While the Soviet Union still lagged behind Western nations in areas like technology and industry during World War II, their advances in gender equality were internationally innovative. The female call to civil and national duty was fulfilled in flight, surpassing their conventional positions in fields, factories, and homes.
The Russian army included 800,000 women, but the Soviet Union was the first in the world to allow women to fly combat missions. This militaristic modernization was driven by Marina Raskova, the “Russian Amelia Earhart”, who began teaching air navigation at age 22 in the Zhukovskii Air Academy. Raskova used personal connections with Stalin to support the creation of three female aviation units: the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment, the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, and the 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment. The 46th and 125th were given the title Guards due to their strong performance as offensive units, while the 586th was a lesser known defensive team.
Despite persistent gender discrimination and extensive red tape used to discourage females from pursuing aerial combat positions, female aviators made an unforgettable impression in the military. Female fighters and bombers “destroyed the enemy just as well as the men did”, recalled a male pilot, who also described the young women as having “…an iron character, a steady hand, and an accurate eye”. Led by Raskova in a rickety plywood Polikarpov Pro-2 biplane, Rodina, the 46th regiment was nicknamed “The Night Witches” by the Germans because of their lethal nocturnal attacks. Lieutenant Polina Gelman remembers how “we hated the German fascists so much that we didn’t care which aircraft we were to fly; we would have flown a broom if we were able to fire at them”, attacking Germany, Lithuania, and Poland with the 46th.
Their presence and surprising success in a male-dominated, violent environment made the women perfect targets for Soviet propaganda. The plight of the female aviators inspired women in the Soviet women as well around the world. Soviet women were portrayed as capable of anything, raising the standard for patriotism and casting Stalin in an egalitarian light. The young trailblazer Marina Raskova was the most celebrated in this group, as she commanded the 125th until her death in a crash in 1943, for which she received the “first state funeral of the war”.
Though the Soviet Union made significant progress for women in aviation, the movement digressed into a passing trend when they were rapidly demobilized from active duty after the war. Some view the movement as an act of desperation due to lack of manpower in the war effort. Although short lived, the inclusion of women in aviation during The Great Patriotic War depicted the Soviet Union’s ability to adapt, in addition to setting a precedent for women in the military for the future.
- The Propaganda Factor and the Soviet Women Pilots in World War II
- Night Witches
- Songs of Night Witches
- Soviet Women In World War II
- Russia Women Pilots the Nazis Feared
- Marina Raskova
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