Monday, January 17, 2011

Maria Botchkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death

Nineteen-seventeen was a momentous year in Russian history. The events that unfolded during this time permanently altered almost every institution of Russian society. There were scores of characters in this drama, many of which are still familiar today. However, one has been forgotten, a footnote of a person who was still remarkable and deserves notice. Maria Botchkareva was a woman who was motivated by a simple love of country, a woman who fought side by side with men in the trenches of World War 1, and tried to save the only world she knew.
However, Botchkareva was unsuccessful. This tough- as- nails peasant woman could defeat death and poverty, but she could not save Russia from a revolution that would sweep away everything she knew.

Women's Battalion of Death Soldiers receive blessings before being sent into battle, 1917.

The Life of Maria Botchkareva

Maria Frolkov was born in the month of July 1889 into a family of impoverished Russian peasants. Her father was an alcoholic, abusive ex- soldier, and her mother was from a peasant family from the northern part of Russia. The extreme poverty forced her family to move to the town of Tomsk, in the Siberian wastelands. School was not an option for Siberian peasant girls in the 1890’s, and at the age of eight, Maria went to work in a Jewish grocery.

At the age of 15, Maria went to work for two brothers, the Lazovs, stationed in the area during the Russo-Japanese war. A resulting affair with one of the brothers, Vasily, left Maria alone and doubtlessly feeling jaded towards men and officers alike.

The following year, Maria Frolkov met and married Anavasi Botchkareva, a wandering laborer. Botchkareva, predictably, turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. His almost constant beatings of her prompted Maria to run away, further into Siberia.

Separated from her family by hundreds of miles of frozen wasteland, Maria Botchkareva became remarkably self- reliant for a woman of her times. She worked a series of odd jobs, including working as a maid, a laundress, and a construction worker. Working for an asphalt contractor, her determination and skill soon made her an assistant foreman, giving her experience commanding groups of men, as well as handling sexist assumptions that her sex limited her ability to perform certain tasks. Botchkareva simply ignored these assumptions, excelling (if her own accounts are to be believed) at any task she was given.

When Botchkareva turned 21, she met and entered a common law
marriage with a political and criminal refugee named Yakov Buk. The relationship proceeded well, and Botchkareva writes of this time in her life fondly. Things changed in 1913, when the authorities exiled Buk even further into Siberia for aiding a fleeing felon.

Buk grew sullen and depressed in the remote village, gambling and drinking with his fellow exiles. After several months, Buk emulated the other men in Botchkareva’s life by beating her on a regular basis. The end came when he tried to hang her for perceived infidelity- Botchkareva escaped and returned to Tomsk, where she stayed with her mother and younger sister. It was at this time that Botchkareva first heard voices, telling her to “go to war to help save thy country.”1 Although she had not previously shown any love or loyalty for the Tsar or Mother Russia, Botchkareva must have been caught up in the “war fever” of the early part of the war as millions of others across Europe. After some soul searching, she decided that she could “go to war and fight till death, or, if God preserved me, till the coming of peace.”2

Full of this resolve, Botchkareva strode into the headquarters of the 25th reserve battalion in Tomsk and tried to enlist. After much hilarity and merriment, she was sent home after being told that women were not allowed to serve, but with a promise that the Tsar would be petitioned for a deferment in her case. Shortly afterwards, the request was granted, and Maria Botchkareva was inducted into the Tsar’s army as a common soldier in November 1914.
Botchkareva found the soldier’s life and training tough, but agreeable. She spent her first days and weeks fighting off the gropings and advances from her fellow soldiers, but as she grew more
experienced and capable, she won the respect and confidence of the men with which she trained. Accepting her as one of their own, Botchkareva’s comrades rewarded her with the feminine version of Yakov Buk’s nickname, “Yashka.”

In April 1915, Yashka was sent to the front, joining the 28th Polotsk regiment. Her first taste of combat saw her performing well, participating in an ill- fated attack that saw many men in her unit killed or wounded. During the night, Yashka crept out into no- man’s land and dragged over 50 wounded men to safety before she was herself wounded in the leg.

After two months recuperating in Kiev, Botchkareva returned to her company, just in time to join in another disastrous attack. Wounded again, Yashka preformed with such valor that her commander recommended her for the Cross of St. George, one of imperial Russia’s greatest honors. Because of her sex, Botchkareva’s award was downgraded to a “medal of the second degree,” a much less distinctive honor. However, she was promot
ed to corporal, making her a leader of other soldiers.

The war dragged on. Yashka’s memoirs recount tales of failed attacks, death, and long nights in muddy trenches and observation posts. In March 1916, Corporal Botchkareva was wounded in the leg, and spent over two months recovering. She returned to her regiment in early June, in time to take part in another abortive attack. This time, Yashka was hit in the lower spine with a shell fragment. Paralyzed for three months, she miraculously recovered and returned to the front in December of 1916. She was warmly greeted by her comrades, presented with another medal, and promoted to the rank of senior non-commissioned officer.

By this point in the war, Yashka was a seasoned veteran, having participated in many attacks, as well as spending countless days and nights in the multiple horrors of war in the trenches. “I must have participated in at least 100 excursions into no- man’s land,”3 she wrote afte
r the war, proving that she had seen as much combat as any male soldier. These forays into no- man’s land were deadly affairs- the slightest misstep or sound could bring instant death from shells or machine- gun fire. Yashka was an experienced soldier, and could handle the psychological stresses as well as any man.

By January of 1917, Russia’s people and Army had had enough. The worn- out Russians reacted to the news of the Tsar’s abdication with great enthusiasm; “The miracle had happened! Tsarism, which enslaved us and thrived on the blood and marrow of the toiler, had fallen.”4 Yashka was soon disillusioned, however. She mistakenly believed that the abdication of the Tsar would free up the Russian army to fight more effectively and drive the Germans out. The revolution’s effect on the army was to disable it with democracy. The new War Minister, Aleksandr Kerenskii, introduced ‘rule by committee’ to the Army. Every unit elected a committee from the ranks, which was responsible for approving every order given by officers. This order, combined with the lack of supplies, reduced morale in the Russian Army to almost nothing.5 The inactivity and low morale in Yashka’s unit prompted her to leave for Petrograd in March to see what she could do to help matters.

In Petrograd, Yashka met with MV Rodzianko, the president of Russia’s legislature, General
Aleksei Brusilov, the Army’s commander in chief, and Minister of War Aleksandr Kerenskii and asked permission to form a Shock Battalion composed entirely of women. This was a long shot for Botchkareva; she “did not expect to be taken seriously.”6 Much to her surprise, the idea was approved, and on May 21st, 1917, she appeared at the Mariynski theatre and made an emotional appeal for volunteers:

“Men and women citizens!” I heard my voice say. Our mother is perishing. Our mother is Russia. I want to help save her. I want women whose hearts are crystal, whose souls are pure, whose impulses are lofty. With such women setting an example of self-sacrifice, you men will realize your duty in this grave hour!”

Within a few days, almost 2,000 women of all different strata of society signed up to fight with Botchkareva’s Battalion of Death.

The Women’s Battalion of Death
By the end of May 1917, almost 2,000 had volunteered to serve their country under arms. Botchkareva secured a training area, instructors and equipment, and marched her troops to the barber to have their hair shorn in regulation manner. The training proceeded for almost four weeks, training that was the same as the training regimen for male soldiers.
Botchkareva was a strict disciplinarian. Soldiers were dismissed for slight infractions, such as excessive giggling, or “other frivolities.”7 When 1,500 of the women demanded the formation of a soldier’s committee, Botchkareva sent them away. During an attack, when Botchkareva discovered one of her soldiers and a male soldier from another unit making love, she responded by stabbing the hapless woman with her bayonet. Later in the War, she lamented the end of capital punishment: “in the old days…it would have been sufficient to execute a couple of them to transform [a mob of unruly soldiers] into respectable and obedient human beings.”8 Yashka had a precise vision of what she wanted from her soldiers, and was very successful at keeping them disciplined, motivated, and fighting.

After the 300 women had received their hasty training, the authorities presented the unit with their banners and icons, traditional accoutrements of Russian military units. On June 24th, the Battalion received field equipment and departed for the front, at Moldocheno, to join the 10th Army.

The situation at the front was desperate. Mobs of unruly soldiers roamed the rear areas, harassing officers and Botchkareva’s soldiers alike. The soldier’s committees would vote on every order given them by their superiors, making offensive operations impossible. When the time came for Yashka’s battalion to attack on July 8th, their initial successes were squandered when the 9th Corps refused to move up and consolidate their gains.

Difficulties aside, the Battalion performed admirably in combat, capturing three lines of trenches and almost two thousand prisoners. But the expected result- the women’s bravery spurring the men into fighting, did not materialize. The Battalion retreated, bloodied and decimated, with its leader sent to the hospital with shell shock.

By late fall, the Army had collapsed. The women soldiers stayed loyal to the interim government to the very end, some of them defending the Winter Palace in Petrograd against the Bolsheviks. This loyalty sparked resentment, and other soldiers attacked the women when news of the collapse of the Kerenskii regime reached the front, lynching the ones that did not escape. Botchkareva sent the remaining soldiers home after securing civilian clothes for them.

Escape and Return

After Red October, Botchkareva was no longer a hero in Russia. The Bolsheviks hunted her down, captured her, and released her only after Lenin and Trotsky personally talked to her and determined that she was too uneducated to be a political threat to the new state. She returned to her parent’s house in Tomsk, but conditions there were very bad. On May 1st, 1918, Botchkareva was able to leave for the United States.

In the United States, Botchkareva met with government officials, and had an operation to remove the shell fragment from her spine. She also met with President Wilson, begging him for aid to fight the Bolsheviks. After her stay in the U.S., Yashka returned to Russia to raise a peasant army to fight the communists.

Her attempts to raise an army were fruitless, and she spent most of 1918 trying to get the provisional government of Northern Russia to help raise another battalion. (This time of men- Botchkareva gave up on women fighters after the October revolution, declaring, “I do not want to be associated with women! I do not trust them!”9) The only result of her pleas was to be stripped of her uniform by the commander of the North Russian Army, Vladimir Marushevskii, since “the summoning of women for military duties, which are not appropriate for their sex, would be a heavy reproach and a disgraceful stain on the whole population of the northern region.”10 The unsuitability of women fighters knew no political boundaries in revolutionary Russia.

This is the last official record of Botchkareva. She disappeared, probably captured by Bolsheviks and put away into the new GULAG system or summarily shot. Interest in her waned as Europe and the world lost interest in World War 1 and found new heroes.

Maria Botchkareva was a curious mixture of ignorance and wisdom, femininity and asexuality, an amalgam of 19th century beliefs and 20th century pragmatism. She saw things in terms of right and wrong; either you wanted the Germans out of mother Russia, or you were a traitor. Either you wanted traditional discipline in her battalion, or you were a malcontent. Every problem she faced had but one solution.

Botchkareva’s example failed to rally the Army because they were too tired, too bitter, too hungry to fight any more. Leadership by committee can work, with properly motivated troops. Committees led the early Red Army, as they did the various militias in Spain during its civil war. Even a fierce warrior, a golden- tongued orator and a devoted servant of her Motherland as Yashka could not help a Nineteenth century power win a Twentieth century war.


marc.fen said...

Great account and fascinating history. Thanks for posting that.

Gabe said...

Thanks Marc! Who do you think will play Maria in the movie adaptation?

b said...

Meryl Streep or Rosie O'Donnell could play Botchkareva.

b said...

Meryl Streep or Rosie O'Donnell?