Live By The War, Die By The War – The Extraordinary Life of Maria Bochkareva (Part 2)

Maria Bochkareva entertained ideas of creating and leading an all-female force at the front. The February revolution had brought a new government to power, but the crisis was ongoing. This offered Bochkareva a prime opportunity. She would take advantage of the Russian provisional government’s need to raise morale in the armed forces.

Russian female soldiers at shooting practice

Maria Bochkareva supervises female soldiers during shooting practice

The Enemy Within – From Revolution to Civil War
The army was suffering from mass desertions and mutiny. The new leadership thought that having an all-female combat unit might shame the men into fighting. Bochkareva went to work with a force of two thousand prospective female soldiers. Due to her stern discipline and harsh training methods, over 80% of the recruits quit. What resulted was a force of 300 hard bitten, crack female troops that would form the “First Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.” It was not long before they were thrown into battle, fighting an action at Smorgon (Smarhon in present-day Belarus) against the Germans. Accounts say they performed competently. Unfortunately the battalion spent as much time fighting off their own side as they did the enemy. They faced ridicule and violence from male troops who wanted the war to end. The October Revolution soon brought the Bolsheviks to power. Bochkareva was aghast that the Bolshevik’s wanted to negotiate peace while the enemy was still on Russian soil. She turned her ferocity towards the enemy within. This would result in her arrest and near execution. Her savior turned out to be a male soldier who had once fought alongside her. She was freed, but had to leave her beloved homeland.

This started the final period in Bochkareva’s life. She undertook that long journey around the world to drum up support for the anti-Bolshevik forces known as the Whites. This was what brought her to those audiences with the American president and the British King. Bochkareva’s presentation of her story and the story of Russia’s plight under Bolshevik rule was met with sympathy by American and British leaders. She was one of many who encouraged the western Allies to provide support to help the White forces overthrow Lenin and the Communists. In the coming year both nations would send troops to Russia, but they were of little help. The White forces were disunited, separated by thousands of miles and failed to coordinate their offensives with each other or allied forces. Meanwhile, Bochkareva traveled back to Russia courtesy of the British government who paid her way.

The 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death - Ready For Battle

The 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death – Ready For Battle

Staring Down The Barrel Of Fate
Only thirty years of age, Bochkareva had done enough traveling and fighting to last several lifetimes. Once back on home soil, Bochkareva’s goal was to make her way once again to Siberia, specifically Tomsk, the city she had left home for fifteen years and what must have seemed like a lifetime ago. She arrived there with the hope of starting another women’s battalion. The White forces were losing the Russian Civil War and needed all the help they could get. Their commander Aleksandr Kolchak had other ideas. He would not allow Bochkareva to create another women’s battalion. Instead she was given the duty of starting a women’s medical detachment. This had to be one of the greatest disappointments of her life. Danger soon outweighed disappointment. Bochkareva once again fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks in April 1919. This time there would be no escape.

She endured over a year of captivity, including months of interrogation while imprisoned in the city of Krasnoyarsk. By the early part of 1920 the Bolsheviks had emerged victorious in the Civil War. They now set about liquidating their opponents with extreme prejudice. Kolchak himself was executed. The label, “Enemy of the People” became commonplace. It was as much a death sentence as a label. Maria Bochakareva received a death sentence in the spring of 1920. On May 16th she was placed before a firing squad. Bochkareva once again stared down the barrel of multiple guns as she had so many times before. The difference this time was that she was unarmed. There are no details of Bochkareva’s final words. One can imagine that she most likely stared death in the face, the same way she had done on the battlefront. This final time was different. As the gunfire crackled, it signaled not the beginning of battle, but the end of both her war and life. The two had been inseparable.

Maria Bochkareva - 1889 - 1920

Maria Bochkareva – 1889 – 1920

A Deathly Paradox
Today Maria Bochkareva is barely known if at all. This is not surprising since the Bolsheviks destroyed their enemies both physically as well as historically. There was no mention of personages such as Bochkareva in official histories. Anyone who had opposed the Bolsheviks became a non-person after their death, unless that person could be used for propaganda purposes. The wars in which Bochkareva fought with honor and courage were seen as imperialistic capitalist enterprises. The old Russia had been eradicated in a six year long process that had started with its entry into the Great War in 1914. Total war had been followed by revolution which was followed by another revolution which was followed by a civil war. During this period Russia underwent a radical transformation. Millions did not survive the process. Bochkareva was one of those who did not last. Her life succumbed to a deathly paradox. She was up to the war, but not the revolution. She suffered at the hands of violence, only to co-opt it. War seemed to give her life meaning, but it eventually took her life as well. Live for the war, die by the war.


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