In 1957 two women sat, stiff and formal, because of an unwelcome man. Fed up, the younger one grabbed the other, pulled her into a room, and locked the door despite the man’s protests. With him out of earshot, the friends reminisced.
One was the wife of a former US president while the other was a heroine of the Soviet Union.
Lyudmila Mykhailivna Pavlichenko was born on July 12, 1916, in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, Russia. When she was 14, her family moved to Kiev where she joined the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy (DOSAAF). She did well in school. She also became a sharpshooter – little realizing where it would lead.
A competitive tomboy, she was also a sprinter and pole vaulter. She took pleasure in competing with boys still struggling with women’s equality in a new Soviet system.
In 1937, Pavlichenko completed her master’s degree in history and was working on her doctorate in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded. In Odessa when it happened, she was among the first to volunteer, requesting to join the infantry. She had the option of becoming a nurse, but on producing her sharpshooting medals, she joined 2,000 other female snipers in the Red Army.
Pavlichenko joined the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division and was sent directly to the war front in early August 1941, armed with a Tokarev SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle.
By the end of the month, she had achieved 100 confirmed kills and was promoted to the rank of Senior Sergeant.
In mid-October, with Odessa overrun, her unit was evacuated by ship to Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula where she began counter-sniping – dueling with snipers. It involved waiting completely still for hours or days for an enemy sniper to make a move. She never lost a single fight with 36 confirmed kills.
Her longest one took three days, but in the end, she claimed that “the Nazi made one move too many.” In May 1942, she became a Lieutenant having killed 257 enemy soldiers. Her acceptance speech was simple, “I’ll get more.”
The Germans knew of her, by then. On loudspeakers, they promised her the rank of a German officer and unlimited chocolates (which she found decadently sexist). After her 309th kill, the Germans went on their loudspeakers vowing to rip her into 309 pieces. Pavlichenko was flattered that they knew her score.
Her success lay in her strategy. Manikins tied to trees and bright pieces of cloth on bushes attracted her enemy. Often, she did not kill them outright – preferring to shoot them in the legs first. When they cried out, enemy support arrived, or other soldiers slowed down as they helped their injured comrades – that was when Pavlichenko finished them all off.
She was severely wounded on three separate occasions. She also suffered as she lost friends and family, as well as her husband. In June 1942, she was injured by mortar fire.
Following her recovery, she was removed from combat due to her popularity. In July Pavlychenko was sent to America and Canada on a goodwill mission. She was the first Soviet citizen to be received by an American President when she met Franklin D Roosevelt in the White House.
She was dumbfounded by the questions from the American press. “Do you wear face powder?” they asked. “Why don’t you wear makeup?” “Do you curl your hair?” “Your uniform’s ugly, and it makes you look fat!” “You should smile more!”
In a country far removed from the war and more concerned about image, Pavlichenko was way out of her depth. First Lady Anna Eleanor Roosevelt took the young Soviet warrior under her wing.
At a press conference in Chicago, Pavlichenko said to the gathered crowd, “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old, and I have killed 309 fascist invaders… Don’t you think… you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
It was a rousing success that followed throughout her tour. In Canada, thousands greeted her and a fellow Soviet sniper at Toronto’s Union Station. In November 1942 in Britain, she accepted a donation from factory workers of £4,516 for three X-ray units for the Red Army.
On returning home, she was made a Major, received the Gold Star, and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. She never returned to combat and instead became an instructor training snipers until the end of the war.
Of the 2,000 Soviet female snipers who fought in WWII, only about 500 survived. Fortunately, Pavlichenko was among them.
When the war ended, she completed her doctorate, became a historian, and worked as a research assistant with the Soviet Navy. She also remarried and lived a quiet life in a two-room apartment.
During the Cold War between East and West, Mrs. Roosevelt said of the deteriorating US-Soviet relations that if “we ever hope to correct certain wrong impressions, we can do it only by contact with each other.”
In September 1957 Mrs. Roosevelt was granted entry to the Soviet Union. She received the red carpet treatment but was not allowed to meet anyone without a minder. In Moscow, she kept asking about Pavlichenko until finally the authorities relented and she was taken to her apartment.
They chatted with “cool formality,” Roosevelt explained, unable to do more because of the minder who sat with them. Then Pavlichenko pulled Roosevelt into her bedroom where the two hugged.
Roosevelt and Pavlichenko laughed, cried, and had quite a chat – proving that contact can indeed correct some wrong impressions.