Maria Bochkareva, 1917
100 years ago, on May 16, 1920, Maria Bochkareva, nicknamed the Russian Jeanne d’Arc, was shot. The only woman who became a full St. George Knight, the creator of the first women’s battalion in the history of Russia.
Maria Leontyevna Bochkareva (Frolkova) was born in July 1889 in the village of Nikolskoye, Kirillovsky district, Novgorod province, into a peasant family. A few years later, the family moved to Siberia in a “Stolypin” carriage – many landless and land-poor peasants received large plots of land beyond the Urals free of charge.
In Siberia, the family never got back on its feet. Maria knew poverty, worked from an early age. She was distinguished by great physical strength and even worked as an asphalt paver. At the age of 15, she married Afanasy Bochkarev, but unsuccessfully. She fled from her drunken husband from Tomsk to Irkutsk. She lived with her common-law husband – J. Buk. But I did not find happiness with him either. The butcher husband turned out to be a robber, he was caught and sent into exile in Yakutsk. Bochkareva followed him to Eastern Siberia. The butcher did not correct himself, opened a butcher’s shop, but in fact joined a bandit formation. He was again exposed and exiled even further, to the taiga village of Amgu. Maria followed him. The man started drinking, began to beat Bochkareva.
At this time, the world war began. Maria Bochkareva decided to dramatically change her life: to join the army. She recalled: “My heart was striving there – into the boiling cauldron of war, to be baptized in fire and hardened in lava. A spirit of self-sacrifice took possession of me. My country called me. ” She arrived in Tomsk, but she was refused there, she was advised to go to the front as a sister of mercy. Then Maria sent a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II personally. Her request was granted and enlisted in the active army.
In February 1915, after three months of training, Maria Bochkareva was on the front line in the 28th Polotsk Infantry Regiment. At first, her presence among the soldiers caused only laughter and ridicule. However, the strong and brave girl quickly gained prestige among her colleagues. Bochkareva carried out the wounded from the line of fire, participated in bayonet attacks and went on reconnaissance. The brave woman became a legend of the regiment. She was considered their own, nicknamed Yashka – in honor of the unlucky friend Yakov. After countless battles and four wounds, she was awarded all four degrees of the Cross of St. George and three medals. Promoted to senior non-commissioned officer and commanded a platoon.
Maria Bochkareva, Emmeline Pankhurst and soldiers of the women’s battalion
Women’s Death Battalion
In February 1917, a revolution took place. Emperor Nicholas II was overthrown and arrested. The first Provisional Government was headed by Prince Lvov. The processes of decomposition of the army, which were already in tsarist times, intensified sharply. Mass desertion, drunkenness, rallies, the refusal of soldiers to fight, the murder of officers, etc. Fighting became more and more difficult. At the same time, the Provisional Government still held the position of continuing the “war to a victorious end” in the ranks of the Entente. The authorities began to look for ways to preserve the army and the front. In particular, shock battalions were organized from soldiers, veterans, and cavaliers of St. George who retained their combat capability. They also decided to organize women’s battalions to raise the morale of the soldiers.
One of the leaders of the February Revolution, Mikhail Rodzianko, visited the Western Front in April 1917, where Bochkareva served. Maria was one of the most popular personalities at this time. She greeted February with enthusiasm, but did not accept the disintegration of the army, which was turning into a “talking shop.” They decided to use her authority to create a women’s battalion. Rodzianko took her to Petrograd to agitate “war to a victorious end” among the units of the Petrograd garrison and among the soldiers’ deputies of the Petrograd Soviet. At a speech to the soldiers’ deputies, Bochkareva proposed to form shock women’s death battalions.
The provisional government approved this idea. Bochkarev was taken to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Brusilov. As M. Bochkareva recalled, the commander-in-chief doubted:
“Brusilov told me in his office that you were relying on women and that the formation of a women’s battalion was the first in the world. Can’t women disgrace Russia? I told Brusilov that I myself am not sure of women, but if you give me full authority, then I can guarantee that my battalion will not disgrace Russia … Brusilov told me that he believes me and will do his best to help in the formation of a women’s volunteer battalion “.
On June 21, 1917, on the square near St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a solemn ceremony was held to present a new military unit with a white banner with the inscription “The first female military command of the death of Maria Bochkareva.” Members of the Provisional Government and generals escorted the battalion to the front. Non-commissioned officer Maria Bochkareva, for the first time in the history of the Russian army, took the battle flag. General Kornilov handed the commander a revolver and a saber. Kerensky made Bochkarev an officer and attached the ensign’s shoulder straps.
Similar units were created in other cities, in particular, in Moscow and Yekaterinodar. The Russian public was shocked at first, but then actively supported the patriotic cause. More than 2 thousand people wanted to join the 1st Petrograd women’s battalion alone. About 500 were rejected. As a result, the majority dropped out, leaving about 300 women. The social composition was varied: from “educated young ladies” – noble women, students, teachers, etc., to soldiers, Cossacks, peasant women and servants. The discipline was tough. Bochkareva did not differ in her peaceful disposition. They complained about her that she “beats in the face like a real sergeant-major of the old regime.” All command positions were occupied by men, since there were practically no women officers (by the fall of 1917, only 25 women had completed the full course of the military school program at the Alexander Military School in Moscow).
At the end of June 1917, Bochkareva’s battalion arrived at the front – the 10th Army of the Western Front near the city of Molodechno. The battalion became part of the 525th Infantry Regiment. The “democratized” troops have already completely disintegrated. Shock women were greeted as prostitutes. The battalion commander recalled: “… that I had never before met such a ragged, unbridled and demoralized shantrap called soldiers.”
In July 1917, the Western Front tried to attack, the shock women took the fight. They fought bravely, attacked and repelled enemy counterattacks (at the same time, most of the corps held a meeting). Colonel V.I.Zakrzhevsky in his report on the actions of the women’s battalion wrote:
“Bochkareva’s detachment behaved heroically in battle, all the time in the front line, serving on a par with the soldiers. … with their work, the death squad set an example of courage, courage and calmness, lifted the spirit of the soldiers and proved that each of these women-heroes deserves the title of a soldier of the Russian revolutionary army. “
The female shock women, who basically did not have combat experience, suffered heavy losses: 30 killed and 70 wounded – a third of the composition. Maria Bochkareva received another wound, spent a month and a half in the hospital and received the rank of second lieutenant, then lieutenant. Under pressure from the army environment and high losses of women volunteers, the new Supreme Commander-in-Chief, General Kornilov, banned the creation of new women’s battalions. The existing units were supposed to perform auxiliary tasks (security, communications, nurses, etc.). As a result, the movement fell apart. Russian Joan of Arc could not save the army from final decay.
It is worth noting that most of the front-line soldiers took the women’s battalions “with hostility.” It was believed that women were corrupting the army. Soldiers’ councils believed that this was a way to wage a “war to the bitter end.” General Denikin noted:
“Let’s pay tribute to the memory of the brave. But … there is no place for a woman on the fields of death, where terror reigns, where blood, dirt and hardships are, where hearts are hardened and morals are terribly coarse. There are many ways of public and government service that are much more in line with the calling of a woman.
The leadership of the military formation. Summer 1917. In the photo M. Bochkareva sits on the far left
White movement and doom
In connection with the final collapse of the front and the October Revolution, Bochkareva disbanded the remnants of the battalion (the 2nd battalion in Petrograd took part in the defense of the Winter Palace, then it was also disbanded). The personality of Mary was popular among the people, so both red and white tried to win her over to their side. Lenin and Trotsky persuade her to take the side of the people. Obviously, Bochkareva, whose head was turned by popularity, did not understand the situation. Although with the Bolsheviks, she could have achieved great heights. Through an underground officers’ organization, Maria establishes contact with General Kornilov. Bochkareva decides to help the White movement. She was detained on the way to Siberia. Bochkareva was accused of collaborating with General Kornilov and was almost convicted. However, broad connections helped. She was released, and Maria, dressed as a sister of mercy, traveled all over the country to Vladivostok.
From the Far East, as the personal representative of General Kornilova, she left for a campaign trip to the United States and Europe. She was supported by prominent members of the Western public and the suffragette movement (a movement to grant women suffrage). In particular, British public and political activist, fighter for women’s rights Emmeline Pankhurst, American suffragette Florence Harriman. She arrived in America and was received by President Woodrow Wilson in July 1918. Bochkareva spoke about her life and asked for help in the fight against Bolshevism. The journalist Isaac Don Levin, based on Maria’s stories, wrote a book about her life, which was published in 1919 under the name Yashka. The book was translated into several languages and was very popular.
In England, Maria Bochkareva met with King George V and Minister of War W. Churchill. She asked for financial and material assistance for the White Army. In August 1918, together with the British interventionists, she landed in Arkhangelsk. She planned to form female volunteer units in the North of Russia. However, things did not go well, the commander of the Northern Region and the Northern Army, General Marushevsky, reacted coldly to this project. He even forbade Bochkareva to wear an officer’s uniform.
In the fall of 1919, the British were evacuated from Arkhangelsk. Bochkareva decided to try her luck in Kolchak’s army and made her way to Siberia. On November 10, 1919, Admiral Kolchak received the Russian Jeanne d’Arc and agreed to form a female military sanitary detachment. However, the Kolchakites were already defeated, so they did not manage to create anything worthwhile. In winter, Kolchak’s army was destroyed: partly captured, partly fled.
In January 1920, Bochkareva was arrested. In conclusion to the final protocol of her interrogation of April 5, 1920, investigator Pobolotin noted that “the criminal activity of Bochkareva before the RSFSR was proved by the investigation … I believe that Bochkarev, as an implacable and bitter enemy of the workers ‘and peasants’ republic, should be placed at the disposal of the head of the Special Department of the Cheka of the 5th Army.” At first they wanted to transport her to Moscow, but on May 15 this decision was revised and on May 16, 1920, Maria Bochkareva was shot in Krasnoyarsk. In 1992 she was rehabilitated.
In Soviet times, they tried to forget Yashka. They remembered only about the “fools of the Bochkarevskys” (contemptuous lines of Mayakovsky) who tried to defend the Winter Palace. However, in general, the personality and fate of Maria Bochkareva is very entertaining: a simple peasant woman, who mastered the basics of literacy only towards the end of her life, on her rather short life path, met with the first persons not only of Russia (Rodzianko, Kerensky, Brusilov, Kornilov, Lenin and Trotsky), but and the West (with US President W. Wilson, British King George V). This is possible only in times of trouble.
M. Bochkareva at a reception with V. Wilson, USA, 1918