The Red Army's Female Snipers

The Untold WWII Story

"Everyone knew that if a woman sniper were captured, she would not survive—that was the Nazi rule. But she would not be killed right away; she would be tortured and abused."

–Yulia Zhukova, Girl with a Sniper Rife: An Eastern Front Memoir

When I began to research female snipers in the Red Army for The Night Sparrow, I was struck by their extraordinary drive to get to the front and by their unrelenting loyalty to Stalin’s regime. Shura Erensteine, originally a medical orderly, said she “always wanted to meet the enemy at close quarters so that I could destroy him with my own hands.” She became a sniper and ended the war with a tally of 70 kills.

Bella Epstein, another of the many steadfast snipers, refused an order to stay at division headquarters, saying, “No, we’re snipers, send us where we’re supposed to go.”

As children of Stalin’s regime, these young women, between 18 and 25-years-old, were staunch Soviet loyalists who embraced their authoritarian government. These young women didn’t know what it meant to live in a democracy. Their news was censored, their education suffused with propaganda, and the idea of giving your life to the rodina, motherland, was venerated.

In ‘A Sacred Duty: Red Army Woman Veterans Remembering the Great Fatherland War, 1941-1945’, Roger Markwick explains how 18-year-old Yulia Zhukova’s “relentless quest to get to the front certainly bespeaks a Soviet mentalite peculiar to the young Stalin generation… unyielding determination to commit to the interests of state, nation and society at whatever cost to individual fate, including life itself; indeed martyrdom was idealised.”


This resolve can be plainly seen by Zhukova’s unquestioning acceptance of her step-father’s arrest in 1939 for being an enemy of the people. Rather than turning against Stalin for this baseless persecution she, like so many family members of those falsely imprisoned, was steadfastly loyal to Stalin and his totalitarian regime. Zhukova writes about her lifelong pride in her country and communism in her memoir, Girl with a Sniper Rifle:

“I recall both the repressions of the 1930’s and the wide-scale campaign of the 1950’s to denounce Stalin’s personality cult. I became a witness of the process whereby a great power—the USSR—was left in ruins and turned into a country of semicolonial status….My country’s current tragedy is also my own personal tragedy, because I never divorced my own personal fate from that of my country.”

Zhukova was one of the 1,061 graduates of the Central Women’s Sniper Training School, where girls spent eight months learning tactical and combat skills including military topography, how to shoot, take apart and put together rifles, fire machine guns and anti-tank rifles, throw grenades and Molotov cocktails, and basic first aid. The Soviet Union was the only country in the world to use women in combat during WWII, with women touted as equal to men for years prior to the war. (In Great Britain, women did serve in anti-aircraft batteries from 1941, but only men were allowed to shoot.)


“Whereas cohabitation and extra-marital relations developed rapidly in the Red Army, the Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) sought to oppose this by valorizing purity and the absence of sexual relations in ‘young girls’…

–Amandine Regamey writes in Women at War in the Red Army (1941-1945)

Still, few, if any accommodations were made for women in combat. They wore men’s uniforms, their hair was cut short, they had no sanitary pads, and there was an overt double standard when it came to sexual relations between male and female soldiers. Amandine Regamey writes in ‘Women at War in the Red Army (1941-1945)’, “Whereas cohabitation and extra-marital relations developed rapidly in the Red Army, the Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) sought to oppose this by valorizing purity and the absence of sexual relations in ‘young girls’…

“In any case, these cohabitation practices were common enough for the term ‘field wife’…to be adopted…It is difficult to dissociate this question from that of sexual harassment, when we know that the vast majority of men with ‘field wives’ were officers and the women…their subordinates.”

Moreover, Brandon M. Schechter writes in, ‘“Girls” and “Women”. Love, Sex, Duty and Sexual Harassment in the Ranks of the Red Army 1941-1945’, “Many commanders believed that the total discipline that soldiers were subjected to, in which “a commander’s word is law,” entitled them to sexual favors from their female subordinates…” whereas the Komsomol was “deeply concerned with upholding Bolshevik morality among soviet youth. These two understandings—the Komsomol’s desire for purity and the commander’s presumed total control over subordinates—would be in conflict with each other for much of the war.”


Irina Bogacheva, for instance, was sentenced to the guard house for refusing an order to attend an evening with a group of generals: “I won’t carry out this order. You will have to shoot me!” Schechter describes how female sniper Senior Sergeant Netiazhuk “complained that “our female youth has been leased to Komsomol instructors” who seem unaware of the scandalous fact that the smallest and the biggest commanders seduce these young fledglings, then themselves scorn them.” And female officers ranked highly enough to speak out for these women, or intercede on their behalf didn’t exist.

Their young age and gender clearly worked against these women, whose role was typically seen as being traditional nurturers who gave birth, not trained killers. This was a another contradiction that followed them to the front and then, after the war ended, to their personal lives, forever tainting their reputations.

Wives, mothers, and sisters who’d stayed home condemned the women who’d fought for their motherland, undermining their great achievements with vicious insults: “They yelled at us, ‘We know perfectly well what you were doing out there!’” a former woman fighter recalls in Svetlana Alexevitch’s, The Unwomanly Face of War. “You were sleeping with our husbands. Soldiers’ whores! Sluts in uniform!”


As if this reaction wasn’t bad enough, the women’s triumphs in battle were erased from the Soviet canon, as seen in this March 1945 International Women’s Day issue of Pravda, “in the Red Army…women very energetically proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners…But they don’t forget their primary duty to nation and state, that of motherhood.” Four months later, President Kalinin says this to a group of demobilized women soldiers, in July 1945: “Do not talk about the services you have rendered, let others do it for you. That will be better.”

In 1959, Soviet military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union, Vasily Chuikov, said, “…the mobilization of women is still weakly covered in military literature and at times, unjustly forgotten…Equally with men, they have all the burdens of combat life and together with us men, they went all the way to Berlin.”

Anna Krylova, associate professor of history at Duke University, in Soviet Women in Combat, encapsulates the aftermath of the war for female combatants: “Women with weapons in their hands, who excelled at dying and killing, provoked an unexpected popular and an intense, disorganized hostility to the female sacrifice.”

The Soviet Union’s downfall, in 1991, led to several female snipers candidly writing their memoirs about WWII, and families of those who fell, like Roza Shanina, getting their diaries translated and out into the larger world for the first time. Others were devastated by the loss of their authoritarian communist country, bringing to mind Yulia Zhukov’s fierce patriotism and loyalty to Stalin.

For renowned wartime poet, combat medic and soviet loyalist, Yulia Drunina, who was elected to the Supreme Court of the USSR and defended the government in an August 1991 coup, the end of everything she stood for was intolerable—she committed suicide in November 1991, three months after Boris Yeltsin seized power.

No, those aren’t huts burning.
That’s my youth on fire.
Girls, resembling boys,
March through the war.

–Yulia Drunina, Soviet poet; nurse & combat medic, WWII