Women Soldiers in Russia's Great War

During the First World War, approximately six thousand Russian women became combatants. This experience was unprecedented, far surpassing previous or contemporary examples. More significantly, Russia was the only country to employ women systematically in sexually segregated military formations. Although contemporary observers acknowledged their role and the female soldiers became media stars in the domestic and foreign presses, they have largely been forgotten by history. They were pushed aside by subsequent historiography for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that they ended up on the losing side of October 1917.

The Individuals

Because Imperial Russian law forbade women’s enlistment in the active army, most women who became combatants disguised themselves as men in order to enter the service. Lack of standardized recruitment regulations, lax bureaucratic procedures, and superficial or nonexistent medical examinations allowed these women to slip into the ranks without being detected. A few, however, were openly accepted, since enlistment often depended on the personal prerogative of the commanding officer.

They came from various social backgrounds, educational levels, ages, and geographical origins. A number of students from gymnasia and the women’s higher courses went into combat. Women in higher social positions used influence and connections to enter the ranks of the active army to fight alongside their husbands, fathers, and brothers. It was not uncommon for women soldiers in Russia to be the wives or, more often, the daughters of officers. Many more were from the peasantry and working classes. While most of these women served in the rank-and-file, some even became officers.

Women soldiers not only proved capable of withstanding combat conditions, but many also demonstrated courage in the face of great danger. Command personnel frequently praised in their female soldiers. Women often volunteered for dangerous reconnaissance missions and in many instances were the first to rush from the trenches during attacks. The disguised woman’s performance made the shock of discovering her true sex even greater. In order to escape criticism, those whose true sex was known were careful not to malinger in their duties. But even more significant to their behavior as soldiers is the fact that all women combatants were volunteers. They willingly chose to give their lives in the war, unlike the vast majority of conscripted males who lacked comparable zeal for the cause. Though patriotism was the main impetus motivating these women to serve, they also expressed other incentives, such as the desire for adventure, to escape overly sheltered lives, or to forget personal sorrow.

The All-Female Military Units

By the spring of 1917, the phenomenon of individual women joining male units had given way to separate, all-female military formations. The organization of all-female units was made possible by the particular political and social conditions created after the fall of tsarism. The newly organized Provisional Government confronted a multitude of difficulties, none more pressing than the war. The government resolved to undertake a final offensive in the summer of 1917 in an effort to achieve a decisive victory that might enable Russia to end the war “honorably.” The campaign, however, would end in failure unless troop morale could be raised and the army restored to battle readiness. Thus, the new authorities embarked on a campaign to raise soldiers' fallen spirits and prepare for the attack, calling upon every citizen to aid the homeland. In May, General Aleksei Brusilov, Commander-in-Chief of the Southwestern Front, proposed the formation of “revolutionary” units, including special “shock” detachments and “battalions of death.” These units were to be composed of the most dedicated and patriotic volunteers. Other quasi-military and private volunteer groups were formed to augment Brusilov’s efforts by recruiting and organizing “everyone who holds dear the fate of our motherland,” including women.1

Many women were caught up in the renewed dedication to the war effort, including progressive women’s groups who sought greater participation in the public sphere and political reward for war work. Among them were those who believed female activity should extend beyond auxiliary functions to all areas of military service. The idea to organize all-female military formations began to circulate in Russian society. The Ministry of War received a number of petitions requesting permission to organize female military units. However, it was a peasant from Siberia and combat veteran of the war, Maria Bochkarëva who (with the support of Duma President Mikhail Rodzianko and General Brusilov) secured permission from Minister of War Alexander Kerensky. Despite initial reservations about possible “moral” problems, Kerensky gave his approval for the formation of the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death under Bochkarëva's command. While this battalion was organizing and training, requests to form additional women’s units continued to come into the Ministry of War. On 1 June 1917, Kerensky authorized the organization of two more all-female infantry battalions, the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion and the 2nd Moscow Women’s Battalion of Death, as well as four separate communications detachments, two in Moscow and two in Petrograd. The district military headquarters were charged with supervising the organization and training of the units in their respective cities. Local women’s associations also aided in recruitment and registration.

In mid-July, the Kuban 3rd Women’s Shock Battalion was authorized, along with seven additional communications units, five in Kiev and two in Saratov, where women’s military units had already been organized by private initiatives. The staff of the headquarters of the Western Front also proposed the formation of a women’s unit, the Minsk Separate Guard Militia. Local women’s groups organized female volunteers in Poltava, Ekaterinburg, Tashkent, Baku, Viatka, Minsk, Mogilëv, Perm, Mariupol, Odessa, Kiev, Saratov, and Ekaterinodar. The number of women involved in combat and combat-related activities was so significant that in August 1917, a Women’s Military Congress was convened in Petrograd to coordinate women’s military unions around the country.

The Russian authorities largely viewed the women’s military units as propaganda instruments in the campaign to continue the war. They hoped that the presence of women in the trenches would lift the spirits of the men and inspire them to follow, or shame them into returning to their duty as defenders. However, beset by a myriad of other problems and pressures, the military administration failed to provide the women’s units with adequate support. Many in official military circles were unwilling commit badly needed resources to the women soldiers until they had proven they could perform satisfactorily in combat. The successful participation of the 1st Russian Women’s Battle of Death in battle at Smorgon on 9 July 1917 demonstrated this capability, but many believed their performance was exceptional and doubted that it could be sustained. Ultimately, the women did not have any lasting influence on male soldiers. As with all of the Provisional Governments attempts to inspire the men to continue fighting, female soldiers leading the way failed to provide sufficient impetus for men who desired peace more than anything else. Once it became clear that the summer offensive had failed, the military authorities questioned the value of the continued existence of the women’s units.

Undoubtedly, the most well-known and controversial event in the history of the all-women combat units involved the so-called “storming of the Winter Palace.” On 24 October 1917, the commander of the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion received orders to report to the Winter Palace for a parade, wherein Kerensky would review the female troops prior to their departure for the front. But when they arrived, the commander of the Petrograd Military District ordered the women soldiers to defend the Provisional Government. The members of the battalion were distraught. Their goal was to fight Russia’s external enemies; they had no desire to become embroiled in the political struggle. The battalion commander sent the majority of the troops back to their encampment, but was persuaded to leave a subdivision of his 2nd company, consisting of 137 women. These women did their best to defend the Palace, but they were greatly outnumbered by Bolshevik supporters and were defeated and captured. Some of the women suffered verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of Red Guards and soldiers.

Of the fifteen women’s military formations designated by the Ministry of War, Bochkareva’s battalion was the only unit that participated in the defense of the homeland against the external enemy. The new Soviet government had little use for what they perceived to be “bourgeois” women with guns. It issued a decree ordering all the women’s military units to disband on 30 November 1917. Their successful participation in combat could have opened the door to female participation in a variety of male-dominated areas, including the military. Yet this did not happen. The circumstances of war were regarded as exceptional, undesirable in “normal” peacetime conditions. Although the Russian Provisional Government made an explicit statement about acceptable gender roles by sending women soldiers into battle, it did not carry through with the broader implications of this statement. In fact, both the Russian government and a majority of Russia society seemed to overlook, or even consciously reject, the significance of this action, regarding it as a necessary, but unfortunate measure dictated by the exigency of war and national survival.

Laurie Stoff, Louisiana Tech University (USA)

  • 1 Correspondence to the Minister of War, Extract from a report by “The Military League,” Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi voenno-istoricheskii archive (RGVIA), f. 366, op. 1, d. 90, l. 50.

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