Why you should care
Because women on the front lines are nothing new.
“Get the hell out of here!” Aleksandr Sokolov looked over his shoulder and realized that the red-faced officer was barking at him. Confused, the rookie cavalryman peeled away and galloped back to the safety of his formation.
Sokolov, who had joined every charge the Polish Horse Regiment sent forth that day, had no idea that his unit attacked only in small waves at a time. But instead of learning his lesson and patiently awaiting his turn to blitz, Sokolov decided to explore the edges of the battlefield.
While there were plenty of rumors, no one in the regiment knew just how special Aleksandr Sokolov was.
In no man’s land Sokolov came across an injured compatriot with French dragoons bearing down on him. The youthful-looking soldier dived in, forcing the enemy to retreat. He gave the wounded Russian his horse, sent him in the direction of a hospital tent and then walked back to camp, alone. When he returned to his regiment, a debate was raging among his comrades. Was the rich kid, who had turned up out of nowhere, brave or just stupid? Most agreed he was a bit of both. And while there were plenty of rumors, no one in the regiment knew just how special Aleksandr Sokolov was.
Sokolov was born Nadezhda Durova in 1783. In her memoir, The Cavalry Maiden, she describes her birth as an arrival that “destroyed” her mother’s dreams. Durova, who was once thrown from a moving carriage by her mother, chronicled a history of abuse that ended only when her father banned her mother from being alone with her.
Durova idolized her father — a captain in the hussars — and became obsessed with all things military. By the time she was a teenager, her mother’s depression had grown worse, and the increasing severity of the mental illness seems to have coincided with Durova’s growing bitterness toward noblewomen and the lives they led.
These women’s lives, according to Marianna Muravyeva, a historian at Moscow’s National Research University, were progressive when compared with those of other European women. Russian ladies were expected to be educated and enjoyed high levels of economic independence. They were, of course, “also expected to be mothers,” Muravyeva says. Durova tried both marriage and motherhood, but found that she wasn’t cut out for such a life. She pledged “to become a warrior,” and “part company forever from the sex whose sad lot and eternal dependence” terrified her. At age 23, Durova started living as Aleksandr Sokolov.
Before dawn on Sept. 17, 1806, Durova, disguised in a military coat, rode one town over to join a band of Cossacks heading west to enlist with the regular army. Close to the Lithuanian border she persuaded a commander in the Polish Horse Regiment to accept her. A few months later, at the Battle of Guttstadt, Durova was charging the enemy … more times than required.
Rumors of a woman serving in the cavalry started to spread, and while Durova heard the gossip, she was confident no one in the barracks knew her secret. Higher powers, however, were closing in. A daughter’s love compelled Durova to write and let her father know her whereabouts, which started a mission on her father’s part to bring his daughter home. His pleas made their way through high society and eventually reached Emperor Alexander I himself, and the soldier was summoned to St. Petersburg.
Durova was certain her military career was over. But to her astonishment, Alexander — who had a reputation for being enchanted by interesting women — not only endorsed her continued service but also gave her a new alias: Aleksandr Aleksandrov, naming her after himself.
With the emperor’s blessing (and protection), Durova fought throughout the War of 1812. She was at the desperate siege of Smolensk and the bloodbath at Borodino, suffered sickness and wounds, and even grew weary of being treated like the young boy she resembled.
Following Napoleon’s defeat, Durova returned to civilian life, where she continued dressing as a man and wrote her memoir. Muravyeva finds this chapter of Durova’s life the most fascinating. “That she could be open and maintain a masculine lifestyle,” the historian says, “it tells you a lot about Russian society at that time [compared with today].”
Muravyeva believes Durova’s transformation was social rather than sexual or based on gender identity, and that what fascinated Durova most was the “male privilege that came with men’s clothes.” When Durova died in 1866 she was buried in her uniform, with full military honors. Like that of the Amazons — whom some trace to southern Russia — Durova’s legacy is proof that “fighting like a girl” is no insult.