- Paperback: 424 pages
- Publisher: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co. (1 Jan. 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1585101605
- ISBN-13: 978-1585101603
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.9 x 22.9 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 179,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Women in War and Resistance: Selected Biographies of Soviet Women Soldiers Paperback – 1 Jan 1998
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I consider myself fairly well read when it comes to the Soviet military, but right from the first few pages I discovered that my "knowledge" of Soviet women combatants was based on typical Western misconceptions. It was neither the shortage of manpower or the desire to make a propaganda statement that brought Soviet women into combat roles. Instead, it was their sheer determination to take part in the defense of the Motherland and the consistent proving of their combat mettle that accounts for women being welcomed (despite considerable skepticism) into the ranks of the Red Army.
Most of the women whose stories were selected for inclusion in this book are recipients of the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU) award. This prestigious list includes women from all combat services, but the majority are either Red Air Force pilots or participants in the Soviet resistance.
Almost all Soviet women pilots seemed to have been inspired by a trio of female aviation pioneers named Valentina Grizodubova, Polina Osipenko and Marina Raskova. These three women became as famous in the Soviet Union during the 1930's as Amelia Erhardt was in the West. Grizodubova went on to command a regiment consisting of all men, the only instance of this ever happening, while Raskova formed the first women's regiments and commanded one of them until her death in January of 1943 (Osipenko died in a plane crash before the war). In what seems very unusual to an American reader, bomber/ground attack pilots received much more recognition than fighter pilots. In fact, the only Soviet woman fighter pilot to be named as a Hero of the Soviet Union was Lidya Litvyak, who was awarded the honor posthumously in 1990, nearly 50 years after having been killed in action in August of 1943.
Whenever I was reading through the bios of the women of the Red Army and Air Force, I was glad to learn that many of these heroines lived long and healthy lives after the war and that a good number of them were still alive as of the late 1990s. Then I got to the stories of Soviet Resistance fighters... In their cases, the survivors can be counted on one hand. All the previous stories had been of women who risked their lives fighting the Nazis; all the following were about women who almost invariably sacrificed theirs for the same cause. Some died under torture by the Nazis or their collaborators while others fought to the last bullet against suicidal odds. Very, very few lived to see the invader driven out of their homeland. In many ways, their stories are the most profound.
Two other groups of Soviet women combatants were also included. The first were recipients of the Order of Glory, 1st Class. This award was reserved exclusively for privates, NCOs, and (in the case of the air force) junior lieutenants. It was actually awarded far less often than the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Only four women received this very rare award for frontline service.
The stories of four female veterans of the Russian Civil War (1918-22) finish up the book. This conflict, not widely written about in the West, is of particular interest to me. I especially enjoyed the bio of "Zemlyachka." Her name appeared briefly in other accounts I had read as someone particularly feared and detested by the counter-revolutionary "White" armies. It was good to finally read a more favorable account of her wartime service. 20 years before Hitler's invasion, "Zemlyachka" and the other three Bolshevik fighters whose stories are told here took part in an epic struggle against a homegrown Russian fascist movement whose victory would have dramatically altered the course of all that was to follow.
Professor Cottam has written a great book that will interest readers of both Soviet and military history as well as those seeking a historical perspective on the current debate regarding women in combat. She has also put together three other books containing both first- and third-person accounts of Soviet women in wartime. If you have even a slight interest in the subject, _Women in War and Resistance_ is a must.
The origin, motivations, role and eventual fate of these women were mixed. Some piloted PO-2 biplanes on night bombing strikes (something I wouldn't wish for my worst enemy), and some flew deadly Yak-1 in bitter dog-fighting. Some drove T-34 battle tanks built with their own money, and some, in the role of snipers, killed scores of enemy officers with frightening efficiency. Many did medical duties, often being killed while protecting their wounded comrades. And many more fought the obscure, hard and ambiguous battles of partisan warfare and underground resistance, often paying with torture and death their choice. Also, if many of the women portrayed in this collection were perfectly integrated in the Soviet system, many others where considered "unreliable" by the Communists authorities, and where awarded only decades after the end of the war, if not when the Soviet State collapsed. And also, if some survived war's hazards died of old age or is still living in post-Soviet Russia, many of them died during the war or - because of wartime toils - just afterwards.
It's difficult, if not impossible to find a common denominator for the characters included in Cottam's volume. While it's evident that a lot of these women joined the fight out of the desire to help their country, others found this as a way toward independence, emancipation and adventure. Prof. Cottam thesis is that - contrarily to the common view held in the West - their chance to see the frontline wasn't part of a organic Communist view of the women's role in the Army. Instead, military resistance to the "acquisition" of female personnel for combat duty was often overcome by personal lobbying to the higher authorities, and a skilful mix of stubbornness, determination and pre-war technical skills (many pilots belonged to air club, and many of the snipers had a past on sport or hunting). It must be noted also that women's presence in the Red Army declined markedly after V-E Day. While all this is probably true, it true also that the Soviet system made much of women's presence in the military machine, and the same presence couldn't have been possible without the presence of a political system bent (at least in theory) on giving social equity. The same Prof. Cottam admit that the Soviet women soldiers experience didn't came simply out of the desperate need for relatively skilled personnel to be thrown into the battlefield meat grinder (or worse, as some latter day bigot insinuates, because of the need for female companionship in the barracks). On the contrary, it can be seen as a real movement generating into different strata of the Russian society, partly because of the war conditions, but also because the terrain was fertile for such experiment. And the high percentage of decorated women, their often-extraordinary deeds, and the fact that many of the decorations came posthumously, testifies to the contribution they did to the war effort.
This is a book that deserves to be read and discussed, not least because of Prof. Cottam skill, authority and method. It could have been easy for her to trivialise, simplify or sentimentalise the matter just make it appetising to a wider audience. In an age of pseudo histo-journalism mainly based on recycled secondary sources, she worked for years on the real thing - archival documents or stories published contemporarily to the facts. "Women in War and Resistance" is the welcome product of this effort.
I was attracted to this title because of my interest in the Russo-German war. I wanted to read about the contributions of women and was wary of the usual Soviet ballyhoo about their valorous decorated women and how the Soviet system inspired and rewarded their dedication. True, many of the women described in these pages were dedicated, as was inevitable under the Hammer and Sickle (and in the face of German brutality). However this book makes clear that their impressive and tragic sacrifices were on behalf their families and to prove their value to their homeland. They were dedicated professionals, not crusaders.
I was not disappointed. A fascinating, relatively unknown and important story, well told. I commend Dr. Cottam for presenting this excellent cross-section of Russian women at war.
Leslie Blanchard--A Writer's Choice Literary Journa
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