Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in Washington, D.C., in late 1942 as little more than a curiosity to the press, standing awkwardly beside her translator in her Soviet Army uniform. She spoke no English, but her mission was obvious. As a battle-tested and highly decorated lieutenant in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko had come on behalf of the Soviet High Command to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Joseph Stalin desperately wanted the Western Allies to invade the continent, forcing the Germans to divide their forces and relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops.
She visited with President Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukranian-born officer to accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat. Pavlichenko was only 25, but she had been wounded four times in battle. She also happened to be the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit—the majority German soldiers. She readily accepted the first lady’s offer.
She graciously fielded questions from reporters. One wanted to know if Russian women could wear makeup at the front. Pavlichenko paused; just months before, she’d survived fighting on the front line during the Siege of Sevastopol, where Soviet forces suffered considerable casualties and were forced to surrender after eight months of fighting. “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper,” and other newspapers observed that she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.”
In New York, she was greeted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a representative of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, C.I.O., who presented her with, as one paper reported, a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting.” The paper lamented that such a garment would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.”
But as the tour progressed, Pavlichenko began to bristle at the questions, and her clear, dark eyes found focus. One reporter seemed to criticize the long length of her uniform skirt, implying that it made her look fat. In Boston, another reporter observed that Pavlichenko “attacked her five-course New England breakfast yesterday. American food, she thinks, is O.K.”
Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Still, Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for the Washington Post, wondered why Pavlichenko couldn’t make more of an effort with regard to her style. “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance?” Lindsey wrote. “Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?”
Slowly, Pavlichenko began to find her voice, holding people spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion on her homeland, and her career in combat. In speeches across America and often before thousands, the woman sniper made the case for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis in Europe. And in doing so, she drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight.
Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Balaya Tserkov, a Ukranian town just outside of Kiev. Her father was a St. Petersburg factory worker father, and her mother was a teacher. Pavlichenko described herself as a tomboy who was “unruly in the class room” but athletically competitive, and who would not allow herself to be outdone by boys “in anything.”
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.” After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practice her marksmanship, then enrolled at Kiev University in 1937, intent on becoming a scholar and teacher. There, she competed on the track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and, she said, “to perfect myself in shooting, I took courses at a sniper’s school.”
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” Pavlichenko recalled, noting that officials tried to steer her toward becoming a nurse. To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said, noting that she did not count the Romanians in her tally of kills “because they were test shots.”
The young private was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, named for Vasily Chapayev, the celebrated Russian soldier and Red Army Commander during the Russian Civil War. Pavlichenko wanted to proceed immediately to the front. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she said. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy—and paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
She got the first of her 309 official kills later that day when she picked off two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area. Pavlichenko fought in both Odessa and Moldavia and racked up the majority of her kills, which included 100 officers, until German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. As her kill count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all—countersniping, where she engaged in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a single duel, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night (and, in one case, three days). “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
In Sevastopol, German forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said. In May 1942, she was cited in Sevastopol by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. Upon receipt of the citation, Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel in her face. From that point on, the Soviets decided they’d use Pavlichenko to train new snipers. “By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They attempted to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers.“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
When the bribes did not work the Germans resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces—a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!”
Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko was pulled from combat. Just two months after leaving Sevastopol, the young officer found herself in the United States for the first time in 1942, reading press accounts of her sturdy black boots that “have known the grime and blood of battle,” and giving blunt descriptions of her day-to-day life as a sniper. Killing Nazis, she said, aroused no “complicated emotions” in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
To another reporter she reiterated what she had seen in battle, and how it affected her on the front line. “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks,” she said.“Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Her time with Eleanor Roosevelt clearly emboldened her, and by the time they reached Chicago on their way to the West Coast, Pavlichenko had been able to brush aside the “silly questions” from the women press correspondents about “nail polish and do I curl my hair.” By Chicago, she stood before large crowds, chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen,” 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?” Her words settled on the crowd, then caused a surging roar of support.
Pavlichenko received gifts from dignitaries and admirers wherever she went—mostly rifles and pistols. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” about her in 1942. She continued to speak out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at the American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity,” she said, “a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
While women did not regularly serve in the Soviet military, Pavlichenko reminded Americans that “our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war. From the first day of the Revolution full rights were granted the women of Soviet Russia. 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.”
On her way back to Russia, Pavlichenko stopped for a brief tour in Great Britain, where she continued to press for a second front. Back home, she was promoted to major, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her country’s highest distinction, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Despite her calls for a second European front, she and Stalin would have to wait nearly two years. By then, the Soviets had finally gained the upper hand against the Germans, and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Eventually, Pavlichenko finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, 15 years after Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied the young Russian sniper around America, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. Roosevelt persisted until she was granted her wish—a visit with her old friend Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Roosevelt found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably and “with cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight, Pavlichenko threw her arms around her visitor, “half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her.” In whispers, the two old friends recounted their travels together, and the many friends they had met in that unlikeliest of summer tours across America 15 years before.
Gilbert King is a contributing writer in history for Smithsonian.com. His book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Articles: “Girl Sniper Calm Over Killing Nazis,” New York Times, August 29., 1942. “Girl Sniper Gets 3 Gifts in Britain,” New York Times, November 23, 1942. “Russian Students Roosevelt Guests,” New York Times, August 28, 1942. “Soviet Girl Sniper Cited For Killing 257 of Foe,” New York Times, June 1, 1942. “Guerilla Heroes Arrive for Rally,” Washington Post, August 28, 1942. Untitled Story by Scott Hart, Washington Post, August 29, 1942. “’We Must Not Cry But Fight,’ Soviet Woman Sniper Says,” Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1942. “Step-Ins for Amazons,” The Gentler Sex by Malvina Lindsay, Washington Post, September 19, 1942. “No Color Bar in Red Army—Girl Sniper,” Chicago Defender, December 5, 1942. “Only Dead Germans Harmless, Soviet Woman Sniper Declares,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1942. “Russian Heroine Gets a Fur Coat,” New York Times, September 17, 1942. “Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me,” by E.M. Tenney, American Heritage, April 1992, Volume 43, Issue 2. “During WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sniped a Confirmed 309 Axis Soldiers, Including 36 German Snipers,” By Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, June 2, 2012, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/during-wwii-lyudmila-pavlichenko-sniped-a-confirmed-309-axis-soldiers-including-36-german-snipers/ “Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko to the American People,” Soviet Russia Today; volume 11, number 6, October 1942. Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/pavlichenko/1942/10/x01.htm
Books: Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Andy Gougan, Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.