We’re all familiar with the film cliché of the little band of soldiers who in ordinary life never would have had met, but who learn to appreciate each other in the battles of World War II. All white, of course: African Americans would have to wait till the integration of the armed forces. But still, there’s a kind of earnest 1940s diversity in those movies: maybe a wide-eyed kid from the farm, a privileged college boy, and a Jewish guy from Brooklyn. With some subplot about a faithful girlfriend, or maybe an unfaithful one, back home.
In the Red Army, the situation was a little different. There, the women were snipers, tank drivers, combat pilots, machine gunners, and the like: skilled purveyors of lethal violence, serving side by side with men (and sometimes above them, as their commanding officers). This was the first Soviet generation, educated in co-educational schools where everyone participated in paramilitary exercises and no one took home economics. When the long-awaited war with Germany came, women of this cohort took for granted that they would take up arms.
Anna Krylova’s book, Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (Cambridge University Press, 2010), tells their story. Drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, oral histories, and state records, Krylova reveals a world in which neither men nor women considered the “woman soldier” to be an oxymoron. And she reveals how this history was thoroughly marginalized after the war.
Anna Krylova is associate professor of history at Duke University, and her book is the 2011 winner of the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize of the American Historical Association. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the Second World War – and it’s a thoughtful lesson in the possibilities for reimagining gender.