Tag Archives: Russia

The giggling battalion: Russian women soldiers through the eyes of an American war correspondent

Reporting about Russia’s battalions of women soldiers in the March 1918 issue of The Delineator, war correspondent William G. Shepherd asks everyone the same question.

What about motherhood?

I thought of how it must feel to be a soldier and know that your bullets were sinking into woman-flesh, destroying motherhood; and of how, in spite of all this, you must shoot to kill these women soldiers lest they kill you.

He gets an interview with Maria Bochkareva, the commander of the First Women’s Battalion. Amid the chaos of the Russian Revolution, her soldiers have deserted her, and she’s hospitalized in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). He asks her why she went into the war. Weren’t the men fighting well enough to suit her?

“Yes, indeed,” she exclaimed…“But I can’t see why there should be any difference between men and women in this war and so I enlisted and went to the front.”

“But women have got something that men haven’t,” Shepherd mansplains. “They have potential motherhood, and if you kill that, you kill the whole race.”

Maria Bochkareva and her soldiers with British suffragist leader Emmeline Pankhurst, 1917

Bochkareva, who at age twenty-eight has left two abusive husbands and fought in two wars, has a less sentimental take on the matter. “What is the use of motherhood in a country which is owned by an enemy?”

To Bochkareva, Shepherd marvels, the “girl” soldiers

are mere sets of brains that go to war. They are mere pairs of legs that can march, pairs of arms that can carry rifles, and most of all they include index fingers that can pull triggers, and good right eyes that can see marks.

Imagine!

Another issue weighing almost as heavily on Shepherd’s mind is the girl soldiers’ sex lives. He meets a deserter from Bochkareva’s battalion and asks her why she left.

“I left because there were too many bad girls in our company,” explained this seventeen-year-old miss in riding breeches who sat in a chair on the sidewalk before my hotel with her knees crossed.

“But I didn’t think morals had anything to do with fighting,” said my interpreter, who happened to be a celebrated Russian writer.

“Nothing to do with fighting!” exclaimed the girl. “Why, do you know you can never trust a bad girl in the firing-line?…I’ll fight for Russia, but not for that crowd.”

A light goes on in Shepherd’s head.

This was the first idea we got of the fact that in the girl legions of Russia, good girls make good soldiers and bad girls make poor ones.

The seventeen-year-old soldier goes on,

“Love hasn’t got any place in war, and when it comes to the other thing, it not only ruins girl soldiers, but the men soldiers, too.”

“But don’t the girls ever talk of their sweethearts at the front?” asked my interpreter.

“The girls who are in earnest don’t,” she said. “As soon as a girl begins to get sentimental or to talk about some man she likes, we just remind her that within a few days, if she is a good soldier of Russia, she may be dead.”

The Delineator, March 1918

Another thing about the girl soldiers: they’re so girly! In the barracks of another newly formed women’s battalion (made up, its leaders assure Shepherd, entirely of good girls),

Some of them were reading, some were knitting, and several of them were romping girlishly. One was trying to stick another with a hatpin and another was chasing a girl with a glass of water with which she threatened to deluge the fugitive. It was just such a romp as one might have expected in the hallways of an exclusive girls’ boarding school. Only the clipped heads and the trousers seemed out of place.

Earlier, he watched Bochkareva’s equally girly soldiers decamping for the front.

Men soldiers do not giggle when they climb into cars, but I must admit that these girl soldiers did. They helped each other remove their packs from their backs; they threw their short, stubby rifles into the cars and then boosted each other in as best they could. There was giggling a-plenty and even little shrieks of mirth; when a girl fell, there was a shout of laughter.

For all his condescension, Shepherd ends up respecting the soldiers of the “Battalion of Death,” as Bochkareva’s soldiers were known. They fought courageously against the Germans, dodging bullets as they took ammunition to the front lines. For military security reasons, he can’t provide the names of the heroes, but

I can say that it was Bochkareva’s band that captured a hundred Germans and forced them to throw down their rifles and throw up their hands and exclaim, “Ach Gott! The Russian women!”

The Delineator, March 1918

Shepherd visits some wounded veterans of the battle in the hospital and spots a German helmet. His interpreter asks the owner where she got it.

“I took it from a German soldier who tried to shoot me after he was wounded,” she said. “I was trying to help him, when suddenly he raised himself to his elbow and fired at me with his revolver.”

“What did you do?” we asked her.

“I shot him,” she said simply. “What else could I do?”

The Czar’s government, Shepherd tells us, authorized the women’s battalions in order to shame war-weary men into joining the army. But the situation was changing fast. On March 3, 1918, just as Shepherd’s story was hitting the newsstands, Russia made peace with Germany.

Maria Bochkareva (date unknown)

Bochkareva ended up on the wrong side of history. Branded an “enemy of the working class,” she was executed by the Soviet secret police in May 1920, at the age of thirty. The execution was against Lenin’s orders, and her killers were later put to death themselves.

As Bochkareva’s troops headed to the front, a Jewish seamstress stood sentinel on the train. At each stop, the soldiers faced insults and leers from men on the platform. At one station, a group of male soldiers tried to peer inside, saying, “We have come to see the girls.” The sentinel

made no outcry. She simply raised her rifle toward them and said:

“There are no girls here; only soldiers of Russia.”

(UPDATE: You can see Maria Bochkareva at a July 4 ceremony in Washington, D.C. in the last few seconds of this video, which I included in my post on the July 4 loyalty parade in New York.)

Factory work by day, Yiddish drama by night: the Lower East Side life of Elizabeth Hasanovitz

Headline, One of Them, Elizabeth Hasanovitz, Atlantic, January 1918.

It’s only been two weeks, but I already hate 1918 rich people. They’re imperious, self-absorbed, and shallow. When a New Jersey judge makes an incognito coal delivery during a cold snap, the lady of the house threatens to have him fired if he doesn’t take it up to the second floor. (He does, and dumps it in the parlor.) Vanity Fair praises the unsurpassed valor of soldiers from “great schools like Exeter, St. Paul’s, and Groton.” Rich characters in short stories yammer endlessly about their personal dramas, and I say, “You know what you need? A job.” So it was refreshing to come across decidedly-not-rich Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose serialized autobiography “One of Them” begins in the January 1918 Atlantic.

Born into a large and loving family in Russia, Elizabeth began teaching in her father’s Hebrew school at fourteen—illegally, since she lacked a teaching certificate. All she wanted in life was to go on teaching with her father, but it wasn’t to be. When she took the teachers’ exam, fifty-five of the sixty Yiddish candidates failed, including Elizabeth; all nine Russian candidates passed. Meanwhile, the family fell on hard times because of the police chief’s frequent demands for bribes. And there was the constant danger of anti-Jewish violence from drunken peasants.

One night, as the family sat down for the Sabbath meal, Elizabeth said, “I have been thinking and I have decided that—that—I—shall go—to America.” Her mother and sisters burst into tears, and her father rejected the idea out of hand. Elizabeth pleaded with her parents for days. She could send for the rest of the family, she said. “Think of the children going to free schools, growing up free citizens!” But her father wouldn’t budge. Finally, she resorted to a hunger strike. After three days, her father got her a passport.

Lower East Side street, ca. 1910

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive, public domain photo)

Elizabeth ended up in Canada, where she got a factory job. The pay was decent, but she left because of the country’s “provincial mental atmosphere.” Chicago was no more to her liking, so she set out for New York. There, things went well at first. She was making ten dollars a week at a knitting mill and saving five for her brother’s ticket. She joined the Dramatic Club, which aimed to provide higher fare than the “trash” that most Yiddish theaters fed the public. All was well, except for the “common and vulgar” atmosphere in the factory. The other girls’ “frankness in manner and speech would make me blush, and I became an object of their teasing.”

But the good times didn’t last. Business slowed, and Elizabeth was laid off. Luckily, a fellow member of the Dramatic Club had a home textile enterprise, and he took Elizabeth on as a trainee. The atmosphere was congenial—the family members sang merry Russian songs as they worked—but Elizabeth was a hopeless seamstress, constantly sewing a front where a sleeve was supposed to be. Eventually she improved, but she was slow, and she earned only five or six dollars a week, barely enough to live on. Exhausted at night, she abandoned her dream of studying. When she was down to her last two dollars, she fell into despair.

Posed photo of striking shirtwaist factory workers, 1910.

Striking shirtwaist factory workers, 1910 (Library of Congress, public domain photo)

Elizabeth went to a flower shop and bought a funeral bouquet for $1.50. Back at her rooming house, she turned on the gas. To speed her death along, she soaked matches and drank the liquid. She woke up in the hospital, her friend Clara from the Dramatic Club at her side. Clara invited Elizabeth to live with her, and out of options, she agreed.

To be continued!

Elizabeth has her flaws. She’s a terrible snob, with her haughty dismissal of Canada and her airs and graces on the factory floor. She claims to have almost starved to death on the ocean journey because the other passengers grabbed all the food, but her real problem seems to have been with their disgusting table manners. And she’s quite the drama queen. The hunger strike! The funeral bouquet!

Still, she’s a compelling heroine, and she paints a vivid picture of immigrant life in the Lower East Side. I look forward to reading her further adventures. If you want to know more, you can find her entire autobiography online. Just don’t tell me what happens!