As Junior Sergeant Pavlichenko and her troops entered the Russian farmer’s humble peasant dwelling, her eyes were drawn to the tear-stained face of Maria, the family’s teenage daughter. The girl had survived a brutal assault, had her home ruined by mortar fire, and seen her family’s fields destroyed by looting soldiers — yet she stood tall. Spotting Pavlichenko’s rifle, Maria stoically asked whether she was a good shot. When assurance came, her dark eyes flashed. “Kill them, kill them all,” she begged.
The sniper bent down, looked her in the eye, and said, “I promise I will.”
This, and many other compelling scenes of wartime, fill Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper, the first English translation of famed Red Army sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko's memoirs and a fascinating look inside the trenches of World War II (or, as the Soviets dubbed it, the Great War for the Fatherland). Born in Kiev and trained as a sharpshooter from an early age, she was 24 years old when she volunteered for the Red Army. By the time she was recalled from active duty less than a year later, she’d notched 309 dead Nazis, earned praise from Comrade Stalin himself, and moved up the ranks to major. She was only 25, but had become a living legend.
Her memoir reads like a novel, and is meticulously detailed — unsurprising, as Pavlichenko had trained as a historian at Kiev University before being called to the front. Pavlichenko was a highly disciplined woman, and a true believer in the Party. Her writing is as sharp, precise, and ideologically pure as her work in the field, and she seldom indulges in discussions of her inner feelings or emotions. She spends pages lovingly detailing the circumstances of her sniper missions and military maneuvers and discussing the mechanics of various military rifles, but glosses over her ill-fated teenage marriage to Alexei Pavlichenko and the birth of her son, Rostislov. As she risks her life to hunt and kills Nazi after Nazi, her dominant reaction is pragmatic — satisfaction in a job well done, and another fascist dead. Later in her story, when she is sent on a tour of the United States as part of an international delegation, she appreciates the hospitality but thinks only of returning to the field of battle, to take out more “fritzes.”
All those confirmed kills in the world didn't make her any less of a target for sexism and general bad behavior from her male contemporaries, though. Despite her exalted reputation, she was continually underestimated by leadership and new recruits alike, and forced to carefully rebuff romantic advances from senior officers (and, in one case, a lovestruck American businessman). She was infuriated by the way she was treated by the American press as the “Sevastopol Amazon,” a curiosity, or worse, a traitor to her gender’s assumed nurturing instincts. Female revolutionaries, from the Zapatista women in Chiapas to Rojava’s all-woman YPJ forces, continue to be burdened by tokenization and assumptions due to their gender. When she describes her initially strained relationship with a certain superior officer, she bitterly notes how he was more highly decorated and ranked two stars above her while his kill tally was only 154 — hers was twice that, but, she supposes, “I should have been born a man instead of a woman.”
When she allows her mask to slip, the shift in tone is jarring. The way she writes about her whirlwind courtship with her second husband, Junior Lieutenant Alexei Kitsenko (she called him Lyonya; he called her Lucy) is almost comical in its straightforwardness (”I replied [to his proposal] by accepting”) but one can find traces of joy by reading between the lines, when she talks about coming home to their shared trench and knowing that he’ll have sweet tea waiting for her. A January 1942 photo of them together shows Pavlichenko looking contently into the camera, embraced by a handsome, blue-eyed blond man with a mirthful smile playing about his lips.
Sadly, this most Soviet of romances only lasted a few weeks; Kitsenko was gravely injured by a Nazi shell in February 1942, and passed away several days later. They’d met on the battlefield, and he’d saved her life once; her sorrow and anguish over failing to save his practically leaps out from the otherwise somber pages. Pavlichenko wasted no time in mourning, though; after she recovered from the diagnosed “post-traumatic trauma” of her beloved’s death, she went back to the front. Before, she had been fueled by hatred for the invaders, nationalistic zeal, and a deep love for the fatherland and the Party. Now, she was out for revenge.
She got it, too, though not with her own rifle. Following her discharge from her latest hospital visit, Pavlichenko was sent to the United States, Canada, and the UK as part of a student delegation to promote the opening of a second front, inspire positive sentiment towards the Red Army from its capitalist allies, and more broadly, to serve as living propaganda for the Soviet Union’s glory. She gave speeches at factories, attended grand dinners and balls, led shooting demonstrations for American sharpshooters, raised funds for the Red Army, and palled around with Charlie Chaplin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (After an awkward first meeting, she and Roosevelt became quite close friends, and continued to correspond for years afterwards.) Four months later, laden with gifts and trinkets from her new American friends, she returned to Moscow ready to fight.
The powers that be declared her too valuable an asset to send back into the crucible of war, however, and instead installed her as a sniping instructor for the next wave of Red Army sharpshooters. She remained there until 1944, when she took a year off from military service to complete her history degree at the rebuilt Kiev University. By the time she’d completed her studies (for which she received a grade of “excellent,” of course) the war was over — so she transferred over to the Navy, where she served as a research assistant until her old war wounds compelled her to take an honorable retirement in 1953. She never remarried, and died peacefully in 1974 before fully completing the manuscript for her memoirs. (Thankfully, her daughter-in-law shepherded the book to completion.)
It is interesting to contrast the heroic accolades heaped upon Pavlichenko for her sniper career and work dispatching hundreds of Hitler’s Nazis with the hand-wringing around “Nazi-punching” that consumed American media discourse in 2016 and continues to foment as arguments over free speech refuse to die. Obviously, the contexts are wildly different: Pavlichenko was a decorated military officer in the Red Army fighting to save her Communist fatherland from fascist invaders; bedraggled neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was punched by a masked anti-fascist during the inauguration of an unpopular president who he and his “alt-right” scumbags helped to elect. But as soon as the video of Spencer’s momentarily displaced jaw went viral, a bevy of major media outlets rushed to serve up their takes on whether it was morally sound to use violence as a tactic against the spread of violently oppressive ideologies.
While Mother Jones took a more measured approach, The New York Times, *New York Post, New York Magazine, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and (in a response to an op-ed by journalist Natasha Lennard) The Nation all condemned the attack, and with it, the concept of “righteous violence” — the right of people to engage in militant tactics to protect themselves and their communities. Even lauded leftist philosopher Slavoj Žižek came down on the non-violent side, telling Quartz, “If there is violence needed, I’m more for Gandhian, passive violence.”
But what are you supposed to do when you cross paths with a Nazi? For Pavlichenko, it wasn’t even a choice; she regarded fascists as mere targets, devoid of humanity or worth. For those who continue the struggle against fascism today, the lines get blurrier and discourse muddier — and unlike Pavlichenko, they do not enjoy the support of a massive state apparatus and fawning propaganda machine. Rather, they’re hunted down by police and government forces, and pilloried in the press by liberals and conservatives alike.
One can only imagine how Pavlichenko would respond to this state of affairs. Perhaps, with the slightest curl in her lip, remembering the carnage they’d wrought upon her home and its people, she’d repeat a line she once wrote in a letter to her mother about “the right and proper attitude to adopt towards” fascists. “If you don’t kill them at once, you’ll have no end of trouble.”