Why you should care
Because U.S. women won’t be in combat roles until 2016. Maybe.
When a college-educated kindergarten teacher walked into a Soviet Union military center during the fire and rage of World War II, it did not seem as strange then as it may sound now. It was late 1941, a year that ended with the death of her first brother during the siege of Leningrad. She was initially turned away by the local military commissariat who knew how hot it was at the front, but after losing two more siblings, in 1942 Roza Shanina finally succeeded in joining the 2,484 Soviet women serving their motherland as snipers.
“The key thing about the Soviet snipers was their impact on Soviet morale,” said David H. Lippman, author of World War II Plus 75: The Road to War. “They provided the ‘workers’ state’ with ‘workers’ heroes.’” But after Shanina made it through the Central Female Sniper Academy, military deployment plans nearly kept her away from the raging battle entirely — despite a widely held Soviet military belief that women soldiers made good snipers because of their greater physical flexibility and, true or not, their cunning, patience and ability to endure combat hardships better than their male counterparts.
Shanina ignored orders and continued to support advancing infantry columns.
Not one to be deferred or diverted after her initial attempts, Shanina began what would be a very short but significant march to greatness. It may feel strange to measure greatness by numbers of other humans killed, but the Soviets faced a fairly existential dilemma: Win or perish. It was April 1944, near Vitebsk, where Shanina killed her first Nazi soldier. Within a month, she had taken out about 17 more.
Under heavy artillery fire, her commanders decided to withdraw, but Shanina ignored orders and continued to support advancing infantry columns — and not just as a sniper. She captured German soldiers and was wounded herself. Her exploits earned her military commendations and wide renown among her countrymen, as well as in the West. She returned to battle soon thereafter, fighting in a battalion that lost 72 out of its 78 soldiers. A battle she survived.
Though not for long. Shanina was finally felled in January 1945, her chest torn open by an exploded artillery fragment. But before her death at the age of 20, she had managed 54 — some sources say 59 — confirmed kills in less than a year’s time.
By April the war was over: Nazi Germany was defeated and in flames, and Shanina had secured a legacy for the ages. And when you consider other significantly grim records of sniper success — 109 confirmed kills by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Adelbert Waldron over two years in Vietnam and the estimated 255 kills by Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (of American Sniper fame) during his 10 years of service — Shanina stands out for dispatching the most in the least amount of time.
The Soviet Union was still fighting when she died, and all told, over the course of the conflict, Soviet women snipers were collectively responsible for 11,280 kills, by conservative estimates. But if history notes anything in Shanina’s case, it is not so much her kill number but the fact that she eagerly pursued a difficult, dirty and dangerous job for a cause: the continued existence of her homeland.
M.G. Sheftall, technical adviser on the History Channel series Dogfights and author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze, points out that Shanina’s desire to fight was so fervent that she made the bold decision to go over her superior officers’ heads and write to Stalin personally to ask that she be deployed to the front lines. Says Sheftall, “It shows a level of stones and guts that makes the lack of a major motion picture about her damned near confounding.”
To hold you over until Shanina’s story is brought to the big screen, watch this illustrated short about her brief, eventful life.