During the First World War, women were mobilized on an unprecedented scale. Some of them, mainly Russian, wouldn’t be satisfied working in the rear and would eventually enroll in the army. Maria Bochkareva stood out among all of them. She was born to a poor peasant family and fought in the frontline from the very beginning of the war. She was wounded on several occasions, formed the so-called ‘women’s battalions of death’, got the highest honors and became a worldwide famous charismatic leader. She was executed by the Bolsheviks when she was just 30 years old.
From misfortune to legend
Maria Leontievna Bochkareva was born in 1889 to a modest family in the city of Novgorod, in European Russia. She had to work for wages since the age of eight, married when fifteen and moved to the Siberian city of Tomsk. When her husband began drinking heavily and assaulting her, she ran away with her lover, which would follow despite he was exiled to Yakutsk, in the Russian Far East. As time went by, this second relationship would end up deteriorated too because of her lover’s alcoholism and abuses.
First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, while Bochkareva was living badly in Siberia. News from the front aroused in her a deep patriotic spirit and yearning to join the army. She didn’t want just to cooperate working in the rear, as many other women did, but wished to go to the frontline to fight for her motherland: “Day and night my imagination carried me to the fields of battle, and my ears rang with the groans of my wounded brethren … The spirit of sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me. An irresistible force from within pulled me.” Such patriotic fervor and feel like going to fight had probably its origin in a way to escape from her thwarted life and to address all her energies and strong-minded spirit, which had already led her to be the forewoman of over twenty workers.
She made up her mind to join the army and turned up to the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion. Her application would be almost completely ignored. In those days the military command didn’t consider to enroll women in the army and in no way a peasant woman coming out from nowhere. Not only she didn’t give up, but showed off her tenacity and sent a telegram to the Tsar Nicholas II himself, which would answer affirmatively to her demand thereby opening the gates of the army to her.
If trying to join the army was a difficult task, none the less was that the other soldiers treated her in a respectful way since they used to make a fool of her time and again. But all jokes would come to an end as within weeks her battalion was sent to the battlefield. Bochkareva would fight with all ferocity for almost two years and a half, taking part in bayonet charges against the German trenches, joining reconnaissance squads, rescuing comrades in arms under the enemy fire, and so on. Although she was wounded four times -two of them quite seriously- she always would come back to the frontline to fight with an unrivaled courage.
The exploits of Yashka (nickname given to Bochkareva by her fellow soldiers) were not unnoticed and she would be decorated several times. Among the medals received must be pointed out the Cross of St. George, which was the highest distinction that a Russian soldier may get for his heroism. Not before long, the story of this modern Joan of Arc aroused the interest of the press, which turned her into a popular icon, a legend in her own lifetime.
The women’s battalions of death
The February Revolution of 1917, the abdication of the tsar and the slogans of the Bolsheviks claiming to withdraw from World War I brought a great distress and uneasiness to the Russian troops, exhausted and emaciated due to a war going on for more than two years and a half and hundreds of thousands of casualties. The interim government was deeply concerned about how to face this situation. Eventually, they found inspiration in the French Revolution and decided that the war had to go on, trying to match the revolutionary theories with the commitment held with their allies and the defense of the country.
One of the measures taken in order to motivate the troops was to establish the so-called ‘battalions of death’, storm troops units consisting of volunteers which should be an example to follow for the remaining soldiers. Taking into account this initiative, Bochkareva went one step further and would suggest forming battalions made up out-and-out by women. What could be more humiliating to soldiers than to see women go to fight where they didn’t dare? After an audience that took place in Petrograd (current Saint Petersburg), the Kerensky government acceded to Yashka’s demand and she immediately issued a moving appeal to all Russian women.
All kind of women answered by thousands to the call to arms and volunteered to enroll the future women’s battalion of death, so called to be determined to fight until the end and never step backward. Not in vain the badge of these combat units was made up with a skull and crossbones. Moreover, all those women took with them some cyanide pills, to kill themselves in case they might be seized by the enemy.
It can’t be denied that they looked really martial and defiant:
The haste of the war didn’t allow the drill be extended for a long time. During the few weeks, available Bochkareva would supervise all the process personally. She would be very strict with her subordinates and even expel those who didn’t meet her requirements.
Although no exact figure is available, it is estimated that between 5,500 and 6,500 women fought in the Russian Army during the Great War. From the first 3,000 recruits would come out two battalions and several units. Bochkareva commanded the First Women’s Battalion of Death.
In spite of the resolution of Yashka and her women fellows, their contribution to the war was not outstanding; not for lack of courage, but because they had no experience in combat and were left alone against the enemy. In the first and last battle of Bochkareva’s battalion, most of the men soldiers remained hidden down in the trenches while women launched an attack towards the German lines. As soon as shots and explosions started, many of the women were scared to death and threw their arms away. Bochkareva was wounded and taken to the hospital.
While Yashka was recovering, the October Revolution started and again another battalion of women soldiers stood alone; in this occasion to protect the Winter Palace together with a squad of invalids, some cyclists and a bunch of young cadets. Although must be pointed out that they remained at their posts until the end, their performance was once again in vain as they easily surrendered to the Bolsheviks that assaulted the building.
Exhausted after so many years at the front and disappointed by the poor performance of the women’s battalions, Bochkareva refused the command to arrange her units again and decided to go back to Tomsk. She wasn’t just tired, furthermore, she didn’t want to take part in the upcoming fratricidal civil war.
On her way home, Bochkareva was arrested in Petrograd and later on taken in the presence of Lenin and Trotsky. They would insist on the idea that she should join the Bolsheviks, since if they could have counted on her – the well-known peasant hero admired by all the people – that would have meant an important backing to their cause. Although both revolutionary leaders kept on trying to Bochkareva and that she was detained so she could think it over, Yashka held her ground in her decision to go back home. Finally, she was released.
From fight to international diplomacy
As time went bye, tiredness gave way to the nostalgia of the exploits and glory achieved during her years in the army. Little by little, Bochkareva went into a downward spiral of booze and depression, as she was convinced that no one needed or just remembered about her anymore.
All of a sudden, she got a message from general Kornilov, leader of the contra-revolutionary White Army and former Commander in Chief of the interim government’s army. The concise message just said: “Come at once, we need you”. Bochkareva would manage to meet with the general going through the Bolshevik lines disguised as a sister of mercy.
Kornilov and his men were suffocated by the Red Army and badly needed outer financial and military aid to resist. Bochkareva would be the perfect ambassador to get that help, thanks to her charisma and worldwide known legend. She accepted like a shot to go to the US and the UK and within a few days she set sail to San Francisco from Vladivostok.
On arriving at the United States Bochkareva was in the spotlight. Everybody wished to meet the soldier woman, the Russian Joan of Arc, to hear the countless stories that went before her, which had been written by the war correspondents in Russia. Bochkareva would be on tour in the US over a month being interviewed and attending public events held in her honor.
In the end, after a tightly scheduled trip and once she dictated her memoirs to a Russian journalist who lived in New York, arrived the most expect moment to Bochkareva: meeting with the US president Woodrow Wilson. He would attend very thrilled to the account of Yashka about her war experiences and to her request for help. The meeting ended with the president’s pledge to help the contra-revolutionary army.
From America Bochkareva set off to the United Kingdom and once there, together with Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragettes, she succeeded in meeting with Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for War, and later on with king George V. Again, there was a mounting excitement both among the press and the British people, but the political outcome was certainly poor, in comparison with the one obtained in the United States. Although Bochkareva had been in tune with Churchill, her meeting with the king would be very short and not so much profitable, marred partly due to the news that general Kornilov had died.
Return and sentence to death
On getting to Russia, Bochkareva was received by the remaining forces of the White Army, which would thank her as she tried to do her best in order to get the so long-awaited aid. In those days, Yashka the soldier could not help her comrades at all. Casualties were increasing day in day out so that sanitary battalions were more helpful than the military ones. Thus, the last order she was given was to set up teams of volunteers in order to attend wounded soldiers.
Not before long, the Bolsheviks burst through the frontline and the White Army officers would beat a retreat, leaving wounded soldiers and medical volunteers to their fate. Then, when nothing could be done, Bochkareva, morally and physically exhausted, went back to her home in Tomsk, where she would withdraw into herself and visit regularly a church searching for inner tranquility.
Determined to bury her fighting past, Bochkareva went to a post of the Red Army to hand over her revolver. Her presence raised a few eyebrows among the Bolshevik soldiers who eventually released the legendary Yashka… but not for a long time, because later on she was arrested following Chekas’s orders (soviet secret security service), being charged with being an enemy of the people. After a summary trial, she was executed on May 16, 1920.