Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

In A Women’s Death Battalion: A Russian Nurse in Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1918

By Maria Bocharnikova
Translated by Kimball Worcester
Blurb, 2021
Michael P. Kihntopf, Reviewer

Training Camp at Levashovo

Kimball Worcester has given World War I aficionados a magnificent translation of an important historical document. She has translated another document from the Alexander Solzhenitsyn Russian Charitable Foundation where reside many memoirs collected from people who experienced Russia in World War I, during the Revolution, and during the civil war. Her other two works from the foundation, reviewed on this blog (HERE & HERE), were memoirs from nurses involved in the Russian Revolution and civil war, and they were eye-openers. This work is much more important in that it comes from a former nurse who turned infantry soldier. It covers less than a year in her life, but the words hold mountains of information and the only description of the fight at the Winter Palace in October (Old Style) 1917.

Maria Bocharnikova was a 17-year-old sister of mercy (nurse) working in northern Persia with the Russian army when she heard that Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional Government’s minister of war, had given permission for women to enlist in the army as combat soldiers. Kerensky had come up with this program in response to the pleas of Maria Bochkaryova, a highly decorated soldier who had fought for two years on the Eastern Front. She had convinced Kerensky that an all-woman force would strengthen the male soldiers’ resolve to once again begin operations at the front. Bochkaryova formed the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death in May 1917. Under her leadership, the battalion was trained and deployed to the front to participate in the trenches. Bocharnikova chose not to join Bochkaryova’s battalion. Instead, she enlisted in the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion. She was two months shy of her 18th birthday when she was accepted in the ranks. The administration made an exception of her because of her service in Persia.

Bocharnikova lays out in detail the types of women who enlisted, taking special care to note that the vast majority (about 60 percent intelligensia and 40 percent uneducated) signed up because of patriotism. She does note that a few had fled from abusive relationships, but as a whole the women were apolitical. The Petrograd Battalion began forming in early June 1917 and filled its authorized strength of 1,163 officers, non-commissioned officers, and ranks by early August. Kerensky was proud of his project, but the Army Staff was not. They put every kind of obstacle in the women’s path to deter the organization’s completion. Bocharnikova’s unit had to raise money for uniforms and equipment through public appeal, which included celebrity entertainments at Luna Park and finally an American-style auction at which an autographed picture of Kerensky was sold. With uniforms and equipment, the women were drilled in Petrograd and then sent out to the country for field training. Bocharnikova describes field training in snippets of experiences. These are an excellent representation of camp life.

1st Petrograd Women's Death Battalion on Palace Square

With training completed, the battalion looked forward to being shipped to the front, but things did not transpire as expected. On 24 October (Old Style) the battalion was put on trucks and taken back to Petrograd. They thought that they were to parade through the streets on the way to the front. Instead, they were taken to the Winter Palace where they were told that it was their lot, along with other loyal units, to defend the Provisional Government from the expected Bolshevik coup d’état.

And this is where the memoirs became the most interesting for me. In the next few pages, Bocharnikova describes what happened that fateful night. It is an account without the political embellishment that was heaped on it by the Communist Party or the Western governments which wanted to defame the Bolsheviks and their later government. The only common element in each of the three accounts is that Lenin’s supporters triumphed and the resisters were rounded up and disarmed. Bocharnikova clearly states that the 1st Petrograd Women’s Battalion did not crumple into mass hysteria as a result of the Red Guard assault. They stood their ground repelling at least one frontal assault, and they did not lose control when the Aurora unleashed a salvo (blanks, by the way) from her guns. In fact, the battalion had to be ordered to lay down arms after their commanders realized that the Red Guards supported by Kronstadt sailors outnumbered them nearly five to one and had surrounded their barricaded positions. The battalion did not suffer inordinate casualties during their encounter. When noses were counted, only one of the women had been killed. Nor were any of the battalion raped.

Under Arrest in the Empress Maria Fyodorovna's
Throne Room, Winter Palace

The women, after a brief arrest, were returned to their camp, disarmed, and disbanded. Bocharnikova was one of the last to walk out. Once again, through snippets she relates to the reader about the women’s experiences in returning home. It is enough to say that they were not allowed to go peacefully by either the army or the Red Guards. She managed to return home to Tiflis in the Caucasus in time to enroll in the counterrevolutionary Volunteer Army. It is regrettable that she did not write about her experiences in the Kuban campaign in which she was wounded and invalided.

Worcester’s translation is masterful in bringing out Bocharnikova’s characteristics and mannerisms as well as those of fellow soldiers she interacted with in the battalion. The reader can often feel Bocharnikova’s frustration in not being able to go to the front, during her imprisonment for her association with the Social Revolutionaries’ attempt at overthrowing Lenin in early 1918, and the loss of her homeland. This is one memoir, written in the late 1970s, that is not tainted with hindsight or the sagacity-filled philosophy of age which often invalidates historical views. The translation of more memoirs would greatly benefit the study of the Russian front.

(Statistical information was taken from They Fought for the Motherland, Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution by Laurie S. Stoff with anecdotal information from Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Officer and Exile by Maria Bochkareva. Stoff’s book was reviewed in this blog.) .

Michael P. Kihntopf


  1. I read a pre-publication copy of this book and think this review sums it up splendidly. I strongly recommend the book and am grateful for Kimball's excellent translation. All three of her books in this series are well worth reading.

  2. Check out PBS' Lucy Worley's inciteful series "Royal Myths...the Russian Revolution" episode, beginning with the February 1917 "Women's Revolt" and then the subsequent propaganda laden October Bolo takeover.