They Fought for the Motherland
Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution
Laurie S. Stoff
Women have participated in war throughout history, but their experience in Russia during the First World War was truly exceptional. Between the war's beginning and the October Revolution of 1917, approximately 6,000 women answered their country's call as the army was faced with insubordination and desertion in the ranks while the provisional government prepared for a new offensive. These courageous women became media stars throughout Europe and America, but were brushed aside by Soviet chroniclers and until now have been largely neglected by history.
Laurie Stoff draws on deep archival research into previously unplumbed material, including many first-person accounts, to examine the roots, motivations, and legacy of these women. She reveals that Russia was the only nation in World War I that systematically employed women in the military, marking the first time that a government run by men had organized women for combat. And although they were originally envisioned as propaganda-promoting patriotism and citizenship to inspire the thousands of males who had been deserting or refusing to fight—Russian women also proved themselves more than capable in combat.
“The first comprehensive study of the first systematic mobilization of women for war by a modern government.”
“Stoff has conducted] meticulous and wide-ranging research and makes excellent use of women soldiers’ memoirs and reports about their motivations and experiences. . . . An excellent book and a useful resource for those interested in the First World War, the revolutionary period, and women’s history. It provides a gripping and detailed account of women’s involvement in the war and the reactions to it.”
—Revolutionary RussiaSee all reviews...
“Drawing extensively on the relevant archives, her work provides an important gendered dimension to understandings of the Revolution’s impact on the Russian military.”
—Journal of Slavic Military Studies
“Stoff tells the story of Russian women soldiers’ path-breaking participation in World War I. Although women have long taken up arms, usually individually and disguised as men, the Russian experience was unique in the number who enlisted as women (over 6,000 according to Stoff); official support, however ambivalent; the creation of all female units; and the women soldier's high public profile. The book [is] engagingly written and very well illustrated . . . This first full-length scholarly study of the subject should be of considerable interest to historians of women in Russia and in war and is a significant addition to the literature on Russia and World War I.”
“An outstanding and gracefully written contribution to women’s military studies and to the military history of World War I.”
—Linda Grant DePauw, author of Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present
“An important book that pulls together scattered fragments of an epic story long understudied and often misunderstood.”
—Richard Stites, author of The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia
“An engrossing read that will appeal to anyone interested in military history, Russian history, or the experience of women in war.”
—Reina Pennington, author of Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II CombatSee fewer reviews...
Describing the formation, provisioning, and training of the units, Stoff sheds light on their social and educational backgrounds, while recounting a number of amazing individual stories. She tells how Maria Bochkareva, commander of the First Russian Women's Battalion of Death, and her unit met its baptism of fire in combat and how Bochkareva later traveled to the U.S. and met President Wilson. Within these pages, we also meet Maria Bocharnikova, who served with the First Petrograd Women's Battalion that defended the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik Revolution and whose detailed account of her experience dispels much of the misinformation concerning that storied event.
Stoff also chronicles the exploits of the Second Moscow Women's Battalion of Death, Third Kuban Women's Shock Battalion, and the First Women's Naval Detachment, all within the context of Russian society, the Revolution, and the war itself. Enhancing and informing this presentation are more than two dozen historic photos.
Stoff's remarkable account rescues from oblivion an important but still little-known aspect of Russia's experience in World War I. It also provides new insights into gender roles during a pivotal period of Russia's development and, more broadly speaking, resonates with the current debates over the role of women in warfare.