On June 22, 1941, the Third Reich launched its ill-fated invasion of Russia. It was pestilential in scale; more than three million Axis soldiers swarmed Russia’s borders in a matter of hours, overwhelming Soviet defenses. Hitler regarded the peoples of the Soviet Union to be a subhuman rabble against whom victory was inevitable. But the supposed Untermensch turned out to be ferocious opponents, hardened by decades of deprivation and fueled by an unbending love of country.
Among those supercharged patriots were eight hundred thousand women who volunteered for frontline action, in roles such as snipers, machine gunners, and tank drivers. Nearly two hundred thousand women served in air defense, including those who flew bombers and fighter planes in Air Group 122, at the time the world’s only all-female air-combat unit. It was established in the fall of 1941 by the twenty-nine-year-old navigator Marina Raskova. Thanks to a series of daring long-distance flights undertaken in the late 1930s, she was one of the most famous people in the Soviet Union, and a role model to millions of young women. Yet, Raskova’s reputation was to be surpassed by one of her students: the petite, baby-faced Lilya Litvyak, who became the world’s first female fighter ace, and is better known as the White Rose of Stalingrad.
Born in Moscow in August 1921, Litvyak knew nothing of the Russia before Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and their revolution. Her parents, Anna and Vladimir, had grown up in the countryside. They moved to the city as newlyweds in 1918, peasants in pursuit of the proletarian dream. They settled in a decent apartment and quickly found work; Anna in retail, Vladimir in a factory, before climbing his way up to a bureaucratic post within the People’s Commissariat of Transportation. Their eldest child, Lilya, had a typical post-1917 education. She entered the Little Octobrists and the Young Pioneers—the Soviet version of the Scouts—before joining the ranks of the Komsomol, the youth branch of the Communist Party. In these organizations, she was inculcated with the belief that the USSR had the ability to alter any aspect of life at will. “It was both possible and necessary to alter everything,” is how the author Raisa Orlova, remembers these times, “the streets, the houses, the cities, the social order, the human souls.” Anna Kiparenko, a Komsomol member, likewise believed she was involved in a profound chapter of history: “Human beings of a new kind were being formed.”
Throughout the thirties, Stalin’s regime embarked on a series of wide-ranging agricultural and industrial reforms. Women in particular were said to be in the process of an historic emancipation, liberated from bourgeois drudgery by purposeful work and technology. On farms, women were urged to learn how to drive tractors; in cities, they were encouraged to enter the male-dominated world of heavy industry, or the cutting-edge field of aviation, especially after Marina Raskova’s exploits had made her a household name. Litvyak was one of countless teenage girls who answered the call and joined her local flying club. These young women were certain that their lives would be filled with adventures and opportunities that their mothers, born in the time of the czars, had never known.
But the effort to catapult the Soviet economy into the future took a gruesome toll. Between 1934 and 1941, Stalin’s infamous purges of the ideologically suspect sent twenty million people to the Gulag or the grave. Litvyak’s father was one of them. As with so many victims of the Great Terror, it’s unclear why he was targeted or exactly what happened to him. Perhaps the breakdown of his marriage, which occurred at some point during the thirties, had something to do with it. More likely, he was just unlucky enough to work underneath the “Iron Commissar” Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Quoting a senior Soviet official, the historian Bill Yenne writes that on Kaganovich’s watch, “every second man” was jailed or shot. Yenne contests that Vladimir’s inexplicable and unjust disappearance instilled in Litvyak an urgent desire to clear the family name. That motivation, along with her intense patriotism and her innate attraction to danger, led her to volunteer when the call went out in October 1941, just as the Nazis bore down on Moscow, and Russia seemed doomed.
Marina Raskova’s plan for Air Group 122 was to harness the Soviet Union’s female aviators into three regiments: 586 Fighter Regiment, 587 Bomber Regiment, and 588 Night Bomber Regiment. Within weeks it was abundantly apparent that Litvyak was destined for the 586. She was a headstrong thrill-seeker, a born fighter pilot.
The ubiquitous party officials lived among the recruits. One of them, a political officer named Nina Ivakina, was tasked with spotting signs of ideological weakness. Every week, Ivakina had some new instance of rebelliousness and indiscipline to report. One night, a week before Christmas, Litvyak committed a serious transgression by slipping out of the dormitory after curfew to go dancing with the male soldiers of the neighboring garrison. Going AWOL during basic training was a bad start to Litvyak’s military career. Ivakina thought it consistent with the rest of her usual rude, tardy, and disobliging conduct. “She is not conscious of being at fault,” recorded Ivakina with tangible astonishment when Litvyak had been arraigned before a Red Army Commanders’ Court and expressed no remorse for her actions.
During her several months of training, Litvyak took every opportunity to assert her individuality. First, she refused to have her light brown curls cut short like all the other recruits. When she finally relented, she got hold of peroxide to bleach her hair white-blonde. When handed her standard-issue uniform, she customized it with a glamorous fur collar, an offence for which she was, briefly, arrested. It may seem odd that Litvyak felt so free to express her sense of agency given that she was forever being watched, not only by her military superiors, but by agents of party and state. Yet, despite the horrors it brought, many Soviet citizens experienced the war as an oasis of (relative) freedom, when one could speak and act without worrying about toeing the party line. “To think,” the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam acidly remarked to her friend Anna Akhmatova, “that the best years of our life were during the war when so many people were killed, when we were starving, and my son was doing forced labor.” Ivakina branded Litvyak “a swanky, flirtatious, aviatrix.” It was meant to be a lacerating indictment, but if she’d been asked to describe herself in three words, Litvyak might’ve plumped for the same ones.
Despite Ivakina’s reservations, Raskova felt that Litvyak’s obvious flaws were outweighed by her instinctual brilliance in the air. It was a rare gift that no amount of training could provide. Nothing threatened Litvyak’s place in Air Group 122, not even the revelation that she had lied on her application form and grossly overstated her experience as a pilot. In fact, that may even have helped Raskova see her as a kindred spirit. When Soviet archives opened up after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, it emerged that Raskova had worked undercover for the NKVD—the secret police—informing on people during the Great Terror. This perhaps explains the surprisingly close relationship she had with Stalin; when she died in 1943, she was given a state funeral and her ashes were put in the Kremlin. According to Valentina Grizodubova, with whom she flew her most famous expeditions, Raskova “had no specialist training as a navigator and had clocked up a total of only thirty or so flying hours … I have no idea how Marina gained her navigator’s license.”
In the cockpit of Litvyak’s Yak-1, the Soviet dream of reimagining human life seemed to come true. In early 1942, a few weeks before her first mission, she wrote an illuminating letter to her mother.
“What can be in store for me? Either something wonderful and magnificent, or everything might collapse in an instant into the ordinary routine of the civilian life which ordinary sinners live. Of course, what I want is to live, if only a little, but a wild interesting life … The hour will soon come when we shall soar on the wings of hawks, and the life we live will be very different.”
That summer, Litvyak finally got her chance at combat. She flew defensive missions over the port city Saratov, an important strategic location on the Volga. Having succeeded in those, she and some of the other women in 586 Regiment were transferred to a male regiment within the vicinity of Stalingrad, during the early stages of the infamous six-month struggle for the city. On September 13, she entered a dogfight against Germany’s Jagdgeschwader 53 unit, among the most lethal fighter pilots on earth. Litvyak came through unscathed and brought down her first Nazi plane, piloted by Erwin Maier, who was immediately captured by the Soviets. Later that day, Maier’s captors introduced him to Litvyak. It took a long time to convince him that this tiny blonde woman—little more than a girl—had been the one to end his war.
Over the coming weeks, Litvyak flew further successful missions and gained the dubious distinction of being the first woman in history to kill enemy combatants in the air. Her legendary exploits spread to Germany where outlandish tales turned her into a vampish figure, a warrior femme fatale with a delicate white rose painted on the side of her killing machine. The flower was actually a lily, a reference to her first name, though she did keep a picture of a rose with her in the cockpit, as well as bunches of wild flowers, which she got up early in the morning to pick, and sometimes spread on the wings of her stationery aircraft in preparation for a mission.
Litvyak impressed everyone with her calmness and skill in the maelstrom of combat. Yet, that fall and winter her opportunities to fight frontline combats were limited. Even though her commander recognized the talent of the female pilots, he struggled to think of them as equal to their male counterparts. Litvyak and the other female pilots, were received with a mixture of fascination, hostility, condescension, and, eventually, hard-earned respect, from the men who refused to fly if their aircraft had been touched by a female engineer. It was only when she, another female pilot named Katya Budanova, and their two female mechanics were transferred to the 296 Fighter Regiment in January ’43 that Litvyak was given the opportunity to experience the heat of battle once more. She fought with increasing flamboyance. It was also in 296 that she met and fell in love with a young male pilot, Alexey Salomatin, her squadron leader, who shared Litvyak’s flair for the dramatic. Their whirlwind romance was an open secret and, according to some sources, two months after they met, they asked for permission to marry.
Shortly thereafter, Litvyak was involved in her most intense battle yet. She took on six Messerschmitts with typical brio, shooting down two of them, dodging three, and being hit by one. Her crash landing left her with a serious leg injury. After hospital treatment, she was sent home to Moscow to convalescence in her mother’s apartment. Her heroism had caught the imagination of her home city and the whole of Russia. The story of a beautiful girl who made scarves and dresses out of the parachutes of German POWs, and who could take on six Luftwaffe beasts at a time, seemed like a modern-day fairy tale. It was the perfect propaganda for the Soviets who, after nearly two years of grind, were finally gaining the upper hand against the Nazis. Indeed, it was a story with global appeal; British and American news organizations both reported on the White Rose of Stalingrad, including the New York Times.
Litvyak was offered an extended period of leave, but, desperate to get back into the thick of the action, she turned it down. As she made her way back to the front, it must have occurred to her that she might never see Moscow again.
To the public, she was a celebrity, but among her comrades in the Soviet Air Force, Litvyak was now treated with the utmost respect. On her return to her regiment, she was promoted to the rank of senior lieutenant, and a few weeks later—at the age of twenty-one—was given a further promotion to squadron leader. But between those events fell tragedy. Salomatin, the man she’d supposedly married just before her injury, crashed and died. Those who saw it happen suggested it’d been an entirely preventable accident, the result of showboating as he came into land. Litvyak was devastated. “Fate has snatched away my best friend,” she told her mother.
In response, she pushed for more responsibilities, more opportunities to serve Mother Russia. “Lilya didn’t want to stay on the ground,” recalled her mechanic Inna Pasportnikova. “She only wanted to fly and fight, and she flew combat desperately.” She completed several missions that summer, all with the aggression and commitment for which she’d become famous. But on August 1, she disappeared on a mission during the Battle of Kursk. It’s thought she was shot down by a Nazi plane, but neither her body nor her aircraft were ever positively identified. Rumors circulated that she had defected to Germany, but if the White Rose of Stalingrad had turned fascist, it’s surely not something the Third Reich would’ve kept under its hat.
One can only wonder how Litvyak would’ve fared in the Soviet Union that emerged from the war. After D-day in June 1944, Stalin’s government began to plan for peacetime rebuilding. As part of this, there was a retreat from propagandizing women as Stakhanovite workers and warriors, and a new emphasis on the patriotic duties of childrearing and homemaking. In July, stringent divorce laws were introduced, as were the title Mother Heroine and the Order of Maternal Glory—awards given to women who bore and raised more than seven children. In a postwar Soviet Union, Stalin saw little place for the gender radicalism of earlier decades, no matter how hollow the rhetoric of those times had been.
Thus, the stories of the hundreds of thousands of women who had served and fought on the frontline drifted to the background of the collective memory. In Gorbachev’s Russia, Svetlana Alexievich sought out dozens of women who’d fought and killed in the “Great Patriotic War.” Many of them said they’d never known how to reconcile their past lives as warriors with their present lives as mothers and grandmothers—that is, real women, rather than the conjured forms they’d been during combat.
Alexievich’s interviews—published in English as War’s Unwomanly Face—are a compelling read. They’re a spin on the usual narrative about the men who came home from the world wars without the capacity to talk about what they’d experienced, or even to make sense of it in their own heads. “Men could go through it all,” said one woman who’d served as a sniper. “They were men after all … I began to tell all about it to my granddaughter, but my daughter-in-law checked me: there is no need for a girl to know of such things. She said she was to become a woman … and a mother … And I have no one to tell it to.”
It’s tempting to think that had Litvyak lived, she would’ve told all of Russia her story, whether it wanted to listen to it or not.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.