as Spiridonova. By summer 1918 she had established connections with British master spy Sidney Reilly, connections that remain mysterious to the present day. On 30 August she attempted to assassinate Lenin in Moscow, succeeding in shooting him in his suit coat, his shoulder and jaw. After a brisk interrogation in which she refused to betray her associates, she was executed on 3 September.
Women were also prominent in the Anarchist movement. Although few served in the front lines, several thousand supported Makhno's logistical system, provided intelligence and medical services, and acted as couriers between the outlying partisan bands. A local observer, M. Gutman, recalled seeing a group of Anarchist females dressed entirely in black entering Ekaterinoslav with Makhno's main forces in 1919. The hue of these uniforms served a double purpose, black being the colour of the Anarchist movement as well as indicating a certain elite status or dedication.
Makhno's own constant companion, the tall, beautiful and dignified Galina Kuzmenko, a former teacher from Gulyai-Polye, served in his intelligence department and by reputation was equally adroit with the rifle and machine gun. One of the most colourful was Maroussia Nikiforova, who raised a Black Guard partisan unit of several hundred in Alexandrovsk in the last half of 1917. Dressed in black leathers and riding a white horse, she terrorized landlords and institutions until her execution at the hands of General Slaschev's Whites at Simferopol in autumn 1919.
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