In a momentous act of devotional citizenship and spirited patriotism, tens of thousands of Russian women volunteered to join the country’s ‘Battalions of Death’. They offered their allegiance, and even their lives, to protect ‘Mother Russia’ from the foreign aggressors of World War I.
Russia’s female volunteers echoed history’s celebrated female warriors, the likes of Boudicca, leading a group of rebels against the Roman Empire’s forces, and Joan of Arc, leading an army against the English during the 100 Years War. In paralleling the most renowned female soldiers of the past, Russia’s female Battalions of Death rekindled an age-old tradition of feminine power and fortitude.
The dire state of Russia’s forces by mid-1917 certainly necessitated a drastic change in policy. Facilitated by huge numbers of casualties, poor health, and the inevitably injurious reality of prolonged trench warfare, Russian troops were suffering from an increasingly debilitative dearth of morale. Discontent worsened after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the formation of the Provisional Government in February 1917; having sworn their allegiance to the tsar, soldiers no longer knew who they were fighting for. Mass mutinies and turmoil ensued, exacerbated further by Bolshevik propaganda espousing an end to the conflict.
Such was the state of the Russian forces that when Maria Bochkareva, a partially-literate, military-trained peasant, petitioned to Alexander Kerensky and the new government for the creation of all-women battalions, it was approved on the grounds that female squadrons would shame deserters, potential soldiers, and discontented forces into fighting, Bochkareva issued a call to arms on 21 May 1917:
I want women whose hearts are pure 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.
Of the 2000 who responded, Bochkareva’s high standards and strict discipline whittled the number of suitable volunteers down to around 300. In an astonishing spectacle, these 300 women, brandishing rifles and flaunting military dress, marched through the streets of St. Petersburg. As they made their way from their barracks to St. Isaacs Cathedral, crowds gathered in awe, bearing witness to a truly revolutionary moment in modern history. Women soldiers were no longer to be sheltered from the front lines, nor were they to be individual military contributors, nor did they have to masquerade as men; they were a powerful, unified, government-sanctioned force.
Bochkareva’s Battalion of Death, along with many other all-female squadrons it inspired, went on to be deployed to the trenches of Russia’s western front, proving imperative to the initial advances gained during the Kerensky Offensive. Indeed, their unfaltering willingness to fight even angered their male counterparts on occasion as they refused to retreat from battle.
Regrettably, however, due to a combination of strategical necessity, and a vast number of losses sustained by these women’s groups, a retreat was ordered and female battalions were shunned away from battle. Side-lined, many volunteers resigned as they felt they were being denied the right to defend their country. Some groups were sent to defend the Winter Palace from Bolshevik forces, and despite their minimal role in doing so, the women’s battalions became branded ‘counter-revolutionaries’ after the October Revolution. The newly empowered Bolsheviks swiftly removed the female squadrons from duty.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Bolsheviks, who purported to be egalitarian revolutionaries, rejected and ultimately executed Bochkareva, despite her undeniably revolutionary and egalitarian role as leader of the first state-sanctioned female military squadron in modern history. In this respect, Bochkareva’s life epitomises the lamentable narrative of communism in Russia, in which intense optimism and an active pursuit of progress is ultimately stunted and smothered by violence and terror.
Nonetheless, the significance of Bochkareva’s Battalions of Death is indisputable. Their advent granted women a crucial facet of citizenship in the ability to fight for, and protect, their country. Women, from all professions and classes, were granted the same pay, training and privileges as male volunteers. Despite the demise of the women’s battalions, their existence acts as an exemplar of forward-thinking, progressive policy.
Indeed, they may have failed to rally support for the war efforts, or to advance Russia’s strategic position during the First World War, but the importance of Bochkareva and her battalions lies in their undeniable, if fleeting, display of female ability and unified strength. In the face of scepticism, obstruction, even hostility, Russian women demonstrated their resilience and might not just as soldiers, but as citizens.