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The Heroines of Free Russia
By Leo Pasvolsky
(Editor of the Russkoye Slovo, a Russian New York Daily Newspaper)
HERE is a little Russian poem, written by an obscure writer, but expressing excellently the spirit of Russian womanhood; its aspirations and its achievements. The last two verses of this poem are as follows:
And when peaceful lived we, and when war's grim horrors
Spilled the blood around us, blood that bathed our
On the field of battle, 'midst its deaf'ning thunder
From the darkness ever to the light outreaching,
Now the time has ripened; make way for the woman,
These lines, written long before the Revolution, were not realized until after the great change that transformed Russia. There were heroines in Russia before that time. Among the militants for the liberation of the Russian people from the bonds of political slavery there were many women. The prisons and the places of exile contained thousands of women, who had risked death and sufferings in the service for the cause of the Russian people. The story of Russia's struggle for liberation is replete with names of women who, in the glory of self-sacrifice, had given their all for the cause that they held sacred and right.
Liberated Russia knows how to reward the survivors among these heroines, how to honor
those who have fallen in the uneven strife. The highest honors possible were accorded to these heroines, returning from imprisonment or from exile. They are, indeed, met with "full honors at the feast of life." There is no question in Russia as to whether the woman will have the right of vote. She has earned it no less than the man of Russia by her silent sufferings for generations, by her martyrdom in the cause of freedom.
And the liberated women of Russia know how to respond to these honors accorded to them. The glo y of self-sacrifice in the difficult struggle with the old foe of the people is now something of the past, for that foe has already been swept out of the life of the country by the tempest that has just passed by. But still there remains another foe of the Russian people, just as relentless, and much more powerful. In a struggle against this foe the Russian people now stands arrayed, and the place of the women of Russia, free and equal with the men, is by the side of those men who through the din of war are defending the honor and the very existence of their Russia. The women's Battalion of Death" is the result.
The first of these battalions left for the Russian front in the early part of July, just before the beginning of the Russian rout in Galicia. It was organized in the early days of the post-revolutionary time by Maria Bochkareva This leader of the Russian Amazons is a peasant woman, the wife of a soldier now in the firing line She had followed her husband to war, had lived and fought in the trenches. She was wounded six times in the course of several battles, in which she had taken part, and was awarded several times the soldiers' decoration for bravery, the Cross of St. George. Because of her bravery, too she was made a non-commissioned officer in the army.
After the Revolution Maria Bochkareva began to gather her "Battalion of Death." The watchword around which the volunteers of her legion gathered was: "Death for the freedom and the honor of Russia." With this watchword they began their organization, and upon this watchword is based the discipline that holds them together. There is an iron discipline in the legion, but it is also a democratic discipline. There are no differences for anybody. Women of all stations in life have joined Maria Bochkareva's legion. There are peasant women, soldiers' widows, the daughters
of generals and of rich men, college and university students who consider it now just as dignified for a woman to don a soldier's uniform as to wear the insignia of a Red Cross nurse.
The life of the battalion at Petrograd, before it left for the front, was a simple and a sternly disciplined one. They would arise at five o'clock and drill all day long, until nine o'clock at night, with but short periods of rest. Their mess was the simple fare that soldiers ordinarily have. They slept on bare boards in their barracks, seven hours being allowed for sleep.
Only once, while the battalion was drilling at Petrograd, was there an attempt to break the iron discipline, which Maria Bochkareva had succeeded in establishing. Two representatives of the Bolsheviki entered the legion as volunteers and then began an antiwar propaganda. But they were immediately dismissed by Mme. Bochkareva, who then. gathered her battalion and addressed them as follows: "If any of you does not want to submit to the sternest kind of discipline, if any of you hesitates to go to the front, where we are going soon, please leave us at once. . . I want only strong, brave women, who love Russia and are ready to lay down their lives for her."
This is the spirit that animates Maria Bochkareva's "Death Battalion." The battalion left Petrograd for the front after a parade, in which several regiments of the Guards, the Cossack and the Marine divisions took part. The golden flag of the battalion, with a black cross embellished upon it, was placed, during the ceremonies, under the flag of the Union of the Knights of St. George; as though the heroes of the earlier stages of the war were giving their blessing to the heroes of coming battles!
Just before the battalion left Petrograd Maria Bochkareva was promoted to an officer's rank by the then Minister of War, Kerensky. At the head of her legion she left Petrograd and again returned to the battle front, where she had already seen so much suffering, but to which she was again returning in the enthusiasm of one serving truly and unstintingly in a just cause.
Soon after the battalion came to the front the Russian defeats began. The soldiers of the Republic had found traitors and cowards in their ranks. Time and again the desertion, the flight, of small groups of troops, would throw a whole line into confusion, and the
MESS IN THE FIELD The life of the battalion is simple and strict. At Petrograd before leaving for the front, they rose at five, drilled all day long until nine at night. They slept on bare boards and had the same rations as ordinary soldiers.
A STURDY SENTINEL
The watchword of the Battalion of Death is "Death for the freedom and the honor of Russia" and upon this is based the discipline that holds them together
result would be rout for whole divisions of troops. At such a time the "Battalion of Death" reached the front. The fervor and the enthusiasm that marked their departure from Petrograd was already dimmed by the defeats that were accumulating fast. But the women's legion went bravely to its duty. It was a "striking" battalion, and the annals of last summer's fighting register several deeds of valor performed by this small group of fearless
Bravely and uncomplainingly these women undergo all the sufferings and privations that fall to the lot of soldiers. High they carry the golden standard with its black cross. For amidst the stories of defeat on the Galician front there occasionally gleamed little stories of fearless bravery on the part of the Battalion, fighting at another part of the Russian front. There was even an instance when the Battalion of Death actually covered the retreat of some of the men troops.
One of the rules of the Battalion is that none of its members may be taken prisoner by the Germans. They know too well what fate
awaits the women who are unfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the Germans, and they know that death is much easier. So every member of the Battalion carries with her a deadly poison, which she must take whenever she finds that escape from the enemy is impossible.
Similar battalions have been formed in other parts of Russia. While it is impossible to tell how many women have followed the example of Maria Bochkareva and her legion, it is sometimes estimated that there are as many as fifty thousand women in the women battalions in the different parts of Russia. Their number is increasing.
Thus the women of Russia respond to the call of duty for their liberated country, as they understand this duty. They have been doing their part in the work of mercy. Thousands of them have lost their lives and their health in the Red Cross work. But now this seems not enough. Bravely and fearlessly they go to meet the highest duty that falls upon a free citizen of a free country; to give his life for it. Thousands of Russian women are performing nobly this solemn duty of true citizenship.
Women of all stations in life have joined the legion. Widows, peasants, rich women, college graduates, all make up the
battalion and serve on the same footing