"Men and women citizens! Our mother is perishing. Our mother is Russia. I want to help save her. I want women whose hearts are crystal, whose souls are pure, whose impulses are lofty. With such women setting an example of self-sacrifice, you men will realize your duty in this grave hour!"
~ Maria Bochkareva
Maria Bochkareva was born in July 1889 in Novgorod Oblast; the third daughter of a peasant family living in poverty. Maria's father was an alcoholic former soldier who beat her. The family's extreme poverty forced them to move to the town of Tomsk, in the Siberian wastelands, and because school was not an option, Maria began working in a grocery store at the age of eight.
After a particularly bad beating from her father, Maria left home at the age of 15 and began working as a laborer. A year later she met Anavasi Botchkareva, a wandering laborer like herself. They were married but when her husband also began abusing her, Maria ran away.
Maria's efforts to get away from the abusive men in her life took her deeper into Siberia. She worked a series of odd jobs, demonstrating the kind of self-reliance you might expect from a young women who had left home and travelled hundreds of miles alone over a frozen wasteland. She worked as a maid, laundress, construction worker. For an asphalt contractor Maria once rose to the position of assistant foreman, where she supervised a team of 25 workers.
At the age of 21 Maria married again, this time to a political refugee named Yakov Buk. According to Maria's autobiography (Yashka: My Life as a Peasant, Exile, and Soldier), the marriage began well but grew worse when Buk was persecuted for aiding a felon; at this point he grew more sullen, began drinking, and subsequently began beating Maria in what had become an all too familiar pattern.
Maria left her second husband after he tried to hang her, believing she had been unfaithful. She returned to Tomsk to live with her mother and younger sister.
At this point Maria got caught up in a kind of "war fever" that was sweeping Europe as millions sought to enlist. While not brought up to be particularly patriotic, she felt something inside telling her, "go to war to help save thy country." Her decision was to enlist, and "go to war and fight to death, or, if God preserved me, 'til the coming of peace."
In the Army
Maria enlisted in the 25th reserve battalion in Tomsk. While Russia is lauded by some historians for having more gender equity than other nations at that time due to its communism (and it did), gender discrimination did still exist.
When Maria showed up to enlist she was initially turned away for her gender, and even after the Tsar granted her permission, she was the target of some harassment - she later wrote that "the news of a woman recruit had preceded me at the barracks and my arrival there precipitated a riot of fun. The men assumed that I was a loose-moraled woman who had made her way into the ranks for the sake of carrying on her illicit trade."
At night in the barracks, Maria had to fight to keep her fellow soldiers away from her. From her autobiography:
"As soon as I made an effort to shut my eyes I would discover the arm of my neighbour on the left around my neck, and would restore it to its owner with a crash. Watchful of his movements I offered an opportunity for my neighbor on the right to get too near me, and I would savagely kick him in the side. All night long my nerves were taut and my fists busy."
As in the barracks, in field training Maria let her actions speak for her, and she soon won the confidence and respect of the men she trained with. The men began calling her by a nickname, Yashka, which was a female version of her most recent husband's name, Yakov Buk.
In April 1915 Yashka experienced combat for the first time when she was sent out to the front lines. The battalion's attack was ill-fated, with many men killed or hurt. Yashka herself performed well, and dragged over 50 fallen men to safety before she was wounded in the leg.
After two months of recovery in Kiev, Yashka again joined the men in the field. She was wounded again but fought with such valor that her commander recommended her for the Cross of St. George, one of imperial Russia's greatest honors. This honor was downgraded to a "medal of the second degree" due to Yashka's gender, however.
For her demonstrations of courage and leadership in battle, Yashka was promoted to corporal. She spent many months further in the trenches and muddy fields and was injured twice more, once in the lower spine. By December of 1916 she had recovered however, and she returned to the front, where she was greeted warmly by her comrades and promoted to the rank of senior non-commissioned officer.
In 1917, after several years of war that saw food become scare and soldiers weary, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, having proven that he was ineffective as a leader. Yashka believed that following this abdication, the Russian army would be able to rise up and drive out the German soldiers, but this was not the case.
Instead, the army was stunted by the introduction of "rule by committee," whereby every order handed to Army officers in each unit had to be approved by a committee the unit elected. This had the effect of reducing both the moral and activity of the units to the point that Yashka decided to visit the country's leaders in Petrograd to see what she could do to help.
The Women's Battalion
In Petrograd Yashka met with the new leaders of Russia including Aleksei Brusilov, the Army’s commander in chief, and Minister of War Aleksandr Kerenskii. She asked to form an all female battalion, and though she admits she "did not expect to be taken seriously," it was approved.
In June of 1917, Yashka appeared on the steps of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Petrograd to call for recruits.
"Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes," she cried. "Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke - to protect the freedom of our country."
|New recruits to the Women's Battalion in Petrograd, 1917|
She secured a training area and instructors, then had the troops marched to a barber so their hair could be shorn in regulation manner. The training lasted four weeks, and was the same regime followed by male battalions.
|Members of the Women's Battalion, freshly shorn|
Not that the women in Yahska's Battalion were going to take all her abuse lying down. By the laws of Russia's new government, Yashka's unit was to be ruled by a committee the unit themselves elected, and 1,500 of the women demanded it. Yashka was against such committees, however, having seen how much they slowed any actual forward progress, and when the women demanded a committee, she dismissed them.
What Yashka was left with was a group of about 250-300 women, hastily trained and outfitted, then ordered to the front lines. They departed on June 24th, joining Russia's 10th Army.
The Battalion in War
The women of the battalion followed their leader and orders in battle, with many going "over the top" and into the most desperate of the fighting ground, though like the male soldiers, there were always a few who hung back in the trenches.
The American journalist Bessie Beatty visited the Eastern Front and reported what she saw there. "Women can fight," she wrote. "Women have the courage, the endurance and even the strength for fighting. The Russians have demonstrated that and, if necessary, all the other women in the world can demonstrate it."
The women took over a section of the trenches that had been abandoned by the men, and ultimately performed admirably in combat. They took more than 2000 prisoners and captured three lines of trenches.
By late fall however the Russian Army as a whole had collapsed, and Bolshevik forces rose up to take the Winter Palace back from the government that had been in charge for the interim.
The Women's Battalion stayed loyal to their government to the very end. Some of the female soldiers fought at the Winter Palace, defending the ground from Bolshevik fighters, while others stayed on the front lines.
The women's loyalty sparked resentment and some of those on the front lines were attacked by male soldiers, and lynched. Yashak secured civilian clothes for the remaining women in her battalion and sent them home.
On 21st November, 1917, the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion.
After the Revolution
Following the revolution, Yahska was no longer considered a hero of Russia and was hunted down by the Bolsheviks and interrogated by both Lenin and Trotsky personally. She was released after it was decided that she posed no political threat to the new state.
Yashka returned to her home in Tomsk for a short while, but the conditions there were so bad that she left for the United States, arriving there on May 1st, 1918.
In the U.S. Yashka finally had some of the shrapnel from the war removed from her spine, and she met with political leaders including President Woodrow Wilson, with whom she discussed the Bolshevik government and their shared belief that it should be overthrown. From the United States, Yahska travelled to London to meet with King George V and members of the British government.
In England, Yashka secured the funds to travel back home, and in April 1919 she moved back to Tomsk. Further attempts to form another Women's Battalion were unfruitful, and later that year she was captured by Bolshevik troops.
Yashka was sent to Krasnoiarsk for interrogation, and on May 16th, 1920, she was executed by a firing squad.