Lyudmila Pavlichenko was 24 years old when Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941. Like most Soviet citizens, she wasn’t thrilled to hear that 3 million Nazis were marching across the motherland. The Kiev University history student was determined to do her bit, but she didn’t want to be a nurse. What’d Pavlichenko do instead? She became the most feared female sniper in history.
Born in the Kiev region in 1916, Pavlichenko was blessed with a competitive nature and a surplus of moxie. She also had a natural affinity for guns:
I was keen on sports of all kinds, and played all the boys’ games and would not allow myself to be outdone by boys in anything. That was how I turned to sharpshooting. When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.
The sniper-turned-student was holed up in a sanitarium in Odessa when war broke out. She’d been sent there to recuperate from a long illness—but her patriotic fervor cured her. Pavlichenko was eager to put her sharpshooting skills to good use, so she immediately applied for a discharge. Signing up with the Red Army proved more difficult than she thought:
The moment I heard the news I stopped feeling ill. When I applied to the doctors of the sanitarium for a discharge, they refused. I didn’t feel that the time could be spared for arguments and appeals. I knew the war had done more to cure me than they could. So I took French leave. They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in. But I finally managed it. I served first with one of the volunteer detachments called ‘destroyer squads’ organized in cities and districts close to the front, to dispose of German paratroopers.
Good thing Mother Russia decided to bend the rules. By the end of Operation Barbarossa,Pavlichenko was famous for having a very particular set of skills: She excelled at shooting fascists. Nicknamed “Lady Death” by the Western media, the 25-year-old sniper was credited was 309 confirmed kills.
Her status as Nazi Germany’s nightmare du jour scored her an invitation to the Oval Office in 1942. Dispatched to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe, she was the first Soviet citizen to be received at the White House. Stalin didn’t regret his decision: Pavlichenko and the Roosevelts got along famously. After their official meeting, the First Lady asked the Ukranian-born lieutenant to accompany her on a tour of the country. The “girl sniper” caused a media frenzy. When the press grilled her on her makeup habits and frumpy uniform, Pavlichenko put them in check:
I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.