Why you should care
Because apparently this is a question we’re asking again.
The 26-year-old Soviet sniper, donning the Order of Lenin, stood before a crowd of American reporters. It was late summer, 1942, and Lyudmila Pavlichenko was asked whether she was allowed to wear lipstick on the job. “There are no rules against it,” she said, smiling faintly, before regaling the press with tales of how she had killed 309 Nazis.
As we debate once again whether or not it’s OK to punch Nazis, Pavlichenko — aka “Lady Death” — offers a few words of wisdom from beyond the grave. “The only feeling I have,” she said when asked whether she had mixed feelings about being the most successful Soviet sniper of World War II, “is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
So how did Pavlichenko end up talking to a scrum of reporting Yanks? “The U.S.S.R. wanted a woman to show that it was a war where everybody was involved … She was available and alive,” says Amandine Regamey, an academic working on a biography of Pavlichenko. Born in what is now Ukraine, the 24-year-old Pavlichenko joined the Soviet army in 1941. When a recruiter attempted to assign the student of history to nursing duties, she presented a certificate proving her shooting prowess — skills acquired thanks to her shooting hobby — and became a sniper.
The whole world will love her for a long time to come / For more than 300 Nazis fell by your gun.
Woody Guthrie, “Miss Pavlichenko”
Though some academics doubt the figure of 309 kills, there’s no doubt Pavlichenko was a formidable hunter: She is reputed to have killed 187 people in battle over the course of 10 weeks in 1941, according to Sniper in Action. She was wounded three times and evacuated by submarine from the battle of Sevastopol, in which her husband, a fellow soldier, was later killed.
Having achieved notoriety for her battlefield prowess, Pavlichenko was sent to the U.S. in 1942 — possibly, Regamey says, because having a woman fronting the tour for the U.S.S.R. would shame American men into getting more involved in the war effort. During the war, the U.S.S.R. recruited thousands of women into combat roles, including an estimated 2,000 sharpshooters.
It was Pavlichenko, the first Soviet citizen received by a U.S. president, who won over the American public — and its first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who arranged the young Soviet’s national tour. Fifteen years later, the 32nd U.S. president’s wife visited Pavlichenko’s two-room apartment in Moscow and heard her war stories once again, firsthand. Crowds of 100,000 were reported at rallies in Pavlichenko’s honor during her wartime tour, and American troubadour Woody Guthrie immortalized the famous sniper with his song “Miss Pavlichenko,” crooning how “The whole world will love her for a long time to come / For more than 300 Nazis fell by your gun.”
Pavlichenko, and the equality she talked up at the behest of her higher-ups, was inspiring to much of America’s left. The Soviet Union presented itself as a paradise of equality, where all genders and races were treated the same, and Pavlichenko represented that to many who hoped similar values would take hold in the U.S. “I send you my deep and heartfelt greetings to your country fighting for the liberation of all mankind,” Adele Young, an African-American, wrote to Pavlichenko in 1942. “Your visit here is an inspiration to us to continue our fight.”
Pavlichenko herself wasn’t an outspoken feminist. Her steely mien won people’s respect, though, and when she returned to Moscow, she was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest honor. By being an outstanding sniper and a woman, she helped open up opportunities for women in combat roles. At the onset of World War II, many women had been relegated to nursing work, but thanks to Pavlichenko and others, a women’s sharpshooting school was opened by 1943; by the time the war ended, more than 1,800 women had become Soviet snipers. Many of them weren’t as lucky as Pavlichenko, who never saw combat again: Fewer than 500 are believed to have made it through the war.
In the 1960s, the former sniper’s discourse about her life’s work changed. While once she talked openly about being proud of killing Nazis and making the world safer for her countrymen, she later admitted that her first kill was difficult — that she had trembled and wondered if her target truly believed in Hitler’s cause or had simply been sent into battle.
After hanging up her rifle, Pavlichenko returned to her studies, earning a history degree from Kiev University. She became a military historian for the Navy until retirement, long after she’d already made military history herself.