Yesterday was Rememberance Sunday in the UK. Up and down Britain folk gathered round memorials to silently remember the fallen from two World Wars.
With many western democracies now looking shoogly, and relations between old friends turning to rivalries, it’s worth recalling what happened last time things got out of hand, and the unity of effort it took to restore some kind of order – not only by the Brits and Americans, but by a huge variety of countries whose politicians shared little, as is increasingly the case again these days.
Which brings me to Russia.
It’s quite a thought that for every name carved on a British cenotaph, there are the names of 28 Soviets, each immortalised somewhere in the former USSR. We don’t hear much about it, though they fought the same enemy as Britain and America. Nor does their enormous sacrifice stop senior British politicians from comparing modern Russia to Nazi Germany. That’s one reason why this is an important story. 10.6 million soldiers from Russia and the other Soviet republics died over a period of four years in a smallish area of Eastern Europe, fighting the Nazis.
Roza Shanina was one of them.
They say she was big for her age. One of seven children born to a milkmaid and a logger, she had blonde hair, blue eyes, and strong muscles from helping her aunt work the village pigsty. Her parents were devoted communists and named their child after the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, killed in Germany five years previously.
At school in Bereznik, Roza grew to love reading and writing. From a young age, she was less than content to live out her life within the boundaries of the local commune. Roza craved adventure. Her first adventures took place in the worlds she found in books. But when she asked permission to leave home and study literature at secondary school, her parents refused.
So, at the age of fourteen, Roza ran away.
She walked 200 kilometres through the taiga, before reaching the village of Konosha. From there she took a train to Arkhangelsk.
In Arkhangelsk (the city that features in the Robert Harris novel), Roza studied literature and worked in a nursery. She joined Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, and had the kind of good time most students have when moving to the city for the first time. He friends recall her often returning to her dormitory at 2 or 3 in the morning, after the doors were locked, and having to climb in through the window using bedsheets. It was 1938.
Soon, war came along. As well as invading the USSR’s entire western border, the Germans bombed Arkhangelsk – the Soviet Union’s only western port. Roza volunteered to look out for air raids from the roof of the nursery.
Then, she received terrible news from Leningrad: her brother, Mikhail, had been killed while defending the cityfrom the Nazis.
Some Unknown Force
Looking out for the nursery wouldn’t be enough. In light of her brother’s death, Roza sought out military officers and requested to serve. Early in the war, the military refused female volunteers, believing them unsuited to combat.
But an increasingly dire situation on the front compelled them to reconsider. Women would make good medics because of their nature as care-givers, the military decided; they would be more resilient to the cold because of their higher levels of body-fat; more resistant to pain because of child birth, and better snipers because of their patient temperament.
Roza enrolled in the Central Female Sniper Academy, training to carry out that most noble of tasks: killing fascists.
Roza turned out to be such a good shot that the school asked her to stay on as a teacher rather than go to the front, where she would risk death. She refused. A mixture of adventure and duty drew her away from safety once again. The army sent her to the Eastern Front as soon as she graduated, along with her friends Sasha and Kalya. Still only 20, Roza was now a commander in the 184th Rifle Division’s female sniper platoon.
When Roza arrived in April 1944, the Soviets were in the midst of a counter-offensive against the Germans. She made her first kill three days later, southeast of Viciebsk in Belarus. Realising the weight of what she had done, she started to shake and her legs gave way. She slid down into the trench and said “I’ve killed a man!”
“That was a fascist you finished off,” came the reply from one of her female comrades.
Roza started her diary in October 1944, and wrote letters to war correspondent Pyotr Molchanov. In the letters, she describes her frustration at missing the fighting and implores Molchanov to speak to someone who can help. The Soviet policy was to keep women away from the front line unless absolutely necessary.
Please take this to the administration and assist me. If you knew how passionately I want to be with the fighters at the front and kill Nazis… And here I am, imagine, instead of at the front lines – at the rear! How can I explain? Some force draws me there; I get bored here. Some people think that I’m chasing a boyfriend, but I do not know anyone there. I want to see a real war. And recently, we lost another 4 black and 1 red. [4 killed, 1 wounded] I want to avenge them. I ask you to talk to someone in charge, although I know you are busy.
I recently went AWOL. Carelessly left the rear for a company at the front. They did not look for me. I need to be at the front, to see with my own eyes what a real war is like.
Her diary reveals the kind of personal struggles many 20-year-olds face, distorted by life and death on the Eastern Front. She laments how lonely she is, mentioning brief, unsuccessful affairs with male soldiers:
20 years old and no boyfriend, why? My heart does not trust anyone. I blame the scum that come with army life, wrecking everything, not caring about a girl. Why is it that in this mass of boys I’m always alone? How do you explain that the guys so quickly disappoint? They cheat, sometimes I get up the nerve to say ‘leave me alone’. I remember Misha Panarin. What a good guy. Killed. He loved me, I know, and I him.
I met Schekachikhin, who likes me. First we went with Kalya to dine, and later I started to like him and hesitated to say goodbye. Sometimes, we’d call to Blokhin while he was with Schekachikhin, to say such-and-such, as both Kalya and I liked him. Blokhin, knowing this, would reply “he’s busy.” Schekachikhin I confessed to love first in a letter, and he replied that he could not say for sure if he felt the same. Shame. Oh, I cried.
At the same time, I was fooling around with Solomatin, but I know that all this is only temporary.
It’s painful reading Roza’s diary, knowing what’s to come. The war she was so intent on fighting scuppered her personal life; her relationships with friends and lovers flamed and then fizzled, gone in a crack of gunfire. Solomenin, Sasha, Kalya, Panarin… friendships forged in the heat of war, never to leave the freezing Eastern Front.
In July 1944, three months after arriving, Roza fought in the struggle for Vilnius, in Lithuania, and later recounted it:
Day breaks. Walking. Freezing: in my underwear, bra and camouflage, and that’s all. Fritz [the Germans] is on three sides. I see a guard looming in the distance. But whose? Through the rye I crept closer: our soldiers, outposts, tired, sleeping in formations. I run up to the guard. He sleeps standing. I lay down under my jacket and camouflage and immediately fell asleep. In the morning we woke up and they wondered how I found them. We sit.
A German plane strafed the ground 100 meters from us. Tairov said: “After 10 minutes, we will counterattack the enemy.” My team was commanded to take the hill, we took it in minutes. I was at the front. At first I did not see, and then I see: from the hills, 100 meters off, climb self-propelled guns with troops. It was the enemy manpower. Just to the left of me, 8 meters away, a tank crushed a lieutenant and a captain. My rifle jammed. Quickly, I cleared the jam and shot again.
Here comes the tank directly at me, 10 meters away. I feel for my grenades – but they were lost while crawling through the rye. And I was not scared. 7 meters out our 76mm artillery hit the tank. After everything, when I saw the dead and wounded, it was terrible.
At night we were surrounded. Stayed with Solomatin. He was overcome: “death is all the same.” I didn’t blame him: he is young, and it was his right to think like that. I was not afraid to die, but I began to cry because, well, they say, a girl blames herself for everything, when the whole situation allows it, at every opportunity. I sat up until late.
The next day, Roza captured three German soldiers.
Going along in my daydreams, I had forgotten I was in a dangerous place. Walked on a bridge, casually I looked to the side in an overgrown ravine. I see: what on earth? Fritz sitting there. I shouted: “Hände hoch” and up went 6 hands: three of them. One mumbled something I did not understand. I only knew the how to say the words: “Quick,” “forward,” – and shout. They crawled out of the ravine. Secured weapons, watches, grenades, binoculars, etc. Walked 1.5KM, I saw a German had only one boot on. That’s what he was mumbling about in the ravine, asking for permission to retrieve the other boot: I did not understand!
Friends, and tight
Over the next few months, into the winter, the Soviets steadily advanced towards Kaliningrad – previously German territory. Her friendship with Sasha and Kalya deepened, Roza dubbing them the ‘Stray Troika’. She wrote in November:
If we stay alive and healthy, but scatter to different regions, I beg you – do not forget us, our brave Stray Troika. I’m attached to Sasha and Kalya, I’m bored without them. I respect them more than anyone else in the platoon, and life is always easier with friends. All three of us are from different families, all slightly different personalities. But we have much in common; we are friends, and tight.
In December, an enemy sniper hit Roza. Her shoulder was injured, and she had to spend a week in hospital. This caused her great irritation. All she wanted was to get back to her division.
When she did, her wish of fighting in combat at the front was finally granted. She would be part of the East Prussian Offensive. Events in her diary become increasingly perilous from this point on. Before long Roza and her team got caught in friendly fire from one of the Red Army’s vicious Katyusha rocket launchers.
Now I understand why the Germans are so afraid of Katyushas. What a fire! Today for me seemed like a month. Nearly vomited at all the body parts. Bandaged the wounded and moved forward.
During her time on the front Roza experienced sexism and maltreatment from the male soldiers. This included name calling, casual assault – an officer ‘grabbed hold of me like I was in a brothel’ – and one time when the son of the colonel burst in on her while she was changing.
Vadim, son of the chief Colonel, a Lieutenant. Nothing to do, a mama’s boy and evil. Stuck close to me: “Give me a kiss”. He walked in without permission and I wasn’t wearing any pants. Strong, though small. Twisted my arms around, threw me down on the couch, kissing me, and just then the Colonel walked in – his father. I have tears on my face, crying. “What’s going on?” I say: “Just because I’m a girl, does that mean everyone has to kiss me?” He yelled at his son, but after he had left Vadim said: “Understand, I don’t want German girls, they’re infected, and you’re a clean, pretty girl, who I want to kiss.” I said: “You have so many wants, I have to be the one to give in?
The Soviets had made gains; the Germans were fighting a losing battle. They decided that instead of defending against the merciless Red Army, they would solidify the areas in which they remained strong. Roza’s division were in one of these areas.
By this point Roza had experienced war for what it is: a gruesome hell. But she continued to choose to fight, despite ample opportunities to the contrary, despite the situation looking bleaker by the day because of the Germans surrounding them. She writes again, feverishly, of how ‘some unknown force’ is demanding she fight.
Was attached to the rear of the 157th rifle division to protect the drivers in the platoon, and ride in the cabs. Looks pleasant, warm, easy and satisfying. This I also want. But some unknown force is pulling me to the front. Oh passion, passion, oh blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. I am a submissive heart. I like adventures, explosions, it is particularly interesting to repel a counterattack. And if this is all there is, charge – the last irrevocable charge!
Roza had committed to the war to a point from which there would be no return. The fighting was ceaseless. Such a life was profoundly affecting her relationships. Roza’s final few diary entries detail her growing isolation from her friends and the men who she had months ago confessed to love.
I’m finally sure that I’m not capable of love. And our troika (Sasha, Kali, and I) no longer exists. I’m out of it. Our interests diverged and we have nothing to talk about.
Nikolai Solomatin wrote to me: ‘Wherever you are, noble falcon, I cherish you.’ He wrote that without him I do not have a boy, etc. If I met him now, he would not deceive me. I have become more confidant; and he told me then that he loved me. I condemned his flattery and hypocrisy, he does not love me, and I am not offended. I can’t seem to find contentment in my heart. I don’t need anyone.
Her final, brief diary entry tells how German fire had become so heavy that her and her comrades had taken to hiding inside self-propelled guns.
It was a real meat-grinder. So many times we got troops on the self-propelled guns, 1 or 2 people at most, and the rest mowed down by enemy fire. I went into a self-propelled gun, but could not manage to fire, cannot look out of the hatch without being wounded or killed.
Three days later, two soldiers found Roza. There would be no hospital visit this time; flying shrapnel had torn her chest open. She had been shielding a wounded infantry officer. Noticing she was still alive, the two soldiers tried to help her, even carrying her to a nurse who attempted to keep her alive. But the shrapnel had disembowelled her. The nurse later recalled Roza muttering that she regretted having done so little.
By the following day, she had passed away; she was yet to reach her 21st birthday. Her comrades buried her under a pear tree on the shore of the Alle River.
Roza went to war to avenge the death of her brother, and died shielding a comrade from the same fate. An unconquerable lust for adventure called her to the front, one that overrode fear, friendship and love. There, she discovered war’s inglorious and dehumanising reality, in the physical abuse she suffered and the senseless death that surrounded her on all sides. Despite everything, Roza managed something most of us fail at: she lived nobly until the brutal end.
She also sniped 59 Nazis, whose doomed leader believed a woman’s place was in the home, raising children and baking cakes.
A month after Roza died, her friend Sasha was also killed. The third member of Roza’s ‘Stray Troika’, Kaleriya “Kalya” Petrova, doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere else, except in passing in a book about the Soviet Union’s female snipers, ‘Avenging Angels‘.
I don’t tell this story because Roza was a woman, although I’d note these events would’ve been impossible had she not been one – from her work in the nursery, to the army’s initial refusal of her, to her becoming a sniper rather than common cannon-fodder, to her sexual assault at the hands of the colonel’s son.
Had she been a man, with her urge to fight, she likely would have signed up early and died in Leningrad, alongside her brother. 800,000 women fought for the USSR during World War Two, or The Great Patriotic War as they call it.
I tell this story because it’s one particularly vivid and relatable story from the 10.6 million other stories of Soviet soldiers, most of them taken to the grave without being written down.
Stories like Roza’s get lost in numbers, especially ones as large as 10.6 million. It’s incomprehensible. Stories like Roza’s get buried in hysteria about evil empires, full of nameless, scary ‘others’. Stories like Roza’s need dug up, told, and remembered.
I got most of the actual diary material for this from a website called Roza’s Diary, where someone seems to have spent countless hours translating the Russian of Roza’s published diary into English, for free. Go and look at it. There’s so much more incredible stuff there which I only just managed to stop myself pasting into this article in its entirety.
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