“Women with the Gun”: American Women Journalists and the Women’s Battalion of Death

Faced with this kind of disorder at the front, Bochkareva insisted on preserving military discipline and continuing to treat the external enemy as such. [12]
Both works opened with photographs of Maria Bochkareva, whom Thompson dubbed the “Joan of Arc of Russia.” Florence Harper, however, disapproved of the idea of women-soldiers. [15] Harper, 168–169. [6] Paul E. Several other American women journalists found themselves in Russia at various points throughout 1917. It was then that she heard a voice instructing her: “Go to war to help save thy country!” [5] She followed that call of “unselfish sacrifice” and petitioned the government to allow her to enlist in the Imperial Army in order to protect Mother Russia against Germany in World War I. Harper and Thompson arrived in Petrograd, as Saint Petersburg was then known, in February 1917, and became eyewitnesses to the collapse of the Russian Empire, the chaos of the Revolution, and the birth of something entirely new. Then, suddenly forgetful of the hole in her back, she raised herself quickly from the pillow. [3] Too many soldiers were deserting, and the government was at a loss for solutions. [16] Bessie Beatty, The Red Heart of Russia. [31] Theodore Roosevelt, although he said he did not believe in women going to war, invited Maria Bochkareva to luncheon at his estate, Oyster Bay. [10] In her memoir, she reflected:
[A] country that can produce such women cannot possibly be crushed forever. [31] Richardson, Preface to Maria’s War, 28. Crossing the country to get to the Caucasus, Bochkareva saw unspeakable atrocities. Hurrah for Kolontay!”
“Land and freedom! [18] Beatty, 92. It may take time for it to recover from its present debauch of anarchism, but recover it surely will. [24] Maria Bochkareva, Yashka, 255. Bochkareva stated from the very beginning that she had no interest in participating in the killing of her fellow citizens on either side, Red or White, but she accepted the assignment since it called for information only. Still called to protect Mother Russia, Bochkareva decided to reach out to the Allies for military help. Richardson, Introduction to Maria Bochkareva, Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography. At one point she recalls visiting a wounded Bochkareva in the hospital: “‘The men won’t fight!’ she repeated. When Bochkareva visited the United States, a number of American radicals called her a counterrevolutionary. Bochkareva was asked by old officer friends to cross Bolshevik lines in order to reach the “White” — that is, anti-Bolshevik — General Lavr Kornilov, who was operating in the Don region, in order to find out what his plans were. [42] Richardson, Afterword to Maria’s War, 263. ¤
Angela Shpolberg is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and Center Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Hurrah for Trotzky! [2] Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 50. In this regard the Women’s Battalions had failed, although “it was a splendid failure.” [13] Harper felt that the enterprise was doomed from the very beginning. Committees paralyse action by a flood of words.” [9] Reluctantly, Kerensky assented. New York: The Century Company, 1918, 480. [10] Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 50. [36] Bochkareva, Yashka, 5. But as the war went on, the internal political situation in Russia began to change dramatically. No one could have imagined at the time that the tradition of women-soldiers would be revived in Soviet Russia just two decades later, and on a much larger scale, with the beginning of World War II. [14] Harper, 171. Peace!!” thundered through the air. Stokes Company, 1919, 65. [24]
The “Russian Joan of Arc,” a holy woman whose “heart [was] bleeding for unhappy Russia” was proclaimed “the witch” by her fellow male soldiers. [25] After 20 of her female soldiers were lynched by the angry male mob, nothing remained except to disband the Battalion. And when it does it will know how to honor the women who went out to fight when the men ran home. [35] Astoundingly, she was only 30 years old. Florence Harper, a reporter for Leslie’s Weekly, the oldest American illustrated newspaper, was sent to Russia together with the photographer Donald Thompson to cover the events of World War I on the Russian front. When Kolchak’s army retreated from the area shortly thereafter, she returned to Tomsk, where she presented herself to the local Soviet authorities and offered her services. Exhausted, she fell back on her pillow. “Not the isolated individual woman who has buckled on a sword and shouldered a gun through the pages of history, but the woman soldier banded and fighting en masse — machine-gun companies of her, battalions of her, scouting parties of her, whole regiments of her.” [17]
At the same time, Beatty still insisted on warfare as a masculine occupation, if not one available exclusively to men. Dorr connected her to a Russian-born émigré journalist named Isaac Don Levine. What seems to have attracted her was not so much the heroism of individual women in wartime as the idea of transforming a vocation previously open only to men. [18]
Beatty’s text, too, is rife with allusions to Joan of Arc. [30] Philanthropist and activist Florence Harriman arranged for Bochkareva to meet President Woodrow Wilson on July 10, 1918, and Bochkareva begged him to intervene in Russia. The Battalion of Death became known for its merciless discipline. [28] Bryant, 218. [21] Beatty, 114. Florence MacLeod Harper, Runaway Russia. [23] Bryant, 212. When news of the Bolsheviks’ victory in Petrograd reached the front, the soldiers greeted it with great enthusiasm. Miraculously, one of the local prominent Bolsheviks recognized her. “We will leave the front now! In 1914, in a fit of jealousy, her husband attempted to hang her. She never entertained the possibility of the military as a regular occupation for women. They refused to be taken. [35] Richardson, Afterword to Bochkareva, Maria’s War, 261–263. Rheta Childe Dorr embraced the idea of “the woman with the gun,” escorting the Battalion of Death to the front. New York: Frederick A. They overtook the German trenches, but they were unable to influence the final outcome because they were left without support on the battlefield by the male units. [26] This was done secretly, by providing “the girls” with women’s attire and directing them, one by one, “to a score of scattered stations and villages.” [27]
Some time later, Louise Bryant interviewed several of the women-veterans, whom she found living in brutal poverty and misery. [26] Bochkareva, 256. [36]
Maria Bochkareva hated rumors, but inevitably, many misconceptions surround her extraordinary life and work. Passing her on the street, you had to look three times to make sure she was not a man. New York: Leslie-Judge Company Publishers, 1918. Over three weeks in the summer of 1918, Bochkareva told him in Russian, and he translated into English, the story of her life. Instead, she was motivated by what she described as “the rumblings of the great collision” that promised “a new world coming to life, a purged world, a happier and Godlier one.” [40] Bochkareva and the majority of her fellow women-soldiers were far less interested in fighting a war than in protecting Mother Russia. [13] Harper, 167. [37] Harper, 169. “Destiny was preparing the most amazing single phenomenon of the war — the woman soldier,” Beatty wrote. She attended the farewell mass before the Battalion of Death was sent to the front and felt that the service of these brave, sincere, and patriotic women was accepted by their country not in terms of a soldier’s duty, but in terms of an exceptional sacrifice. Her mission in life was to free Russia from the German yoke.” [41]
It’s no surprise, then, that all mention of Maria Bochkareva was erased by the communist regime. [14]
Harper was accused of running down her sex because she didn’t approve of women-soldiers. When the female battalions were created, women of all backgrounds, from the nobility to the peasants, volunteered to join, most of them citing the desire to protect Mother Russia from the German invaders. “Kill her! [9] Bochkareva, 173. The men were struck with frenzy. [7] Kerensky and General Brusilov, the commander in chief of the Russian forces, both supported the idea. For them, it was a defensive mission, a necessity, a spiritual call. [32] Isaac Don Levine, “With Authors: Yashka.” The New York Times. Bochkareva did as she was asked. [33] Roosevelt’s Estimate of Botchkareva. MARCH 23, 2018

IN 1917, Rheta Childe Dorr, one of the leading journalists of the Progressive era and the first editor of The Suffragist, decided to spend three months in Russia in order to witness “the great changes” taking place there. “She is ignorant of politics, contemptuous of intrigue, and spiritually far and above party strife. In her book The Red Heart of Russia, written one year later, Beatty looks back on those revolutionary months: “I had been alive at a great moment, and knew that it was great.” [16]
Beatty, too, visited the Battalion of Death at the front. She had her big idea.” [19]
Despite her flair for the melodramatic, Beatty was the only writer to attend to the psychological traumas suffered by the women-soldiers. However, the question of whether they should fight remained open. [21]
Louise Bryant wrote that she had heard of the Battalion of Death while still in the United States, before coming to Russia. [22] When she followed her husband John Reed on his journey to Petrograd in September 1917, she began investigating the phenomenon. In September 1918, she returned to Russia and unsuccessfully tried to form another women’s regiment in the city of Arkhangelsk, not far from Petrograd. Instead, Kolchak asked her to organize a female sanitary brigade to care for his wounded soldiers. [11] Dorr, 51. [38] Beatty, 112. For suffragist and labor activist Rheta Childe Dorr, the Russian women’s willingness to bear the burden of military service alongside men strengthened women’s claim to participation in public, political life. She ran out on him and tried to start an independent life. They felt used and misled. Here, for example, is her romantic description of Bochkareva’s transformation from peasant woman to androgynous soldier:
From that day, Marie Bachkarova [sic] became simply “Bachkarova.” Her woman’s name and her long brown braids went first. At this point, she later wrote in her memoirs, she felt utterly lost, not knowing where to turn. Down with the bourgeoisie!”
As the celebration was attaining new climaxes, the ears of the multitude suddenly caught the sound of the shooting at my sector. May 30, 1918, 2. Montpelier: Russian Life Books, 2016, 9. When her second, common-law husband was sent to prison and then into exile in the Arctic North, Bochkareva followed him. [6]
Legend has it that in the spring of 1917 she presented the idea of an all-female battalion to Alexander Kerensky, then the Russian minister of war. No; war is not easy for a woman.” [20] These Russians had proved, in Beatty’s opinion, that women had enough courage, endurance, and strength to fight. [30] Levine, xii. Bread! New York: 1919, xi. [4] Bochkareva’s name has been spelled differently by different sources: Mareea Botchkareva (Rheta Childe Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution, 51), Marie Bachkarova (Bessie Beatty, The Red Heart of Russia, 90), even Leona Botchkarova — because her patronymic name was Maria Leontievna (Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia, 210). [41] Levine, ix. The Bolsheviks worked to shift the public’s understanding of whom “the enemy” was, away from the Germans onto the bourgeoisie. She was posthumously rehabilitated only in 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed. [42] Fortunately, the story of the first female battalions had been preserved in Bochkareva’s own memoirs and in the thrilling accounts of American female journalists. [7] Bochkareva, Yashka, 156–157. Richardson under the new title Maria’s War: A Soldier’s Autobiography, with additional information in the introduction and afterword.)
Bochkareva then traveled to the United Kingdom, where she was granted an audience with King George V. February 16, 1919, 81. Her original request was denied, and Bochkareva was accepted into the army only after appealing personally to the tsar. [11]
Dorr was not the only American author, and not the only American woman author, to cover the events of the Russian Revolution. By 1917, she had been awarded for her bravery, and had obtained the rank of senior noncommissioned officer. [39] Bryant, 212. New York: The Century Co., 1918. Thompson, Blood Stained Russia, with an Introduction by Florence MacLeod Harper. [20] Beatty, 110. The Russian Army, exhausted and demoralized by the first three years of World War I, still held the Eastern front against 147 German divisions. But she had stayed in touch with Rheta Childe Dorr, who had published several articles about her in various American newspapers, and spoke to her again. Into the void stepped a peasant woman named Maria Bochkareva. On October 25, while her regiment was still at the front, another Women’s Battalion was the last army unit defending the Provisional Government, barricaded inside the Winter Palace, against the Bolsheviks. New York: George Doran Company, 1918, 210. [17] Beatty, 91. Florence Harper wrote that 20,000 Russian women had enlisted as soldiers — a figure 10 times higher than the one given by Bochkareva herself. Russian soldiers, dreaming only of an end to the war, began to fraternize with German soldiers, going so far as to drink together in the trenches. He put his neck on the line and convinced the other Bolsheviks to let her go. She changed her trailing skirt with the ruffle on the bottom for soldier’s breeches tucked into the tops of high black boots. [12] Captain Donald C. Bochkareva insisted on one condition — no soldiers’ committees in her regiment: “I want actions, not phrases. But when Russian women started doing men’s jobs, she claimed, they allowed their men to become irresponsible and weak. She pointed out that she was a simple peasant woman, not interested in politics, and that she did not object to a society predicated on social equality, although she couldn’t accept “mobocracy” in practice. [29] She was permitted to return to her native Tomsk in Siberia to live a regular life. We had to throw hand-grenades in and destroy them. In her 1919 autobiography, about which more later, Bochkareva recalled:
“Peace! She reminded her readers that the goal of the Women’s Battalions was to inspire men to fight, but many male soldiers began to joke that if fighting had become women’s work, there was no need for them to take part in it. Sent out against the Germans in the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917, the women performed valiantly. She defended herself by emphasizing that she thought very highly of women performing women’s jobs during wartime — for example, working in munitions factories and hospitals day after day, night after night, taking care of and uplifting the people around them. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, 3. In her memoirs, Bochkareva specified that it was actually Mikhail Rodzyanko, then president of the Russian Duma, who brought the “little heroine” to the soldiers’ delegates’ session in the Petrograd’s Taurida Palace. (In 2016, the book was reedited and published by Paul E. Upon returning to the United States in August 1917, Dorr quickly published a memoir entitled Inside the Russian Revolution. [1] While the book covers her observations of the political, social, and economic turmoil of that period, what is most striking about it is that Dorr devotes four whole chapters to the question of the “woman with the gun.” Dorr uses the term to refer to the Russian women who had volunteered to join the so-called “Women’s Battalions” and describes these units as “the most amazing development of the revolution, if not of the world war itself.” [2]
When Dorr refers to the Russian Revolution, she means the events of February and March 1917, when the Russian tsar abdicated and the liberal Provisional Government was formed. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1917. He happened to be a soldier whose life she had saved while serving in the Imperial Army. In exalted, sensationalizing tones, she marvels at the force of destiny, which is so central to the Russian worldview. Instead of blessing the women and wishing them victory and a safe return home, the priest addressed them as “Women of Russia, who are offering yourselves as a sacrifice,” and assured them that their lives would not be given in vain. [29] Isaac Don Levine, Introduction to Maria Bochkareva, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier. “That was a grave injustice to her,” Levine wrote later. ¤
[1] Rheta Childe Dorr, Inside the Russian Revolution. [34] Rheta Childe Dorr, “Botchkareva, Woman Soldier, Tells of Failure of the Russians.” Indianapolis Star. These were denied, but she was allowed to go home. [40] Bochkareva, Yashka, 65. [3] Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. Each woman found herself in the midst of “the great changes” for a different reason, but each contemplated the emergence of the Women’s Battalions in her writings. [19] Beatty, 94. In the spring of 1917, the San Francisco Bulletin asked Beatty to go abroad and write a series of articles entitled “Around the World in War Time.” To fulfill the assignment, Beatty traveled through Hawaii, Japan, China, and the Russian Far East, where she got on the Trans-Siberian Railway, arriving in Petrograd in June 1917. Kill them all! [22] Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia: An Observer’s Account Of Russia Before and During the Proletarian Dictatorship. She reached Kornilov but was arrested by the Bolsheviks on her way back and sentenced to be executed. Bochkareva adapted well to the male environment, winning the respect of her fellow soldiers. Several other Women’s Battalions were formed in Bochkareva’s wake. Bochkareva confessed “that she would never fight with women soldiers again,” as she became convinced “that women are, with few exceptions, unfit for warfare.” She shared that some of her women-soldiers “turned on her,” and that she “had turned bitterly on some of them.” [34] Nevertheless, Bochkareva still dreamt of serving Russia and ameliorating the terrible living conditions of some of her veterans. Florence Harper, Bessie Beatty, and Louise Bryant were more interested in exploring the social aspects of the phenomenon. In her memoir, she reports an incident recounted to her by Maria Skridlova, Bochkareva’s adjutant: “There were wounded Germans in a hut […] We were ordered to take them prisoners. Beatty was preoccupied with the “mass” factor of it. Since their official assignment was to focus on the pictorial documentation of events, they created separate visual and verbal records of what they saw in the form of Thompson’s photo-book Blood Stained Russia and Harper’s book Runaway Russia, both published in 1918. [8] Bochkareva, 162. Once at the front, she took a man’s name — Yashka, the Russian diminutive for Yakov (or Jacob). Nashville Tennessean. [25] Bochkareva, 180 and 260-261. Bochkareva selected 300 recruits for her first Women’s Battalion, which was named the “Battalion of Death” — because the women who joined it promised to fight to the bitter end. Nearly 2,000 women of all backgrounds responded to Bochkareva’s initial appeal to “women-citizens” during an evening of political speeches at the Mariynski Theater on May 21, 1917. Slightly later, at the beginning of 1919, her memoir Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier was published in New York and London. Not long after, she was arrested, tried in Krasnoyarsk, and shot on May 16, 1920. Hurrah for Lenine! We are going home! ‘Women — women will fight!’ she said. There, Bochkareva conceived of the idea of the Women’s Battalion; it would set a patriotic example for the fractious nation, and it would shame men into returning to the front lines. [8] It was subsequently reprinted in newspapers. [4]
Born into poverty and misery, Bochkareva married at 15 in order to escape an abusive father — only to end up with an abusive husband. Among them were Florence Harper, Bessie Beatty, and Louise Bryant. Meanwhile, the Germans were advancing at the front. In 1918, however, the Civil War broke out. In April 1919, she came back to Tomsk, found her elderly parents in deep poverty, and reached out to Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, then the commander of the Siberian White Army, asking him to discharge her. One of these concerns the total number of women-soldiers Bochkareva had been able to recruit. [37] Bessie Beatty mentioned 5,000 women soldiers in the fall of 1917. [38] Finally, Louise Bryant wrote that less than 3,000 women had been recruited in all; she was disappointed because she had thought the movement was larger. [39]
Regardless of the figures, however, the Battalions held a different symbolic value for each of the American women. Bochkareva herself stressed the distinctly religious, “Messianic” dimension of her story. We have peace now!” they raved, and stampeded in our direction. Under the pretext of visiting her British friend, the suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, in London, Bochkareva crossed the country to the Far East and arrived in San Francisco by ship. [27] Bochkareva, 261–262. […] The strength and breadth, and the deep, full-toned voice of a man, were hers. [5] Maria Bochkareva, Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier. In Six Red Months in Russia, she provided firsthand testimony of the battalion that defended the Winter Palace on October 25 — luckily, with almost no harm to the women. [23] Later, she befriended several of the former women-soldiers, and their stories gave Bryant an insight into the social controversies that surrounded them. From the moment she arrived, he was impressed and “saw in her remarkable character abounding in natural wisdom and determination.” [32] Bochkareva told Roosevelt of the wretched conditions under which her fellow women-soldiers were living, and he later sent her $1,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize “to the relief of thirty brave women of the Battalion of Death.” [33]
Although numerous reporters sought to interview Bochkareva, she refused them all. They denounced Bochkareva as the voice of the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, and said they were ready to cooperate with the Bolsheviks. [28] Bochkareva herself was detained and questioned by Lenin and Trotsky personally. [15]
Like Harper and Thompson, Bessie Beatty was sent to Russia on assignment. The testimony of these later women-soldiers would also be preserved in print, in Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (1985). Since there were many rumors about her, Bochkareva decided to write down her biography. March 24, 1919, 4.