When World War I began, Russian law prohibited women from joining the army. Nonetheless, Russian women found ways to fight. Some women took the “traditional” route and disguised themselves as men. Others applied directly to unit commanders for the chance to enlist.
In 1917, the February Revolution brought with it the possibility of change. The Provisional Government proclaimed all subjects of the empire free and equal citizens, with the rights and duties that went with citizenship. Many women assumed their new status included their right as citizens to bear arms in their country’s defense(1) By the spring of 1917, the idea of an all-female military unit was in the air. Individual women proclaimed their desire to serve. Women’s groups sent petitions to the government asking for permission to form all-female military units.
At the same time that women were eager to join the army, men on the front were desperate for the war to stop. For two and a half years, the army had suffered shortages of food and materiel, heavy casualties, and brutal defeats at the hands of the Germans. From the perspective of the front line, the February Revolution had done nothing to improve their lot. The Provisional Government was no more effective at running the war than the imperial government it replaced. The introduction of democracy to the military decision-making process in the form of soldiers’ committees resulted in endless wrangling about every action and made it difficult for officers to enforce orders. In fact, many units voted to remove their officers, and then followed up the vote with force. Morale was low and the desertion rate was high. In May, units at the front experienced mass mutinies. It was not clear that Russia could continue to fight. Many people thought an all-female battalion was the solution, believing the presence of women in the trenches would raise morale, or at least shame male soldiers into fighting.
In late May 1917, despite having serious reservations about the value of such units, Minister of War Alexander Kerensky approved the creation of a single all-female battalion under the leadership of Maria Bochkareva (1889–1920), a semiliterate peasant from Siberia who had already fought for two years alongside male soldiers
Some two thousand women enlisted initially, far exceeding expectations. The realities of war and Bochkareva’s rigid leadership style whittled the battalion down to three hundred by the time they were sent to the front.
The social backgrounds of the women who enlisted varied. Bochkareva was barely literate, but roughly half the women who served under her had a secondary education, and 25 to 30 percent had completed some degree of higher education. Professionals and women from wealthy families trained alongside clerks, dressmakers, factory workers, and peasants. Some had already served in the war in medical or auxiliary positions and were eager to do more; as one woman said, “Women have something more to do for Russia than binding men’s wounds.” At least ten had fought previously in all-male units. Thirty of them had been decorated for valor in the field.
On June 21, after less than a month of rigorous training, their hair cut in a style any modern recruit would recognize, and wearing uniforms that didn’t fit,(2) the First Women’s Battalion of Death marched in procession to St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the consecration of their battalion standards. Enthusiastic crowds cheered and a group of soldiers and sailors boosted Bochkareva onto their shoulders.
Two days later, Bochkareva and her soldiers left for the Russian western front. Kerensky sent the unit to an area that suffered from dangerously low morale. A few days before the women arrived, a regiment had been forced to disband due to massive desertions. Their posting was deliberate—a test as to whether the presence of women would affect the morale of male soldiers.
The First Women’s Battalion of Death experienced its first taste of battle on July 9 as part of an offensive against a German position. When the order came to attack, nothing happened. Three regiments of the male infantry division to which they were attached convened their soldiers’ committees and debated whether or not to fight. After several hours, the women, anxious to prove their worth, decided they would advance without the support of the other regiments. Joined by a few hundred male soldiers, they advanced with few casualties. Eventually, more than half the soldiers in the division joined them in the advance. Together they took the first and second lines of the German trenches.
The women and a few male soldiers held off six German counterattacks on their position. They retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Before retreating, they captured two machine guns and a number of Germans, including two officers, who were not happy about being taken prisoner by women. One officer was so distraught with the shame of being captured by women that the Russian women tied him down for fear he would commit suicide from the shame of it all.
The First Women’s Battalion of Death inspired the creation of similar units throughout Russia. Between five thousand and six thousand women volunteered for combat. The Provisional Government established fifteen more official units; grassroots women’s groups organized at least ten others. Several of these units saw active duty.
Despite the success of the First Women’s Battalion of Death at the front, military authorities believed the units were more trouble than they were worth. The units were formed as a means of improving morale among male troops. Instead, male soldiers became increasingly hostile to the presence of women soldiers over the course of the summer. By September, the military had stopped enlisting women and was discussing proposals to disband existing women’s combat units.
In October, the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in a relatively bloodless coup. On March 3, 1918, the Bolshevik government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany and began demobilizing the army, including the all-female units. Because the great experiment of women soldiers was publicly linked with the Provisional Government, many women soldiers were branded as counterrevolutionaries during the first chaotic months of Bolshevik rule and suffered violence at the hands of their countrymen. Some joined anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. Others enlisted in the Red Army, which welcomed women during the civil war—though most of them were placed in noncombat positions.
Russia’s women soldiers were celebrated during the First World War, but they were conspicuously absent from Soviet histories of the war and the revolution that followed it because of their connection to the failed Provisional Government. Nonetheless, they would serve as a precedent when Soviet Russia once again faced an external enemy in the form of Nazi Germany. But that’s a story for another day.
(1)The tangled relationship between the right/duty to bear arms and the right to vote is a story for another time.
(2) The Russian army did not have the resources to produce women’s uniforms. The women received standard uniforms designed for male soldiers. Boots were a particular problem.