Tuesday, July 19, 2011

1917: Women of the 'Death Batallion'

Women Soldiers in the Bolshevik Revolution

From: Six Red Months in Russia by Louise Bryant

NO other feature of the great war ever caught the public fancy like the Death Battalion, composed of Russian women. I heard so much about them before I left America that it was one of the first things I investigated when I got to Russia. In six months I saw them go through a curious development which divided them into two bitter hostile camps. Their leader, Leona Botchkarova, was severely beaten and had to be taken to a hospital. Hurt, uncomprehending, she declared: "I do not want to be associated with women! I do not trust them!" If she had been a thinker as well as a fighter she would have known that sex had little to do with the matter. Class struggle permeated everything and it hurled the women's regiments into the maelstrom with everything else.

Near Smolny Institute there was a recruiting station. It was here that I made my first friends among the women soldiers. A short dumpy little girl with cropped black hair stood awkwardly holding a big gun with a long bayonet. She regarded me belligerently.

"Stoi! What do you want?" she queried. I decided she must be the guard and explained my mission.

Inside were half a dozen girls sitting on stools in the hallway. They were arrayed in the strangest attire; one had on dancing slippers and a frivolous waist; another high-heeled French shoes, and still another wore brown buttoned shoes and green stockings--the only universal note was short hair and men's trousers.

They looked like the chorus of a comic opera in various stages of make-up. They all began to talk to me at once, as is the Russian custom. "Who are you?" "Are you English or American?" "Are you going to join the regiment?"

A very intelligent and lovely girl by the name of Vera, who was in charge that day, came out and invited me into her office. I often went back after that and had lunch with her. She was well read and spoke live languages. The only thing I didn't like about her was that she loved to salute so much that she kept doing it all the time, and as she was the superior officer, she couldn't very well salute any one else but me. This I found very droll after coming from France, where war correspondents are not treated like commanders-in-chief.

Vera explained about the variety of shoes. She said that they had ordered boots, but had never heard any further word. There was a very good reason, which I found out afterwards; there was no leather. The only women soldiers that ever did get boots or overcoats or anything else they needed were the first recruits to the Death Battalion. All the others were "just waiting" as every one does in Russia.

It was the Death Battalion that book part in the last Russian offensive. There were two hundred and fifty in the battle; six were killed and thirty wounded. That was their last and only battle, except for the girls who were brought to the Winter Palace the day that it fell. And they surrendered before a single one was wounded.

I gathered these statistics very carefully and have compared them with the statistics gathered by reliable persons. I took great pains because I could not believe them when I first got them. I had been led to believe that the movement was much larger. In all Russia less than three thousand were gathered into the recruiting stations. It is interesting to note that many more have since taken part in the Red Guard Army.

Women in Russia have always fought in the army. In my opinion the principal reason for the failure of the woman's regiment was segregation. There will always be fighting women in Russia, but they will fight side by side with men and not as a sex. Botchkarova herself fought several gears before she organised the Death Battalion at the instigation of Kerensky and Rodzianko.

When the Soviet formally took over the government the women soldiers were given two months' leave. The majority were ordered home and told to put on female attire because they were considered enemies of the revolution. There was a good deal of misunderstanding on both sides.

I came across a peculiar case. I had heard a rumour that some of the girls had been mistreated the night the Winter Palace fell. I didn't believe it, but I wanted to assure myself. After a great deal of searching around I found that one girl really had been hurt and had been in a hospital. And another girl had committed suicide because she was "disappointed in her ideals." I got the address of the girl who had been sick and went round to see her.

She lived with another girl in one of the great barnlike unused buildings so common in Petrograd. Kira Volakettnova was her name. She was a dressmaker and had always been very poor. The building had a court with snow piled high in the centre. Garbage and filth of all sorts were thrown on top of the snow.

I knocked a long time at the front door; nobody answered. I found the back door wide open and went in. Hearing a noise in one of the rooms, I called out but received no reply. I opened the door and a lot of startled chickens ran in every direction. I searched all over that floor with no result, and finally went to the second floor. There in a tiny room I found Kira and her friend, Anna Shub. Anna was seventeen and came from Moghilev.

I asked Kira to explain how she was hurt.

"Well, that night when the Bolsheviki took the Winter Palace and told us to go home, a few of us were very angry and we got into an argument," she said.

"We were arguing with soldiers of the Pavlovsk regiment. A very big soldier and I had a terrible fight. We screamed at each other and finally he got so mad that he pushed me and I fell out of the window. Then he ran downstairs and all the other soldiers ran downstairs.... The big soldier cried like a baby because he had hurt me and he carried me all the way to the hospital and came to see me every day."

"And how do you live now?" I said. "How do you manage to get enough to eat?"

Anna Shub answered my question. "Why, the Red Guard," she said, blushing a little, "have been dividing their bread with us, and yesterday," she went on proudly, "they brought us six pieces of wood, and so we have been warm all day."

"Have you forgiven the Bolsheviki for disarming you?" I asked Kira.

Anna Shub broke in and asked excitedly: "Why should we forgive them? It is they who should forgive us. We are working girls and traitors have been trying to persuade us to fight our own people. We were fooled and we almost did it."

"How was that?" I asked.

Anna reached under her cot and took out a pasteboard box. The contents of that and what she had on her back was all that she had in the world besides a sick sparrow. The sick sparrow she had picked up on the street half frozen. Now it hopped about the room looking for crumbs and picking at spots on the floor. Anna opened the box and took out some folded papers. Two were small posters like those pasted daily on the buildings on the streets of Petrograd. "Read them," she said. They were written in the usual extravagant and colourful language of Russian bulletins. I give a free translation:

"Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes I Come with us and dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with your lives.

"Wake up and see clear, you who are selling the heads of your children to the Germans. Soon, very soon, you will prefer to face ten German bayonets to one tigress. We pour out our maledictions upon you. Enough words! It is time to take up arms. Only with a storm of fire will we sweep the enemy off Russian soil. Only with bayonets will we attain a permanent peace. Forward against the enemy! We go to die with you."

After I finished reading Anna went on with her story.

"I left home," she said. "I left everything because I thought the poor soldiers of Russia were tired after fighting so many years, and I thought we ought to help them. When I arrived in Petrograd I began to see the truth; we were supposed to be shaming the soldiers."

Tears welled in her eyes. "I felt as if I myself could die of shame. I didn't know what to do. And then, just before the Winter Palace fell, one of the aristocrats of the Death Battalion came in and asked us to go down and join the Cossacks to fight the revolution."

"I am a Jew," said Anna, "and I come from within the Pale. Liberty is dearer than life to me. And I ... I was actually asked to do this thing!"

"I used to talk to the people in the bread-line," she went on, "about the Bolsheviki, and they said they were not bad people, and that they were our friends. When you go back to America," she said eagerly, as if every one would know about her unfortunate conduct, "tell them I am a woman soldier, and I fight only imperialistic invaders."

Anna and Kira had virtually no clothes at all. They had thin summer clothing, pieced out with all sorts of rag-tags they had managed to gather together, and they didn't know where to get their next meal. I offered them money and clothes. At first they both wept and refused and then they were quite happy in accepting.

A few nights before I left Petrograd I stopped at one of the huge military hospitals, where women soldiers were working. The Bolsheviki had secured them places so that they could get enough to eat.... That very day I hall seen two begging at one of the stations. I found that the girls had already gone home for the night. Following vague directions I walked up a dark street for about a quarter of a mile. The little house where they stayed stood in the middle of a deserted garden, snow-covered and desolate.

I went through an open door that sagged down on a broken hinge, and felt my way along the hall until I saw a shaft of light. I knocked and entered. Inside the little room was a peasant, his wife, their baby, the store, the bed and a highly pungent odour of cooking cabbage.

At the next door I had better success. This time it was a large room containing ten girls and ten beds, a long bench and a Russian stove. They were delighted to have company, especially from "so far away." We sat down on the bench and talked most of the night. Their stories were much the same as Anna's.

"We are girls from little towns," said one. "Some of us came with our parents' blessing, but most of us came with their curses. We were all moved by a high resolve to die for the revolution.

"How unhappy we have been! Everywhere we have been misunderstood. We expected to be honoured, to be treated as heroes, but always we were treated with scorn. On the streets we were insulted. At night men knocked at our barracks and cried out blasphemies. Most of us never got within miles of the front. The soldiers thought we were militarists and enemies of the revolution, and at last they disbanded us and took our arms away."

Another girl began to talk.

"That night," she said, "all of us thought of suicide; there was nothing left. We had no clothes and nowhere to go; life was unbearable. Some of us wanted to appeal to the Bolsheviki, to have a conference with them and explain our purpose. We wanted them to know that we would go to the front and fight for them or for any party. Our aim was to save Russia. But when we suggested that there were members of our battalion who objected and tried to get us to go down and join the Cossacks. We were horrified. We understood then how we had been misled. Of course we would not go...."

"Thirteen went," cried one of the girls.

"But they were aristocrats," answered the first speaker in great contempt.

They were violent in their denunciation of Botchkarova. "She calls us cowards," they said, "but it is she who runs away. It is she who abandons her country, who believes neither in Russian women nor Russian men. .. ."

It was just about the time that the negotiations were broken off at Brest-Litovsk and the possibility of the German advance was in everybody's mouth. I asked them if they would offer their services to the Soviet government in that case. They replied unanimously that they would.

"And how about you?" said one. "Will you fight with us?"

I said that I would. The idea pleased them very much. I was on my way home when the advance began and could not keep my word. But perhaps there will still be opportunity. Russia will be at war with Germany until the present German government is overthrown, and in that struggle for freedom of the Russian people I offer my services unreservedly.

It was almost dawn when I bid the women soldiers farewell. One of them walked a little way with me into the night. It was painfully cold.

"Be sure to come back," she urged sweetly as we shook hands.

"I give you my word of honour," I said, feeling terribly solemn. I looked down and suddenly I realised that her feet were bare. ...

When I think back now she personifies Russia to me, Russia hungry and cold and barefoot--forgetting it all--planning new battles, new roads to freedom.

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