Women's Battalion of Death Discussion (March 1996)

Women's Battalion of Death Discussion

[Ed. Note: For full bibliography on this subject, see Women's Battalion of Death Bibliography]

Query From Katherine Burger Johnson 
kbjohn01@ulkyvm.louisville.edu 18 March 1996

I have a general question about the Women's Battalion of Death. When I mentioned this to the professor of Russian history when I was in graduate school, he told me that the Battalion was a myth and there were no reliable primary sources to support its activities. I thought that was strange because I had seen it mentioned quite often. Could someone send information on sources. Thanks.


>From Kimberly Jensen jensenki@fsa.wosc.osshe.edu 18 March 1996

Maria Botchkareva and members of the Women's Battalion of Death in WWI/Russian Revolution were lauded by US officials(such as Elihu Root) when they could be viewed as shaming men into fighting. But US officials and popular culture portrayed them as absolutely threatening when reporting their combat experiences. The embodied the "lesbian threat", esp. in photographs with heads shaved and in uniforms with trousers.

Women took up arms in the US through rifle and shooting clubs, some emulating the Battalion of Death. They did so to shame men, [Ed.Note:Shaming Men...another discussion thread on Web page]claiming that they were nor being protected from military or sexual aggression. Backlash against the Russian Women's Battalion of Death was part of the backlash against these women and women who exceeded boundaries in WWI era.

This part of my work in 1992 Ph.D. diss at Univ. of Iowa--"Minerva On The Field of Mars: American Women, Citizenship, and Military Service in World War I" which will be in print soon in monograph form. Maria Botchkareva published _Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier with Isaac Don Levine(1919).

Response From Joan E. Cashin Minerva Cen@aol.com 18 March 1996

I was fascinated to read Emmeline Pankhurst was present at the blessing of the colors of the Women's Battalion. I thought she had retired to southern California along with several other relatives(!). Does anyone know of any source on this part of EP's life?

Response From Don Weitzman dqw@violet.berkeley.edu 18 March 1996

No, it was her daughter Christabel who spent her last decades in southern California, at an address in Santa Monica that I drove by a couple of years ago, and found what looked like an annoyingly recent hole in the ground.

Emmeline P., after the war, bounced back and forth between Bermuda and Canada, dying in 1928. She had returned to Britain to run for Parliament as a Tory, but died before the election.

The best source on the post-suffrage period for the Pankhursts is David Mitchell's _The Fighting Pankhursts. Just hold your nose, ignore his personal views, and concentrate on the facts. It can be done. There is also a biography of her by daughter Sylvia written in 1935.

Response From Maria Elena Raymond 73113.1362@compuserve.com 18 March 1996

For Joan Cashin re: your question about Emmeline Pankhurst in Russia in 1917. She was there, there is a photo of her saluting the Women's Battalion of Death, and a copy of her speech delivered at the Army and Navy Hall in Petrograd later that day.

This info is in a wonderful book entitled _Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary_ by Midge MacKenzie; Knopf, 1975. The book also includes excerpts from the " Illustrated London News" of Aug.4,1917 re: the even and her presence. This book is one of my favorite references for the British suffrage movement, and particularly for info on EP. There's a decent bibliography and archive source as well.

Response From Connie Wawruck-Hemmett <wawruck@io.uwinnipeg.ca> 18 Mar 1996

Re: Women's Battalion of Death

I just thought our list-members might be interested in a bit of additional information on this group. About 140 of them, along with a few Cossacks and cadets, were assigned to defend the Winter Palace and the remnants of the Provisional Government in October 1917. On their way to the palace, Madame Bochkarev'a battalion was seen by a French diplomat who described them in these words:

"They marched in step, affecting a martial spirit which was obviously contradicted by their plump figures and their feminine waddle."

During the siege these women refused to surrender--and probably with good cause--even while the men around them were leaving the barricades. Obviously, their refusal to surrender did little to make a difference in the final outcome of the October Revolution, and their actions did little to shame their male companions into doing the same. But when one considers what was probably the primary reason for their keeping to their post, it is clear that for women in battle, to refuse to surrender was often the lesser of two evils.

Once in the hands of the Bolshevik victors, many were physically abused and a few were raped. Having suffered these indignities until someone interceded with the revolutionaries on their behalf, they were taken back to their barracks the next day, and a couple of weeks after the coup their battalion was disbanded because it was deemed "counter-revolutionary" by Lenin and his followers.

By the way, according to Robert Conquest, this particular "curious unit of bourgeois girls" had never seen battle before they came to the Winter Palace. So, except for their role in the defense of the Winter Palace, they could not have had any impact on "shaming" Russian soldiers into fighting a better fight.

>From Georgia NeSmith gxngpt@ritvax.isc.rit.ecu 21 March 1996

American reporter Rheta Child Dorr followed the Women's Battalion of Death for some time. She produced a book on her experiences, whose name escapes me right now. It has long been out of print but the University of Iowa has a copy.

>From Yvonne Klein yklein@runt.dawsoncollege.cq.ca 21 March 1996

The Battalion is well-documented. The secondary source would be Wheelwright's _Amazons and Military Maids_. Primary sources, in addition, to those already cited on this list, would include Florence Farmborough's _Nurse At The Russian Front: A Diary 1914-1918-. Farmborough was an Englishwoman working as a governess in Moscow when the war broke out. She enlisted as a nurse(and was pleased that the Russian service allowed her so much more authority than the British VAD would have>) She was delighted to hear of the Battalion and distressed when she heard that they had acquitted themselves poorly on the battlefield. She had treated several regular line soldiers who were women and expected great things from the Battalion. Curiously, as she fled the Russian revolution aboard a ship from Vladisvostok, Bochareva was a fellow-passenger.

>From Linda Brigance brigance@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu 22 March 1996

My grandmother supposedly was a member of the Women's Battalion of Death. All I have is a newspaper article that suggests that, and (scarce) family stories. She is alive, but memory is basically gone. If I can help further, write to me privately.

>From     Barbara T. Norton          
barbara.t.norton@cyber.widener.edu         22 March 1996

Maria Bochkareva, organizer of the Women's Battalion of Death, published her reminiscences shortly after the 1917 revolution. See M.L. Bochakareva, _Yasha: My Life as a Peasant, Officer and Exile_(as set down by Issac Don Levine), NY, Stokes, 1919. For anyone who reads Russian, her 1920 depositions to the police at the time of her arrest by the Bolsheviks were published recently. See "Protokoly doprosov organizatora Petrogradskogo zhenskogo batal'ona smerti." _Otechestveynne arkhiv_,1(1994): 50-66

>From Connie Wawruck-Hemmett wawruck@io.uwinnipeg.ca 22 March 1996

I was really surprised to hear that there was some question regarding the Women's Battalion. I was recently given a copy of a short article in _The Touchstone_, published by Mary Fanton Roberts,Inc., Sept, 1917 which includes a piece written by Michael Posner: "The Battalion of Death, Made Up of Women Soldiers Who Are Today Fighting Russia's Battle."

Now granted, there might be those who would say this could be just a war propaganda piece, but I also have photocopies of pictures that came from the International Film Service. As for eye-witnesses besides Dorr, John Reed and Louise Bryant both mention them in their books. And I haven't had the chance to check yet, but I'm sure it is also mentioned by Alexander Kerensky in the memoirs he produced while living in the States after his Provisional Government was "evicted" from the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks.

Unless these people were all party to some conspiracy to propagate a myth. I must assume that there was indeed a Women's Battalion. But then, maybe they were all victims of the myth?

>From Reina Pennington rpennington@infoave.net 25 March 1996

To answer the question from Kathie Johnson, Associate Archivist at the Univ. of Louisville Archives and Records Center:

I never cease to be amazed at some of these professors. Of course, my own advisor in Russian history has informed me that "there is no historical problem" in my own dissertation topic on military women in the Second World War!

Anyway, your prof. is wrong. There are plenty of primary sources and eyewitness accounts--I'll list a few below. The Stites book is a good place to start for an overview. I know at least two Ph.D. students who are working on dissertations that include discussions of the Women's Battalions of Death(there were several); Laurie Stoff is writing the entry on battalions for me for the Military Women Worldwide book, and Mary Allen(contributing editor for Russian women in ground forces) is writing on Maria Bochkareva, the unit's founder.

You can contact Mary Allen at 298 Beech Ave, Toronto, Ontario, M4E 3J2 Canada; Dissertation on "Soviet Amazons? Women's Participation in the Red Army, 1918-1945" 416-694-9930 or

Fax at 416-694-9900. Contact Laurie Stoff, Department of History, University of Kansas, 3001 Wescoe Hall, Lawrence, KS 66045 913-864-3569, Fax 913-864-5046, E-mail: <lauriest@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu>

[To see full bibliography on subject of Women's Battalion of Death, click on "Bibliographies" on H-Women Web Page]

>From Peggy Harlow 74677.762@compuserve.com 25 March 1996

I want to respond to Kathie Johnson's message on the Battalion of Death...

I may be able to shed some light on this professor's viewpoint in a roundabout way. In 1982 I wrote my master's thesis on women and the Soviet military. To set the stage I included data on the Battalion of Death from several sources, most of which have already been mentioned in other messages.

The professor's comments about the Battalion's myth status would not be surprising if he were Soviet-trained. At least one other Soviet-trained analyst was very surprised by my reports of the Battalion. Last year I had the opportunity to show my work to a Russian researcher who wrote her dissertation on Women in the American military in the early 1990s as a way to persuade the current Russian military to expand its use of women.

While this well-placed researcher, Irina V. Modnikova, from what used to be the USA/Canada Institute, was familiar with Napoleanic and World War II era women fighters, she had never heard of women fighting during the Revolution. The fact the fought mostly on the non-Bolshivek side probably accounts for this.

Irina and I were very amused by how much the world had changed between our two pieces of work, but that's another story that I keep meaning to write. I've wanted to compare the finding and reasons for our works. This electronic conversation should push me along a little more.