Female war heroes – from aviators to soldiers – line the pages of many Russian history books. Among them, Maria Bochkareva came to be known as “the Jeanne d’Arc of Russia” for her bravery during the First World War.
Despite her modest upbringing – coming from a family of peasants and being near illiterate – Bochkareva earned medals for personal bravery in battle, was adored internationally by prominent feminists, and was personally hosted in the White House by President Woodrow Wilson, and supported by King George V.
Her childhood was rife with challenges. Born near Novgorod in 1889, Bochkareva’s early years were marked by physical abuse from her alcoholic father, Leonty. From the age of 8, her family moved to Tomsk, Siberia with the hope of securing land. There, Maria was expected to work hard to help support her family.
Years later, after a failed marriage with a violent alcoholic, Afanasy Bochkarev, Maria ended up working in a local brothel. She experienced major depression to the point where she planned to take her life. Determined to drink a bottle of vinegar after locking herself in a brothel room, Bochkareva was stopped at the last minute by Yakov Buk – who was known primarily as a “Jewish crook”.
Eventually, Bochkareva married Buk, who – subsequently – was involved in criminal activities and was arrested several times for trafficking, robbery, and even for an attempted murder. By the end of 1913, Bochkareva was at a personal crossroad: She was too poor to leave Yakov and too depressed to stay with him.
In a twist of fate, World War I offered Bochkareva an opportunity to start a new life, with a renewed sense of purpose. Although it was unthinkable at the time, Bochkareva volunteered to become a soldier in the Russian army. Her persistence culminated in dictating a personal petition to the Tsar in 1914. To everyone’s surprise, Nicholas II replied to her petition, granting permission to fight in the Imperial Army.
Soon after, Bochkareva was recruited to the 25th Tomsk Reserve Battalion, where, at first, she had to endure ridicule and harassment by her fellow male soldiers.
“The news of a woman recruit had preceded me at the barracks and my arrival there precipitated a riot of fun. The men assumed that I was a loose-moraled woman who had made her way into the ranks for the sake of carrying on her illicit trade.
– Maria Bochkareva
Proving her courage on the battlefield, Yashka – as she was called – received three orders for bravery. Through the course of rescuing approximately fifty wounded soldiers from the battlefield – despite her injuries – she refused to let doctors amputate her own flesh wounds to aid her recovery.
Women’s Battalion of Death
The February Revolution gave rise to new leaders who were keen to continue the war effort. Bochkareva made a strong and early impression on Mikhail Rodzianko, who saw great potential in her. When she revealed her dream to form the first women’s battalion under the Imperial Army, the War Minister, Alexander Kerensky immediately granted her permission and furthered her cause through funding.
It was an immediate success that saw more than 2,000 women turn up as volunteers. After a notoriously tough training regimen, nearly 300 of the most enthusiastic fighters remained in the Bochkareva battalion and were sent to the front lines. Near the town of Smarhon, they participated in a major battle as part of the Kerensky Offensive in the summer of 1917.
Imprisonment and Escape
Maria Botchkareva and her 300 female fighters were at the front line at the beginning of the October Revolution.
When Bochkareva returned to Tomsk, she was arrested by the Bolsheviks for attempting to cooperate with Lavr Kornilov, the general of the White Army. Though sentenced to public execution, Maria was, miraculously, saved by a fellow soldier. She then escaped to Vladivostok, where she persuaded the English ambassador to send her to the United States on a ferry in April 1918.
In the United States and Great Britain
Maria Bochkareva was welcomed to the United States as a celebrity. It was there that she published her biography, with the help of Florence Harriman, entitled “Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier As told to Isaac Don Levine”. Bochkareva also travelled the country, advocating for foreign military aid for the Russian Whites to help them overthrow the Bolsheviks. According to Bochkareva, President Woodrow Wilson allegedly shed a tear and promised to send help after hearing about the details of the miserable state Russia was in.
After receiving funds from King George V to return to Tomsk, Bochkareva attempted to establish a new women’s battalion under the command of Alexander Kolchak‘s White Army. During this time, she was captured by the troops of Mikhail Frunze, interrogated for four months, and eventually shot by the Soviet secret police, Cheka, in May 1920.