Roza had a bold, adventurous character – perhaps a bit of a chip on her shoulder. As her primary school teacher A. Makarin recalled: “Prickly, like a thorn bush. Always fighting back against the bullies. At play, always that same vice: like a barefoot whirlwind.”
It would, first, be somewhat incorrect to classify Roza’s childhood as hardscrabble or impoverished. Her father, Yegor, was an old Bolshevik, joining the party in 1917. He was a party organizer and director for several communes in the Ushti River area. By those measures, a successful and influential man. Second, despite the common assertion, it would probably be incorrect to say that Roza’s parents disapproved of her education. All three of her older brothers had gone to secondary school in the city. According to Roza’s younger brother Marat, their careers and education were a source of great pride for their father. It is clear, then, that he was hardly the sort of father who would forbid his daughter from going to school.
It is also clear, though, that Roza chose to leave her parents’ home on her own terms. She walked well over 200km to the nearest train station, arrived in Arkhangelsk with no money or possessions, arrived two months before the school term began, and before enrolling or passing entrance exams. Additionally, she received no financial support from home when the student living stipends were revoked after the outbreak of war. A coworker remembered Roza telling one of the students that her father had died in the war, which was not true. Perhaps tellingly, her diary makes just one mention of her father, in passing, on January 14th – “…her father, like mine, nearly kicked her out of the house.” Earlier in the same entry, she writes a summary of a letter to her mother, which is redacted in current publications. In part: “…I don’t remember why, I don’t blame […]…” Perhaps the redacted name was her father?
Once in Arkhangelsk, Roza threw herself into her studies and social life. She exhibited many of the qualities evident in her diary. Her friend at the time, A.G. Maleysheva, recalled that Roza had no patience for rude men, or men who offended her. She also remembered an occasion at 2 or 3AM when Roza, out well past curfew, had her friends make a rope out of bed sheets so that Roza could sneak back into the dorms.
The beginning of the war was clearly hard on Roza, however. Surely there was the shock of the Soviets’ early defeats – Nazis laying siege to Leningrad, reaching the suburbs of Moscow. All of her brothers except the youngest one were fighting. But there was also her own survival to consider. She began teaching the evening classes at Kindergarten #2 to make ends meet. Her boss, T.V. Kurochkina, remembered a tall, pretty girl with piercing blue eyes, wearing a paper dress at first, and later almost always the same gray flannel dress. She also remembered a girl who was lethargic and weighed-down. In one instance, she poked her head into Roza’s class around 7pm and found the children playing quietly. She discovered Roza in the classroom’s back office, asleep at a desk on a pile of books. Roza had been staying up nearly all night to finish her own school work and plan her kindergarten lessons. Kurochkina made sure Roza’s job at the kindergarten was permanent, and allowed her to eat with the students in the school cafeteria. Food was very expensive and heavily rationed outside the school.
In the months that followed, Kurochkina remembered that Roza cheered up – she pursued hobbies and began to buy a few things for herself. She volunteered at the hospital and read to the patients, read with the parents of her students, enjoyed board games. When the school held a fundraiser for the Red Army the parents in Roza’s group donated 1000 rubles, an enormous amount at the time.
When women became eligible for military service in March of ’42, Roza was too young to serve – just 17. Because of this, and perhaps because she had started to enjoy life in Arkhangelsk again, she did not enlist immediately. Instead, it seems she spent a year studying at the Arkhangelsk Pedagogical Institute, while still working at the kindergarten. She was hardly disconnected from the war effort, though. She volunteered for air raid duty at night, and carried water to help douse the flames from the bombings. By the summer of ’43, however, the call to serve was too strong. Kurochkina remembered that Roza made her promise not to argue, and not try to talk her out of it, and stared with eyes that could “throw sparks off steel.” Roza enlisted on June 22nd, 1943.
On her way to training in Moscow she stopped for a day in Shangaly, near her hometown on the Ushti river. She spent the day with her cousins. In the evening her mother came to visit. For a short time they talked on the porch, and then her mother left. She did not see her father. On the train to Moscow that night, Roza’s cousin Aleksander remembered Roza sitting quietly, looking out the window, and crying.
Roza graduated from sniper training in April, 1944. At a parade in Moscow she met up with her brothers Sergei and Pavel. Their brothers Mikhail and Fyoder had already been killed. After taking a few photos, they went their separate ways. Only Pavel would survive the war. Roza was asked to stay in the sniper training academy as an instructor, but she refused and requested to be sent to the front.