History’s Badasses: Lyudmila Pavlichenko

“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.” – Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Last week on History’s Badasses, we covered the undaunted Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who, along with their Corps of Discovery and their guide, Sacagawea, trekked across the United States’ Midwest and Pacific Northwest to try and find a water-based route from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean. This week, we’re covering one of history’s most badass women ever. She was a Soviet Sniper during World War II, with a record body count of 309, who toured the United States and Britain to raise support for the Soviet Front. She was best friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, Women’s Rights Activist, and massive badass. Her name was Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

Early Life

Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born on July 12, 1916 in Bila Tserkva, in what is now modern-day Ukraine. She moved to Kyiv with her family when she was fourteen. Her father was a hard worker at a St. Petersburg factory, and her mother was a teacher at a local school. Growing up, she was an athletic tomboy, who didn’t behave in school and wouldn’t let boys best her in anything.

When she was a teenager, a neighbor’s boy boasted of his skill with a rifle. Not to be outdone by anyone, Pavlichenko set out to prove that a girl could do just as well as a boy. She joined a marksmanship club, and practiced every spare chance she got.

Pavlichenko was a hard worker like her parents. She worked as a grinder at the Kyiv Arsenel factory and enrolled at Kiev University in 1937. She competed on a track team and as a pole vaulter, and took courses at a sniper’s school.

The Soviet’s Nazi Hunter

Soviet Union postage stamp of Lyudmila Pavlichenko. [PHOTO: wikimedia]

Soviet Union postage stamp of Lyudmila Pavlichenko. [PHOTO: wikimedia]

In June of 1941, the Germans and Romanians launched their invasion of the Soviet Union. Pavlichenko was in her fourth year of studying history at her university, and was just 24 years old. Right off the bat, she went down to the recruiting offices and tried to join, but at the time when Lyudmila applied, they wouldn’t take women in the Soviet army. Most officials who she talked to tried to get her to be a nurse, but she attended every rifling audition she could get in to.

At one point, a Red Army unit was holding an audition at a hill they were defending. A commander gave her a rifle and told her to pick off some of the Romanians storming the hill for the Germans. Pavlichenko did, with startling accuracy, and she was immediately accepted.

She was enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, and was eager to jump into the fight, but her first few kills would prove to be difficult. She became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Soviet Army. Only 500 of them would survive the war.

“I knew that my task was to shoot human beings. In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”

On her first day in a real battle, fear gripped her heart. She wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be. She and her comrade, a young Russian soldier, set up position. Before either of them had time to do anything, a German shot Pavlichenko’s friend. “After that,” she said, “Nothing could stop me.”

She fought in Odessa for two and a half months, racking up 187 kills, 100 of which were officers, until the German advance forced her unit to retreat from the area. Pavlichenko was recognized as a skilled sniper, and she was given more dangerous assignments after that. Many of them included stand-offs with enemy snipers.

One duel lasted three days. The enemy sniper did everything he could to catch her, including setting up decoys and creating distractions. Lyudmila only sat tight where she was and waited for him to make a mistake, staying still for fifteen hours at a time. Eventually, he did, and Lyudmila took him out.

In May of 1942, Lyudmila’s count had reached 257 enemy soldiers. All she had to say to that was: “I’ll get more.”

The Germans began to fear her. She took wounds on several occasions– four of them to be exact– but that didn’t stop her, not at all. The Germans tried everything, including bombing her positions. They even tried bribing her with chocolate! When that didn’t work, they devolved into threats, telling her they’d cut her into 309 pieces. Anyone else would have been terrified. Not Pavlichenko! She was delighted by that, because “they even knew my score!”

Touring the United States

Lyudmila in Chicago. [PHOTO: smithsonianmag.com]

Lyudmila in Chicago. [PHOTO: smithsonianmag.com]

Late in 1942, after sustaining shrapnel to her face and four other seperate injuries, Lyudmila was promoted to lieutenant and sent to tour the United States, Canada, and Britain to raise support for the Russian Front. She arrived in the United States, and was invited to meet the Roosevelts. She and Eleanor got along famously, and Eleanor Roosevelt asked her to report all of her experiences on the front lines to the press. Lyudmila agreed. But, the questions she got were not the ones she wanted.

Many reporters asked her ridiculous questions about the length of her skirts and whether or not she curled her hair. Lyudmila answered these all graciously, bluntly asking why they mattered when Germans were killing women, children, and old people across Europe.

In Chicago, she stood in front of a large crowd of men, urging them to support the second front. At one point, she became so annoyed with the American men that she said: “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”

Pavlichenko spoke specifically to American women, too, urging them to support the war effort and to fight for equality and their dignity as human beings.

She attained the rank of major, and though Pavlichenko never returned to combat, she became a Soviet sniper instructor and trained other snipers until World War II was over. In 1943, Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, and was commemorated on a postage stamp.

After the war, she went back and finished up her education and became a Russian historian. Pavlichenko died on October 10, 1974, at the age of 58, as one of the most successful snipers in all of history, and the most successful female sniper ever to live. She died a women’s rights activist, and inspired woman all across the United States and Europe to take their place alongside men defending their country.

“One of the most important things is that every woman has her own specialty. That is what actually makes them as independent as men. Soviet women have complete self-respect, because their dignity as human beings is fully recognized. Whatever we do, we are honored not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word. Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.” – Lyudmila Pavlichenko