“I am now devoting my entire life to the struggle against the vile Nazi creatures,” Yekaterina Budanova wrote to her sister in the early years of World War II. “If I am fated to perish, my death will cost the enemy dearly. My dear winged ‘Yak’ is a good machine and our lives are inseparably bound up together; if the need arises, we both shall die like heroes.”
It was a prescient letter. On July 19, 1943, just two years after enlisting in military aviation for the Soviet Red Army, Budanova was shot down by German Messerschmitt planes. Killed at age 26, she was one of the world’s first female fighter aces (a pilot who shoots down enemy aircraft) and remains one of the most successful, along with fellow Soviet pilot Lydia Litvyak. That Budanova was able to achieve so much is a testament to the willingness of the Soviet military to allow women into their ranks at all levels, at a time when no other Western nations did. But Budanova and her fellow women soldiers faced plenty of challenges along the way, including disapproval from their superiors and a lack of recognition from the government. The war was won with the help of women—but that’s not how Soviet leadership wanted history to be remembered.
Although thousands of women fought for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (which began with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and ended with the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922), it wasn’t until a law on “universal military duty” was passed in 1939 that women could formally be accepted into the military. But even that law proved more theoretical than practical: at the time of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Operation Barbarossa, very few women served in the Soviet military.
“Initially, Red Army recruiters were very reluctant to accept women into the military, although thousands volunteered in the belief that they had the right and obligation to take up arms in defense of the Soviet Motherland,” said Roger D. Marwick, professor of modern European history at the University of Newcastle, Australia, by email. The co-author of Soviet Women on the Frontline in the Second World War, along with Euridice Charon Cardona, Marwick added that once women proved their ability to accomplish any number of tasks—from working as snipers to anti-aircraft gunners—they earned the respect of their commanders.
This was true of women in aviation as well. Budanova, like other women, belonged to a civilian aeroclub before the war, where she earned her pilot’s license and eventually became a flight instructor. The enthrallment with women pilots occurred across the country, as more women began working in factories in the pre-war years. In 1938, a state-sponsored all-women crew piloted the plane Rodina across Russia, setting a new record for nonstop flight by women and surviving a crash-landing in Siberia. One member of this expedition, Marina Raskova, would go on to found three women’s air regiments, including the one that Budanova flew in. While those regiments were meant to be reserve troops, the high casualties inflicted on the Red Army meant women aviators went on more and more actual missions and were increasingly integrated with men's units.
Eventually, Budanova was assigned to a regiment that included men, and she “earned the right to conduct ‘lone wolf’ or freelance operations just like the best male pilots,” which involved going on patrol without any backup, writes Kristal Alfonso in Femme Fatale: An Examination of the Role of Women in Combat and the Policy Implications for Future American Military Operations.
But even at that level, the men could be dismissive of women pilots. “They met us with distrust in the division,” remembered squadron navigator Galina Ol’khovskaia. “The male pilots could not accept the idea that, just like men, some girls had mastered complicated equipment and would be able to complete any sort of combat mission.” At times, the male pilots even swooped in on formations by the women pilots, forcing them to scatter.
Despite facing harassment and disdain, thousands of women continued enlisting in the military. By the end of the war, estimates for women participants go as high as 800,000. While many acted in traditionally feminine roles—nurses, secretaries, cooks—plenty of others fought on the frontlines. The Soviet Union, desperate for manpower, sent more women into combat than any other nation before or since, writes Lyuba Vinogradova in Avenging Angels: Young Women of the Soviet Union’s WWII Sniper Corps. But apart from highlighting the stories of a limited number of women soldiers for propaganda purposes, the Soviet government mostly hid the work women were doing.
“In good part this was because they did not want the Red Army to appear weak because it was recruiting women,” Marwick said. “More fundamentally, Soviet authorities did not want to raise the expectations of women that they would have permanent or frontline roles in the military.”
The concern about appearing weak seems to have been at least somewhat ill-founded, if German opinions are anything to go by. They “looked upon armed Soviet women as ‘unnatural’ and consequently had no compunction about shooting such ‘vermin’ as soon as they were captured,” writes D’Ann Campbell. And although the United States refused to allow women soldiers to fight, an experiment conducted by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall found that mixed-gender units performed better than all-male units. While American and British women played roles in their respective militaries, they weren’t allowed to actually fire weapons.
“What stopped the British, Americans, and Germans from allowing the [anti-aircraft] to pull the trigger was their sense of gender roles—a sensibility that had not yet adjusted to necessity,” Campbell writes. “Young men furthermore saw military service as a validation of their own virility and as a certificate of manhood. If women could do it, then it was not very manly.”
Yet Soviet women did do it, often putting themselves in extreme danger. Marwick notes that women in night-bomber crews were “really breaking new and very dangerous ground when they took to the skies in tiny, vulnerable bi-planes,” and that women soldiers were almost certainly tortured and killed if they were captured by Nazi fighters “who regarded them as monstrous Amazons.”
Budanova would die at the hands of German pilots, but only after she took down several herself. On July 19, 1943, she and several other pilots were on an escort mission, protecting bomber planes over Ukraine. While the bombing run was successful, the team came under attack by three Luftwaffe fighters on their return flight. Budanova engaged them, shooting down one and hitting a second, but her own aircraft suffered serious damage. She crashed in the countryside of Novokrasnovka and was found alive by some farm workers, but died before any doctors could arrive. Although her exact number of hits remains uncertain, it’s believed that Budanova took down six enemy aircraft on her own and shared in four group victories at the time of her death.
Although Budanova’s accomplishments were celebrated, most of the work done by women was quietly dismissed at the end of the war. Even before the Allied troops won, Soviet paper Pravda wrote that the women soldiers should not “forget about their primary duty to nation and state—that of motherhood.” Women who served in the military were forced to turn in their uniforms and take up more traditional roles, though they also continued in the workforce due to the enormous death toll—27 million—at the end of the war.
“Wartime saw a temporary challenge to traditional gender roles, but once victory was in sight women were needed to reproduce and rebuild the country,” Marwick said. “In the long run, meaning the 1960s onward, women took on workforce roles that Western feminism had to agitate for, in engineering and medicine particularly. Soviet men, however, continued to dominate supervisory and leadership roles.”
As for the Russian military today, women are allowed to serve, but still confront various forms of sexism, including being encouraged to participate in state-sponsored military beauty pageants.
The women of the past and present may be allowed to act as “Amazons,” but they’re also expected to be feminine mothers as well. While Budanova was posthumously awarded the prestigious Hero of the Russian Federation award in 1993, her legacy remains little-remembered in the annals of World War II history.