Duke Professor Studies Soviet Women in Combat

New research on the Soviet experience of WWII

Liudmila Pavlichenko was the most famous Soviet women sniper with 309 kills.

"I lost my history. So I became a historian."

That is how Anna Krylova, associate professor of modern Russian history at Duke University and author of the recently published Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front, sums up the series of events that led her to study history professionally. Krylova grew up in Moscow; she was in high school when Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika, opening up the official Soviet history to a complete reexamination. It proved to be an emotionally wrought enterprise, so much so that, in her senior year, the history examination was cancelled.

"History was something people screamed about and cried over; it was an emotional event," Krylova said. "And you couldn't stay on the sidelines. I was expected to take sides. ‘Did I love Lenin, or did I hate Lenin?' people would ask, and demand an answer. It was a rare moment, a moment in which people cared so much about what really happened 50, 60, 70 years ago."

Krylova believes that, unconsciously at least, the cancellation of the history exam played a decisive role in her decision to become a historian. But if she was to study Soviet history constructively, she knew she had to do it someplace other than Russia. "I had to get away," she said. "I had to get some perspective, some distance. I had to find out what people in other parts of the world thought about the Soviet Union." So in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved, Krylova moved to the United States, to Philadelphia, to finish her undergraduate work at Drexel University. She then went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.

While at Hopkins, Krylova focused her studies on the Soviet experience in World War II and started reading Soviet newspapers from the 1940s. "I was shocked," she said of the stories and images she came across-stories of Soviet women in combat, images of Soviet women dressed in military uniforms, holding sniper rifles, teaching other soldiers to kill. "I didn't know women fought, and taught others, including men, to fight," Krylova said. "That was complete news to me. As a young girl growing up in Moscow, I remember seeing women in their fifties and sixties showing their veteran cards in grocery stores and other places, which they did to get special treatment (and well-deserved at that). At the time, I assumed they had been nurses and medics in the war. It never occurred to me that they might have been on the front line, firing machine guns."

What was even more startling about the newspaper coverage, Krylova remembered, was the way in which those young women were represented. "The journalists wrote about those women with no apologies, with no suggestion that they were writing about something unusual, something that violated what we would today call gender norms."

Krylova began to wonder: What kind of culture could produce women, and men for that matter, for whom the idea of a woman combat soldier was acceptable and did not violate any gender-specific norms of identity and behavior? The results of her exploration can be found in her new book, which was published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press.

What Krylova discovered was extraordinary for its time. Before the war, the Soviet Union had implemented a state-sponsored educational system that was fully integrated along gender lines. Especially when it came to paramilitary training, men and women received the same education and, even more important, were expected to perform the same tasks. "The result," Krylova explains, "was a generation of men and women who grew into adulthood without being bound by the traditional gender norms that were otherwise prevalent in society." Significantly, the Soviet women who became soldiers did not think of themselves as women performing a man's job; rather, as Krylova writes in her book, "they were realizing their ‘hidden female talents,' to use a phrase many employed in the late 1930s and early 1940s."

"What made the Soviet experience different was not just the presence of feminist ideology. After all, most countries in the West had access to that ideology. What was different in the Soviet Union was the idea that men and women were equal-and that a space had been created in the schools in which that equality could be performed. It was that space that made the difference. Ideology, alone, was not enough."

As Krylova explains, the Soviet Union was not the only country to use women in combat in World War II. In Britain, for instance, many women served in anti-aircraft brigades, and the Soviets even looked to the British as a model. But in Britain, unlike in the Soviet Union, the women could only "help"; they were not permitted to fire guns.

"So the British created a situation in which women were in combat, but combat defined in such a way that the British, through a linguistic charade, could reassure themselves that they had not violated some taboo, that they were still ‘civilized,'" she said. "After all, to have women in combat was ‘barbaric.' Only the Russians would do something like that!"

In contrast, in the Soviet case, women not only actually pulled the trigger; they were also explicitly identified and talked about as combatants. "So in the Soviet Union men and women had the courage to make this psychological jump that broke the barriers that had kept war a masculine space."

If there is one thing she would want readers to take away from her book, it is the value in testing our notions of gender-appropriate roles and behaviors. "Create a space that permits men and women to act against type, as the Soviets did in the 1930s, and see what happens. A change in attitudes can come about very quickly-in a generation, and even in such a repressive state as Stalinist Russia was in the 1930s and 1940s."