I gave a bit of thought as to what photo to add to this review. I wanted a picture of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, of course, but not the usual images that are associated with her. She had often been posed for propaganda photos by Red Army photographers, so there are some striking images of her holding a rifle and doing this-or-that. As her book makes clear, she hated those types of dog-and-pony shows. So I chose a photo of her that showed her for what she was- a killer who wanted to get back to work.
In the image above, one can almost see her impatience with standing around and being photographed. Also, there are traces of her shaved forehead to be seen under her garrison cap. She had received an ugly shrapnel wound, her scalp was shaved and stitched. She looks weary and pissed off, a natural side effect of combat operations. I chose to include the image of a Hero of the Soviet Union medal next to her, because she was exactly that in all literal senses. She was awarded the USSR’s highest decoration in 1943.
Lyudmila shot a confirmed total of 309 enemy soldiers. She estimates in her book that the actual number probably exceeded five hundred.
I don’t doubt this. “Lady Death” is her memoir, it is translated from Russian in clear, plain prose. It is devoid of boasting or flowery language. In this respect, it reminds me strongly of Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” another master work of first-hand military history.
This book gripped me from the beginning. It grabbed me by the nose and didn’t let go. From a description of her childhood and early marksmanship training through her enlistment in the Red Army, it did not bore. She described the frontier battles of the Southern Eastern Front in July of 1941, through the sieges of first Odessa then the culmination of her combat experiences in Sevastopol. She was wounded frequently, and she witnessed the death of her great love Alexei. Lyudmila dueled with German snipers, she halted advances by deliberately targeting men in the second ranks with gut shots; the screaming was intended to dishearten the advancing soldiers.
Lyudmila does not gloss over the ugliness of combat. She describes cruelty in detail, for to her this is the nature of war. Some things bothered her. She always referred to her victims as “targets,” and she avoided looking at their faces. However, she never hesitated to pull the trigger. Her combat record is impressive, to say the least, and after being wounded a final time she was recalled to Moscow where Josef Stalin took a personal interest in her and her career as a tool of Soviet propaganda began.
Thus begins the second half of the book, which to me is as interesting as the first. Some are attracted to first-hand combat reporting, but what I find most interesting is a description of a combat soldier’s life after they have fired their last shots. She was dispatched to the US for propaganda purposes, and she developed a long-term personal relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. She travelled to Canada and the UK, and eventually returned to Moscow where she was personally ordered by Stalin to train future snipers.
Lyudmila was disappointed that she wasn’t returning to the front, but she dared not ignore a direct order from the Supreme Leader.
One aspect of Soviet life that was glossed over or only alluded to in this memoir was the omnipresent threat of arrest, for everyone. Lyudmila well knew that a hero could become a victim in the blink of an eye. After all, her father was an officer in the NKVD, and she had lived in the Ukraine during the famine. Also, somehow her father had escaped the Great Purge of 1937– by what means he had managed to escape is unclear and she does not address the subject in her book.
As an unrepentant Stalinist and Communist, Lyudmila was still very much apprehensive in an episode in the book when she feared arrest. She breathed a sigh of relief when her unexpected NKVD visitors did not take her pistol- a Hero of the Soviet Union was by no means immune from Stalin’s cruel whims.
Eventually, Lyudmila was medically retired from the Soviet Armed Forces as an effect of her “shell shock” and “combat neurosis.” She remained active in veteran’s organizations and served as an advisor to the Izhmash Arsenal in the development of the next generation of Soviet sniper rifles. Her input, along with others, was instrumental in developing the SVD rifle. Her book says nothing about it, but she struggled with alcoholism and eventually died in her middle age.
Her book ends with thoughts of her lost love, Alexei.
I think Lyudmila’s heart remained in Sevastopol, where his body lies.
This book is worth reading. It lies bare the myth that women are unsuited to combat, and it tells the remarkable, unvarnished tale of one woman’s struggle in the merciless fighting between two of the most despotic regimes the world has ever known.