What do you do if you’re a young student at a university and the Nazis suddenly invade your country? Do you stick to your studies and hope to avoid the draft? Or do you grab a rifle and head to the front, doing whatever it takes to stop the advance? What about if you were a young woman? Does that change your answer a little bit? Well, if you were Lyudmila Pavlichenko, it definitely didn’t. Pavlichenko was studying history in Kiev when Germany launched their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. And though she probably didn’t know it, she was about to become the deadliest female sniper in history.
Pavlichenko was one of the first volunteers in Odessa, where she told the recruiting office she wanted to join the infantry. The Soviet military was unusual during WWII in that it did let large numbers of women fight on the front lines. Part of that was the communist idea of equality between the sexes. But a much larger part of it was probably sheer desperation as the Germans rolled back the Soviet Army. But in the early days of the war, the army still didn’t really want women to fight on the front lines. That’s why the recruiter suggested Pavlichenko might want to consider becoming a nurse.
However, Pavlichenko wanted to fight. But when she told the recruiter that, he laughed in her face, asking her if she even knew anything about rifles. As it turns out, she did. Pavlichenko had been a long time member of a Soviet organization that taught young people marksmanship skills. And Pavlichenko immediately presented the recruiter with a certificate showing that she was an exceptional shot. But because she looked like a model and not a soldier, the recruiter was still skeptical. Finally, the military reluctantly agreed to give her an audition to prove her skills.
Pavlichenko was taken to the front and handed a rifle. There, the observer pointed out two Romanian soldiers who were working with the Germans on the other side of the front lines. The observer then told Pavlichenko to kill them, probably thinking that she wouldn’t be willing or able to. So, imagine his surprise when Pavlichenko picked the two off in a few seconds. Obviously, a woman who just killed two people at long range isn’t the type of person you want to say no to. And Pavlichenko began training as a sniper.
The Soviets soon found that women could make good snipers. They tended to have the qualities that a sniper needs, like patience and attention to detail. Pavlichenko was one of about 2,000 women who served as snipers during the war. And their job was to stalk the battlefield looking for German officers and eliminate them with deadly efficiency. It was a job they did so well that the Nazis lived in constant terror of Soviet sniper teams. And as the German army moved into Ukraine, they quickly learned that there was no one on the battlefield they should fear more than Lyudmila Pavlichenko.