The American President was in tears. The woman who sat before him had made a compelling case that America and its allies must intervene to help save her homeland, Russia, from the Bolsheviks. The President, Woodrow Wilson was overcome with emotion. He listened to her story intently. This was a woman who knew how to persuade powerful people in getting what she wanted. More than anything she knew how to fight for herself and her country. After all, she had once secured the last tsar’s personal permission to join the Russian Imperial Army during the Great War. She had also created a self-styled “Battalion of Death”, the first all-female military force in Russian history. When the rest of the Russian army was either in mutiny or deserting, the battalion had fought with honor. Later, she had narrowly escaped execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks and been sent into exile. This meant making her way to America by crossing the whole of Russia, the Pacific Ocean and finally from the west to the east coast of the United States. What a story it was and it was not over yet. There was always another battle to fight. Who was this extraordinary woman that on a mid-summer’s day sent tears coursing down the face of the President? Who was this woman who would soon gain an audience with none other than Britain’s King George V? Her name was Maria Bochkareva, a woman who always had another battle to fight right up until the last bullet.
Thriving In Conflict – The Creation of a Fighting Woman
The First World War changed not only the geo-political landscape of the world forever, but also the societal one. Much has been made about the opportunities that became available to women as a large percentage of the male working class went off to fight at the front. Less is said about females fighting at the front during the conflict. Women on the battlefield during a World War, brings to mind images of the thousands of women who fought with bravery and courage for the Soviet Union during World War II. Much less is said about the experiences of Russian women during the Great War. Their names and actions have been lost, like so many of their lives in the maelstrom of Revolution and Civil War which engulfed the country. Maria Bochkareva was one Russian woman who attempted to change the traditional view of a woman’s role in war time. Her tumultuous life before the war had prepared her for conflict. It seems that conflict is what she knew best, from her earliest adult experiences.
Maria Bochkareva was born to a family of peasants in the Novgorad region of Russia. As a child she was badly abused by her alcoholic father. Domestic violence was a recurring theme in the relationships Bochkareva had with the males closest to her. As a teenager she left home to marry a man who was no better than her father. She moved with her new husband to the city of Tomsk in Siberia. She would end up leaving him as well, due to the violence he inflicted on her at home. Bochkareva was tough and resourceful though. She acquired work as part of construction gangs that were laying cement in boomtowns popping up along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Her leadership skills must have impressed her superiors because she ended up working as a foreman overseeing the work of twenty-five men. Bochkareva would soon remarry, but once again she chose poorly. Her second husband was convicted of theft. He was sent into exile in the far northeastern Siberian city of Yaktusk. This was just about the most forlorn place on earth. Yakutsk is known as the coldest city in the world, a place where the average January high is a bone chilling -34 degrees Fahrenheit. This failed to deter Bochkareva who followed her husband all the way to the deepest recesses of the frontier. Amazingly, she made most of that journey on foot. Despite her spousal loyalty and the fact that Bochkareva would follow her husband to the ends of the earth, the marriage ended in failure. Once again the issue was domestic abuse.
The Right To Fight – Bochkareva at the Front
With conflict a given in her life, perhaps it was only natural that Bochkareva would gravitate to the military after the outbreak of the First World War. She sent Tsar Nicholas II a telegram asking for his personal permission to allow her to join the army. He gave his assent. Soon Bochkareva was with the 25th Reserve Battalion on the Eastern Front. At first, she faced unceasing prejudice and sexual harassment, but Bochkareva’s early life experiences had prepared her well for dealing with adversity. Her ferocious fighting spirit and death defying courage silenced all prejudice. She was wounded twice, one of which resulted in shrapnel piercing her spine. She was paralyzed and incapacitated for six months, but recovered and taught herself to walk again. It was not long before she was back on the battlefield. Bochkareva was decorated for bravery no less than three times. On multiple occasions, she had showed courage under fire while recovering wounded or dead soldiers from no man’s land.
By early 1917 Bochkareva’s will to fight and heroism was the very antithesis of the prevailing mood in the Russian Imperial Army. The rank and file soldiery wanted the war to end. Millions had been killed in pointless slaughter. All prior gains on the battlefield had been lost. On the home front, hunger stalked the cities. It had become apparent that a total war effort was beyond the capacity of Imperial Russia. Confidence in the leadership was at a low point. In late winter, the February Revolution broke out and the Tsar was deposed. A provisional government took power. Despite a public mood yearning for peace, the Provisional Government made the fateful decision to continue fighting. This pleased Maria Bochkareva. She firmly believed that the enemy must be expelled from the soil of Mother Russia, whatever the cost. The continuing prosecution of the war meant even greater sacrifices would be needed. Bochkareva had an idea who might be able to make those sacrifices and she also knew who should lead it.