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Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States - Book Reviews (3)

Maria Botchkareva, Yashka: Journal d’une femme combattante, Russie 1914–1917

Paris, Armand Colin, 2012, 301 pages
[Yashka: Diary of a Female Warrior, Russia 1914-1917]
Cloé Drieu
Bibliographical reference

Maria Botchkareva, Yashka: Journal d’une femme combattante, Russie 1914–1917, Paris, Armand Colin, 2012, 301 pages

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Full text is grateful to Anthony Zanino who edited this book review

1 Maria Botchkareva (1889-1920) – popularly known as Yashka – was the founder during the First World War of the first female battalion in the history of the Russian Army. Over the course of the war, she recorded her tremendous history in a diary full of impressions, reflections, and details of everyday life. The French edition features a rich introduction by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Nicolas Werth, specialists highly regarded for their work on the First World War and the violence of the Soviet system, respectively.

2 Yashka’s destiny was one of tragic heroism. In her early life she endured beatings by her father, followed by two abusive marriages; she fled her second husband to enlist with the army upon the outbreak of the war. During the first months of the war, about 600–800 women (out of 6 million men mobilised in 1914) of all social classes volunteered for army service, Yashka among them. In May 1917, after a few years of meritorious service, she decided to create a women’s battalion. Her purpose was clear: to inspire men to fight for Russia, with the example of willing women held up to shame those men who refused – especially after the establishment of military Soviets that critically undermined discipline at the front. While the Petrograd Soviet rejected her proposition, Mikhail Rodzianko, chairman of the Fourth Duma, found the idea excellent; Yashka met with Brusilov and Kerensky, and on the 25th of June 1917, the “Women’s Battalion of Death” (zhenskii batalion smerty) was officially appointed. Yashka suffered severe injuries many times in the course of her service and at one point was forced to learn to walk anew. With the army in a dire state following Kornilov’s putsch and the Bolshevik coup d’etat, Yashka tried to join the Whites but was recognized and arrested by the Bolsheviks. Sentenced to execution, she was spared when a soldier recognized her as the one who had saved his life a few months before; he persuaded his commanders to let her go. She managed to flee Russia on the 18th of April 1918, travelling from Vladivostok to San Francisco with the US Navy. She returned to Russia attempting to join Kolchak’s troops but was arrested by the Cheka on the 24th of December 1919, sentenced to death, and executed on the 16th of May 1920.

Semirecheskie Oblastnie Vedemosti, 22 June 1917 - Call to Vernyi's women to join the Women’s Battalion of Death

Cloé Drieu

3 Of the many themes developed in Yashka’s diary, three are of particular importance. First, she addresses the question of how she as a woman succeeded in winning consideration as an equal of men in a state of war. Indeed, up to the spring 1915, Yashka was not considered a true comrade. The situation changed when she returned to the 13th company from convalescence after having been injured in a battle: events such as her first major wound, her demonstrated skill with weapons, and her participation in combat as well as visits to brothels were understood as sharing in hardships and soldierly life, which enabled her sexual identity to be "neutralised". The first third of the diary (Part I: “The War”) focuses on her everyday life at the front and describes her integration as a female soldier within an almost exclusively male military world.

4 The diary’s second main theme (Part II: “The Revolution”) describes the consequences of the February Revolution on the army as experienced at the front. Yashka comments at length on the effects on the decaying state of the military forces resulting from the creation of Soviets – a “malediction”, she writes – and the ensuing collapse of the military hierarchy. Neither could she bear the endless meetings now organised by the common soldiers to discuss whether or not the time was right to emerge from the trenches to fight, while she was risking her life on the battlefield. She longed for the return of what she considered true military discipline; her description of a “peaceful” and “dead” front where men are unwilling to fight portrays a side of the Revolution often overlooked by comparison with the prevailing image of eruptive physical and political violence.

5 The October Revolution put an end to the history of the Women’s Battalion of Death, which was disbanded and the whole former imperial military world was subjected to a period of Bolshevik terror and arrest, especially of former officers. This is the third important theme of the diary (Part III: “The Terror”). Yashka describes it witnessing the savage lynchings, dreadful torture, the Neva choked with the corpses of officers floating on its waters. Her horror at Bolshevik violence is striking in comparison to her acceptance of the military violence she experienced during the war. The two types of violence are clearly different in nature; her shock can also be explained by the fact that during the war she was not confronted by the violence endured by civilians. Bolshevik violence can nevertheless be seen as a continuation of this violence perpetrated by soldiers upon civilians, strengthened by the experience of war and the trenches, which later was “legalized” as a state principle.

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List of illustrations

Caption Semirecheskie Oblastnie Vedemosti, 22 June 1917 - Call to Vernyi's women to join the Women’s Battalion of Death
Credits Cloé Drieu
File image/png, 1.1M
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Electronic reference

Cloé Drieu, Maria Botchkareva, Yashka: Journal d’une femme combattante, Russie 1914–1917 The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 06 May 2016, connection on 26 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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