I bring you a book I mentioned a while back, and here it is, finally.
Girl With A Sniper Rifle: An Eastern Front Memoir by Yulia Zhukova
In this vivid first-hand account we gain unique access to the inner workings of Stalin’s Central Women’s Sniper School, near Podolsk in Western Russia.
Luliia was a dedicated member of the Komsomol (the Soviet communist youth organization) and her parents worked for the NKVD. She started at the sniper school and eventually became a valued member of her battalion during operations against Prussia.
She persevered through eight months of training before leaving for the Front on 24th November 1944 just days after qualifying. Joining the third Belorussian Front her battalion endured rounds of German mortar as well as loudspeaker announcements beckoning them to come over to the German side.
Luliia recounts how they would be in the field for days, regularly facing the enemy in terrifying one-on-one encounters. She sets down the euphoria of her first hit and starting her “battle count” but her reflection on how it was also the ending of a life.
These feelings fade as she recounts the barbarous actions of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. She recalls how the women were once nearly overrun by Germans at their house when other Red Army formations had moved off and failed to tell them. She also details a nine-day standoff they endured encircled by Germans in Landsberg.
Regularly suffering ill-health, she took a shrapnel injury to her knee and had to be operated on without an anaesthetic. She would eventually see the end of the war in Köngsberg.
Like her famous counterpart Pavlichenko, she gained recognition but struggled to come to terms with war service. Haunted by flashbacks she burned the letters she sent home from the Front. She later discovered that of the 1885 graduates of her sniper school only 250 had died in the war.
In this powerful first-hand account, we come up close to the machinations of the NKVD (the secret police) as well as the gruelling toll of war and the breathtaking bravery of this female sniper.
Additional material includes notes by John Walter and an introduction by Martin Pegler.
About the author:
Luliia Konstantinovna Zhukova spent her early years in Uralsk but her parents moved from city to city through their work for the secret police, the NKVD. Despite suffering from ill-health in her youth she eventually enlisted and trained to be a sniper. After the war she finished her studies at Moscow University Pedagogical Institute and worked as a Komsomol secretary in Moscow. She then became a school director of a school and worked for the Communist Party.
I thank Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me an early hardback copy of this non-fiction title that I freely chose to review.
I reviewed The Sniper Encyclopedia a while back and I became fascinated by the data about female snipers, so I was happy to have this opportunity to review a personal account by one of them.
As the description explains, Luliia (or Yulia, depending on the spelling) Zhukova was one of many girls who fought during WWII as part of the USSR forces. She wrote this book in her 90s (she was 92 when the original version was published), and it is clear from her introduction that she was somewhat reluctant to write a memoir, as she, like many others, thought that only people who’d led extraordinary lives should write such accounts. But she changed her mind as she realised that all lives reflect their historical era, and she also felt that the young generations should have access to different, personal, and alternative accounts to the official narrative of the war in her country (that is not particularly enamoured by). This reflects a major turning point for her, because as we learn when we progress through the book, for many years she wished to bury all memories of that period, suffered terrible nightmares, and made a concerted effort to get rid of any reminders (including burning correspondence, documents, pictures, etc.). Despite all that, there are a handful of photographs, some from her time as a soldier, some from the seventies, when she started attending reunions of veterans of the war, and some more recent, of her with her daughter and granddaughter, which help put a face to the story, and also to some of the other people she mentions. There is also an insert talking about the weapons, and an appendix at the end listing the graduates of the Central Women’s Sniping School who were awarded the Order of Glory 2nd and 3rd class.
Although she does not consider herself extraordinary in any way, she was a determined young woman, and a brave and eager one, as she has always suffered from ill health but that did not prevent her from enrolling into a course to become a sniper, even before she was 18, and then going to war, despite that going against the wishes of her mother and her step-father. Luliia does not describe her life before the war in a lot of detail, but there is enough to give a good understanding of what kind of family she grew up in (she was an only child, so her parents would have been even more reluctant), and it provides us with some understanding of the dynamics of the era (her step-father had been imprisoned once even though he held an official position).
Once Luliia gets to sniper school, her life changes drastically. The narration comes to life with stories of comradery, of life in a group of women, of living away from home for the first time, having to wear strange uniforms, having to follow a harsh discipline, missing her mother but becoming much more independent and proud of her achievements. By the time she goes to war, Luliia has grown up, although nothing has quite prepared all of them for what is to come.
The author acknowledges that she might misremember things (and recounts her memory of her first kill and compares it to the account of another woman in her regiment, and there are significant differences), and she does not always recall all dates and locations, but she is excellent at recreating the atmosphere, the smells, the bodily sensations, the fear, the anxiety, and the brief moments of joy (having a bath after days in the trenches, sleeping in a proper bed, receiving any kind of good news…). This is not a list of battles and skirmishes, but a personal account of what it felt to be there, especially as a woman, and the instances of what nowadays would be classed as harassment (almost a way of life) but also of kindness and support. She got separated from the rest of her regiment and ended up joining a male unit, with the difficulties you can imagine. So, although she is not well-known, her experiences deserve to be told, read, and remembered.
There are many moments that give one pause when reading the book, and not because the author goes out of her way to overdramatise things. If anything, her style is matter-of-fact and understated. Often, what is not said is as poignant as what she does say. There are no complaints and the only bitterness she expresses is towards accounts of the war that she feels have robbed those who took part in it of their pride, making them feel ashamed, and some being abused and harassed because of it (to the point where she mentions some veterans who took their own lives because of it). Her opinions will not be to everybody’s taste, but when she mentions an incident when a veteran attended a school and a youth asked him why they had fought so hard in the war and told him that if they hadn’t, Germany would have conquered them and now they would have as good a life as the Germans did, her upset is understandable. We might agree or not with the politics that brought the conflict into being, but the people who got caught in it and put their lives at risk deserve respect.
She shares a poem from Nikolai Berezovsky’s “The Last Front Line Veteran” that I found quite moving and thought I’d share with you:
When out last front-line veteran
Shuts his eyes and lies in peace,
Doubtless, at that moment
We’ll all feel a great unease.
The heart of every Russian
Will be struck by a strange malaise.
If the sun’s out brightly shining,
It will yield to a darkening haze.
We’ll feel an untimely shudder,
We’ll sense a feverish glow,
And the maple in mother’s garden
Will suddenly bow down low.
I think this is an important book that I recommend to those interested in WWII, especially in personal accounts, and more particularly those looking for Eastern Front memoirs. Also, to historians or readers eager to learn more about women’s involvement in WWII, and, in general, to anybody keen to read a memoir from an era we should never forget.
Thanks to Rosie and to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, smile, and keep safe!