Born in the Ukraine in 1916, Lyudmila Pavlichenko always had an affinity for firearms. When she was 14 her family moved to Kiev and she joined an amateur sharpshooter’s club while working in an arsenal factory. She went to college to study history, but in 1941, the Nazi’s started knocking at Russia’s doors, and Lyudmila decided it was time she answered. She signed up for the Red Army and was offered a job as a nurse. She turned it down, stating “I joined the army when women were not yet accepted”. Nonetheless, she managed to snag a slot in infantry and became one of 2,000 female snipers.
She was given a Tokarev SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle, a more difficult to handle version of the more popular Mosin–Nagant, but she made good use of it. In her first few months of war, she made 187 kills. Coincidentally, the California Penal Code for Murders is 187, and it’s ironic that to ‘187 them,’ is slang in many places for ‘to kill them’. But Lyudmila didn’t stop at 187. She killed a total of 309 nazis during WWII, including 36 nazi snipers.
Just one year after her rein of terror began, she was seriously wounded by mortar fire. While recovering, it was decided that she would withdraw from combat. She was becoming a pretty big deal, you see, and in WWII one needed to keep good public relations with allied countries. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to tour the United States, and Lyudmila happily agreed.
Lyudmila did indeed tour, but found some of the press’s questions odd*. One reporter asked, if women could wear makeup while fighting. Just months ago Lyudmila had been on these front lines, watching her sisters in arms die. She answered “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
Many other reporters seemed much less interested in Lyudmila’s heroics than they were with her style and appearance. She was often asked why she appeared in her uniform, instead of something more fashionable. She is quoted: “I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don’t they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair? One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat…This made me angry. I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
In 1943, she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, but she’d had enough of war. She returned to the university of Kiev and began her career as a historian. Yet her history beaconed her an in 1945 she was recruited as a research assistant of the Chief HQ of the Soviet Navy. She was later a member of the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War
She died in 1978, and though she doesn’t have any block buster movies about her life, her image has appeared on postage stamps.
*I must interject here. I’m a military woman myself, and I’m often asked these sorts of questions. Before I met my husband, I dated as you do. Often, when I told my prospective suitor that I was in the military, he would get a gleam in his eye, talk about how ‘sexy’ that was, and ask if we had ‘female specific’ clothing. On one such occasion a suitor picked me up from work. I’d been outside all day, and was tired and sweaty. He looked at me in disgusted and couldn’t quite believe that yes, I had done hard work outside and no, I could not show cleavage in my uniform. It’s been half a century, and this is still annoying.