Dr. Stoff, Senior Lecturer at Arizona State University, has opened another window into a deeper understanding of World War One’s Eastern Front through a detailed depiction of Russian women’s involvement in combat. Her book breaks away from the traditional paradigm of women’s roles as exclusively Sisters of Mercy during the war to expose what and how women reacted to the Great War.
In 1917 the Russian Army was disintegrating slowly but surely. The horrendous casualties of over two years of fighting, the feeling among the men that there was no end to the war, plus revolutionary incitement, had all destroyed its morale and its fighting élan. The Provisional Government that had replaced the tsar’s autocracy in February was on the horns of a dilemma. National honor demanded that it continue the war as a responsibility to its allies, yet the reliability of its soldiers could not be depended on to maintain a front or to mount an offensive.
The solution was to form units comprised of dependable soldiers employed in support occupations who hadn’t experienced the ravages of combat and who were still considered loyal front-line men. The battalions were named revolutionary, shock, or death battalions. The General Staff believed that such units, spearheading any offensive, would have high morale and lead the rest of the army back into the war by its selfless example. Added to this concept was the development of an all-women’s battalion which was designed to shame the men into action. Such a statement as “shame the men into action” was incomprehensible until Dr. Stoff’s book.
Stoff starts her work by looking at a woman’s role in pre-revolutionary Russia. Stifled by a patriarchal society, few women rose above the strata the men in their lives defined for them. Occupations were limited to traditional roles which involved extensions of what were considered feminine norms. This early chapter creates the atmosphere of a subservient Russian woman and defines how men felt about women in non-traditional roles.
The coming of the Great War was a catalyst for change. The author devotes one chapter to women who lied about their sex to gain entrance into the deploying army. She notes that there is a treasure trove of articles about such women, usually from the upper or middle classes, in various newspapers of the time. Their appearance in the ranks was viewed as phenomena by the public and a propaganda tool for supporting the war. In a sense, such articles achieved what today we would call a viral existence.
Alexander Kerensky, Minister of War in the Provisional Government, and Mikhail Rodzianko, former president of the Duma, proposed organizing women who wished to be sent to the front as combatants into shock or death battalions as a way of shaming the men into action. Their proposal was met with enthusiasm by the public. Thousands of women nationwide volunteered. However, the Army General Staff was not enthusiastic and put every obstacle imaginable into stifling their organization by refusing to release funds, deterring the shipment of equipment, and ignoring their existence.
Nevertheless, with popular support and Kerensky’s manipulation, women’s units did form in the spring and summer of 1917. Stoff picked four such battalions to describe. The first and foremost is Maria Bochkareva’s First Women’s Battalion of Death, which did see combat. To this depiction she has added three other units, including a very short-lived Naval Detachment. (An appendix lists over 20 units.) The movement died off when the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution. Few of the organizations ever got beyond the preliminary planning stage; however, as Stoff explains in the concluding chapters, the drive to change women’s roles in Russia did not fade away.
They Fought for the Motherland superbly explains another level in the structure of the Great War. Because of it, historians can no longer lightly pass off how important World War I was in developing a new role for women in society. It is not enough to say that women received political recognition when forever after they were actively involved in defending the country in which they lived.
Michael P. Kihntopf