Lyudmila Pavlichenko stands as one of the Red Army’s best snipers; she was the highest-scoring female sniper of WWII, and remains one of the top military snipers of all time. Her sharp eye, quick mind and steady hand also earned her a grim nickname.
Born in Bila Tservka in present-day Ukraine on July 12, 1916, Pavlichenko moved to Kiev when she was 14, taking up sharpshooting as a hobby at one of the thousands of amateur clubs across the Soviet Union. She married at age 16. Despite bearing a child, the marriage didn’t last. Pavlichenko remained in Kiev, enrolling as a student at Kiev University and continuing to hone her sharpshooting skills. It was a wise decision, one that proved deadly for the German troops who soon crossed her path.
Related: 20 Influential Women in History You Need to Know About
When the Nazis invaded in July, 1941, Pavlichenko was among the first batch of volunteers in Odessa to enlist. Operation Barbarossa was intended by Hitler to crush Bolshevism and turn the Soviet Union into a vast graveyard. Pavlichenko was one of many who sought to combat the German offensive. She did so with terrifying effect.
Female recruits are standard in today's armies, but this wasn’t always so. While women served in the Red Army as snipers, fighter pilots, and tank crews, among other specialties, they still had to overcome the skepticism of commanding officers who doubted their abilities because of their gender. Initially offered a job as a nurse, Pavlichenko declined, later stating, “I joined the army when women were not yet accepted.”
She chose instead to join the 25th Rifle Division. It wasn’t long before her exemplary sharpshooting skills led to her becoming a member of the Soviet infantry’s elite sniper team. Pavlichenko was one of some 2,000 Soviet women to serve as a sniper. Only around 500 survived the war, a 75% casualty rate. Pavlichenko would be one of the lucky few. She preferred a semi-automatic SVT-40, and soon racked an astonishing number of kills in a very brief time period.
Related: 6 Incredible Female Spies of World War II
Her first two kills came near Belayevka in August 1941. By October of that same year, with Odessa falling to the Nazis and the 25th Rifle Division transferred to Sevastopol, Pavlichenko had notched 187 kills—scoring her first 100 within the month of August alone. She also earned promotions: first to Senior Sergeant, then to Lieutenant in May 1942. By this time, she’d racked up 257 confirmed kills.
Out of her final tally of 309, 36 casualties were highly trained and skilled German snipers.
In June of 1942, Pavlichenko was wounded at Sevastopol by incoming mortar fire. After her recovery and return to the front, it wasn’t long before Soviet authorities saw a new career for her—a propaganda tour leader. This move was motivated in no small part by fears of Pavlichenko's death in action. By 1942, Pavlichenko was a living legend. The Soviets knew that news of her death risked demoralizing Soviet troops and the country as a whole. As a result, Pavlichenko found herself a military folk hero: Her new battlefield was the public arena.
At considerable risk, Pavlichenko visited the United States, Canada and England. She visited factories, made speeches, and even developed a personal relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was fascinated by the young woman who had done so much in a man’s field. While addressing American trade unionists and workers in Chicago, Pavlichenko was blunt in challenging them to do more for the Allied cause, saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 Fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”.
That could have caused both a diplomatic incident and possibly a riot. Instead there was a moment’s silence before the Chicago workers erupted into applause and cheers. Her tour was a triumph. In the U.S., she was gifted a Colt pistol. Canada gave her a Winchester rifle with telescopic sight, now displayed at Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum. Canadians also greeted her arrival at Toronto’s railway station by the thousands.
Related: 10 Powerful Books to Read for Women's History Month
Pavlichenko’s visit to England was equally successful. In November 1942, she visited several factories and the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed along with much of Coventry during the Blitz. British workers greeted her as enthusiastically as their American and Canadian counterparts, also donating money for three X-ray machines for Soviet hospitals.
Showered with gifts from her Western hosts, Pavlichenko was also promoted to major and made a Hero of the Soviet Union. She didn’t, however, return to combat. Her death would have damaged Soviet morale. Additionally, the Red Army felt that she would be far more useful as an instructor. She spent the rest of the war teaching others the sharpshooting skills that made her a legend.
Few snipers ever appear on their own postage stamp. Lyudmila Pavlichenko did. Few snipers earned the gold star denoting a Hero of the Soviet Union, never mind lived long enough to wear it. Pavlichenko was one of them. Having earned herself one postage stamp during her life, she appeared on a second in 1976, two years after her death. Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko died in Moscow on October 10, 1974, aged only 58. She had spent her life after World War II as a historian and research assistant. She was buried in the Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow.
Related: 9 Outstanding Audiobooks for Every Kind of History Buff
Of all her honors, perhaps the most distinctive came from American folk singer Woody Guthrie whose song “Miss Pavlichenko” was written especially for her. Guthrie’s guitar famously bore a sticker bearing the words “This machine kills fascists”.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s rifle certainly did too—a great many of them.
Featured photo via: Russia Beyond ; Additional photo: WW2 in Color