ROZA SHANINA: Unseen Terror of East Prussia

Oh, this army life, they all think we’re a bunch of prostitutes, and it’s so offensive for a modest girl to see all this.

-Roza Shanina, November 18, 1944

Of all the female snipers I came across while working on The Night Sparrow, Roza Shanina has resonated most with her remarkable fortitude and with the illicit journal she kept while she was at the front. One of seven children born to a milkmaid and a logger, Roza was so determined to get an education, she trekked 120 miles from her village to a railway station and boarded a train to get to college in Arkhangelsk. Her extroverted personality was evidenced by her late-night returns to her locked dormitory, where fellow students tied bedsheets together so that she could climb up to her room!

Roza graduated from college in 1942 and, upon hearing of her brother’s death during the Siege of Leningrad, she enrolled in the Sniper’s Training School in June. Though soldiers were forbidden to keep diaries, many did and, while they are all illuminating, Roza’s goes deeper into her own psyche, candidly exposing her vulnerabilities as a twenty-year-old woman—her fears about dying, her desperation to experience love, and her incessant loneliness.

“I find it so much harder to make friends here with sniper girls,” she writes on October 8, 1944. “Their jealousy and envy are pitiful. Girls shall be girls no matter how many rifles they carry.”

Roza’s impulsiveness and flagrant disregard for rules set her apart from other girls in her platoon; once, she encouraged several to follow her into combat. One girl was killed and two were injured. “The girls were all cowards and fled,” she writes on October 28, 1944. “Only Kaleriya was brave. The other girls, seeing the danger, were about to tear me to pieces because I led them into the battle.”

Her exceptional skill shooting doublets (two rounds fired quickly, successfully hitting two targets), led to Roza receiving the coveted Order of Glory. Subsequently, she became a media sensation, with her photo published worldwide; a Canadian newspaper called her, ‘The Unseen Terror of East Prussia’.

Then, there were her nights in the company of men, forbidden by the Red Army although there was a clear double standard with male superiors free to force themselves on female subordinates. “I spent the night at Sergei Osmak’s,” she writes. “I like him but he’s very proud. Maybe that’s why I like him.” In another entry she writes with brutal honesty about another man, “A fellow from 215th Rifle Division made me an offer—perfume or anything I might like, but I am not for sale.”

As time goes on, her despondency becomes more vivid, as seen in this January 15, 1945 entry: “My heart is heavy. I see I’m not too useful as a sniper; perhaps there will be opportune moments yet, but there is also a risk of death. There are only 6 left out of 78 in our 2nd Battalion of the 216th R.R.”

On January 27, 1945, two Red Army soldiers heard a woman’s scream. It was Roza, her stomach “torn open, and she tried to hold her insides with both hands,” wrote Senior Sergeant and Commander, Nikolay Lyantsev to Roza’s brother. “As soon as she saw us she begged: Guys, dear, please shoot me, quick!” Roza died the next day, January 28, 1945. Her final tally was 59 kills. Her legacy is the journal her brother received and eventually translated, her inimitable story no longer hidden behind the wall of Soviet rhetoric.

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