Lyudmila Pavlichenko met Eleanor Roosevelt in the closing months of 1942. The Soviet Union had been at war with Nazi Germany and their allies since June the previous year, and were currently locked in the bloodiest battle in world history; Stalingrad, with nearly 2 million casualties. Stalin was desperate for America to join the war on the Western front and was finally getting what he desired. After Japanese atrocities at Pearl Harbour in late 1941, and Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. just days later, America was militarising steadily. At this time the story of a famous, and dangerous, Soviet woman with 309 kills to their name was a novelty all around the world, but most of all in the West, so she was sent to rally support for the conflict, speaking with crowds all across the United States.
Born in 1915, Pavlichenko was a self described tomboy who was “unruly in the classroom” and “had a knack for wanting to best the boys in her life.” “When a neighbour’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot. They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in.” After refusing their suggestions to become a nurse, and through her persistence to fight, finally she got an audition of sorts – to kill two Romanian sympathisers who were alongside Nazis, as they attacked a hill she was defending. She picked them off, though not adding them to her tally of 309 kills because “they were test shots.”
After a period of bloody success, she was given the hardest assignment of all – countersniping. To pick off the picker-offs, to scope out and kill Nazis sharpshooters cloaked in snow. Pavlichenko was again victorious, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night, and in some cases, days. Of a hunt that lasted 3 days, she said “that was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” noting the difficulties experienced by the body and mind after 15 to 20 hours in the winter snow. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
“By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They tried bribing her, calling over loud speaker “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer!” Her actions to the enemy were a little less diplomatic; along with shooting them, her Soviet rhetoric against the Nazis is astonishing and awe inspiring, morphing romantic countryside muses with slaughter slang. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain.”
What is even more impressive is that the average lifespan for a sniper during WWII was 3 weeks. Alongside all of these incredible feats, she became the first Soviet citizen to be received by President Roosevelt at the White House.
Arriving in the U.S., her host was the most famous woman in the world, Eleanor Roosevelt, and they travelled throughout the nation telling stories of war and Russia. The First Lady, despite her more important opinions on racial and gender equality, had her teeth and fashion sense often mocked by the conservative press. She herself had spent decades on women’s rights in many areas, from the arts to politics and voting rights..
In 1928, when President Roosevelt was Governor of New York, she organised the most successful female voting campaign in state history, and also called for women political bosses, revolutionary in the context of the age; women had only gotten the vote a decade before. “Women must learn to play the game as men do.”
“Against the men bosses there must be women bosses who can talk as equals, with the backing of a coherent organisation of women voters behind them” she wrote that year.
So with Mrs Roosevelt accompanying, Pavlichenko set off to see what no Soviet had before; the United States of America, from city to town, east to west. Beginning in the new land rather timidly, Pavlichenko started to respond more boldly to bad questions, possibly fielded by the same reporters who smirked at the First Lady’s style. The culture difference was enormous, and laughable. “I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don’t they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder…”
Her time with Roosevelt undoubtedly left her in great stead for the rest of the trip. As she grew into her ambassadorial role she, like her actions on the front, let others deal in subtleties. “Gentlemen,” she said to an audience, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” This paralysed the crowd for a moment, until the silence was replaced by a bellow of support.
Despite the fame and admiration she drew in the West, Pavlichenko discarded it with sternness. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
Though the two women were of different worlds, classes and beliefs, they had more in common than one first sees. Their distaste towards the superficial and superfluous, and the steadfast belief that what is important must be kept important, discussed, pushed, and prodded, until their goals are met, no matter if it is sooner or later – just not never. Like the sniper in the woods or the woman in the White House – it was their accomplishments that shut people up.