It’s 1942, and Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s lungs burn as she stares unflinchingly down the scope of her Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle. Such pains come with the territory, however. After all, she’s been holed up in the same position for hours, isolated from the rest of her company, and she must hold her breath if she is to defend the port of Sevastopol against Axis forces. Then, suddenly, a head pops up from above the parapet she has been scoping. Calmly, but assuredly, she pulls the trigger and breathes out.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in the small Ukrainian town of Balaya Tserkov. She was a true child of the revolution, and at 14 she began working in a munitions warehouse in Kiev. She was also a formidable athlete and a member of the Soviet paramilitary youth organization OSOAVIAKhIM.
And, as part of the OSOAVIAKhIM, Pavlichenko learned how to handle and use weaponry. Strangely, though, the military wasn’t her intended career path. In fact, in 1937 she gained a place at Kiev University, with plans to some day become a teacher.
However, that all changed when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The invasion involved a staggering 3 million Axis soldiers, as well as 3,500 tanks, and it was Hitler’s attempt to crush the Soviet Union. Seemingly, then, Pavlichenko felt compelled to protect her homeland.
Indeed, Pavlichenko was keen to volunteer her services, and she had already trained at a sniper school. Initially, however, military officials merely laughed in her face and told her that she should become a nurse.
When some Red Army soldiers were holding try-outs for sharpshooters, though, Pavlichenko saw her chance. In the ensuing trial, she was tasked with taking out a pair of Romanian soldiers who were fighting alongside the Nazis, and she picked them out with ease. Amazed, the Soviet troops enlisted her in the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division.
Even so, Pavlichenko wasn’t prepared for the brutality of a pitched battle. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she remembered, according to The Smithsonian. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
In fact, when Pavlichenko was first thrust into combat, she was so afraid that she could barely hold her gun. Then, when a nearby soldier was brought down by Nazi gunfire, everything changed for her. As she recalled, “He was such a nice, happy boy, and he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
The war took Pavlichenko to Odessa and Moldavia, where she proved herself to be a deadly sharpshooter. Yet when the Red Army was pushed back to Sevastopol, Pavlichenko faced an even greater challenge.
This was because during the German siege of the port, Pavlichenko had to engage in the task of countersniping – taking out enemy snipers in one-to-one firefights that could last for days. At times, she was forced to hold the same position for up to 20 hours, but she never cracked under pressure. Indeed, she notched up at least 36 enemy sniper kills during her career.
Moreover, Pavlichenko turned out to be the scourge of the Axis forces. And yet this is to be expected given that during her service she reached a staggering total of 309 official kills, with 100 of those victims being enemy officers. That’s also not including the two Romanian soldiers she killed on her trial mission; “They were test shots,” she’s reported to have said.
Pavlichenko’s astounding deadliness places her among the top five most successful snipers of all time. What’s more, her tally of 309 kills is likely a conservative estimate. After all, in order for a kill to be official, it must be confirmed by an eyewitness.
Yet Pavlichenko wasn’t the only woman who served as a sniper for the Red Army. In fact, around 2,000 other Soviet women did just that in the Second World War, and about 1,500 of them died in the field of combat. With her particularly fearsome reputation, however, Pavlichenko turned into something of a celebrity.
Indeed, when German forces knew she was on the battlefield, they would urge her to defect to their side. According to The Smithsonian, she remembered that they would call her name over loudspeaker, pleading, “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
Her career furthermore saw her survive shellshock and endure four wounds, but it was a stray piece of shrapnel which caught Pavlichenko in the face that finally brought her back from the frontlines. At this point, then, Soviet leaders surmised that she would be much more useful as a propaganda machine than a killing machine.
So, in 1942 Pavlichenko was sent to the U.S. with the task of swaying public opinion toward greater American involvement in the war. The beleaguered Soviets were, of course, anxious for the Western Allies to unleash an attack on Europe and so draw away some of Hitler’s forces to a “second front.” For Pavlichenko, though, the U.S. visit was initially a strange experience.
Indeed, the American press seemed to be more interested in poking fun at her dress sense and criticizing her femininity than discussing the plight of the Soviet forces. But Pavlichenko would not be belittled. For example, when discussing her uniform with Time magazine, she asserted, “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.”
And by the time her press tour rolled into Chicago, Pavlichenko was really hitting her stride. Addressing a crowd in the Windy City, she admonished the men there, declaring, “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?”
In fact, she became so well known that left-wing folk icon Woody Guthrie penned a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” in her honor. The lyrics included the lines, “Your smile shines bright / As my new morning sun. / But more than three hundred nazidogs fell by your gun.”
Meanwhile, Pavlichenko used her platform in the U.S. to criticize gender inequality and racism. In one interview, for instance, she extolled Soviet society’s fair treatment of women, claiming, “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.”
Moreover, Pavlichenko became firm friends with Eleanor Roosevelt during her time in America, and she was even the first citizen of the USSR to be invited into the White House. After the war, however, Pavlichenko withdrew from the limelight and saw out her days as a historian and scholar. She died in 1974, though her military exploits were dramatized in the 2015 film Battle for Sevastopol.