Before the War

Roza Shanina was born on April 3rd, 1924 on a collective farm in the Bogdanovskoy commune, Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Soviet Union.

Shanina’s mother, Anna, was a kolkhoz milkmaid and her father, Yegor, had been a logger, but fought in the army during WWI and was badly wounded in the knee. He joined the Bolsheviks while still recovering in a Moscow hospital. When the dust settled after the revolution, Yegor was made a party organizer and director of the Bogdanovskoy commune. The commune collapsed sometime in the early-mid ’30s, and the family resettled in the village of Yedma. Yegor and Anna had five sons and two daughters, and also adopted three orphans.

roza-young

The public school in Yedma provided Roza with her first four years of school. Getting the next three required moving to the town of Bereznik, 12km away. There, Roza lived with with her aunt Agnes and worked after school in the kolkhoz pigsty.

In 1938, at the age of fourteen, Roza expressed her desire to attend secondary school and study literature. When her parents refused, she ran away. Roza walked over 200km through the taiga forests before reaching a train station in the village of Konosha and traveling to Arkhangelsk. There she lived with her brother Fyoder, before eventually winning entry into the city secondary school. This provided her with a dorm room and a stipend for other living expenses.

roza-teen

Roza as a student in Arkhangelsk.

On June 22nd, 1941, Nazi forces invaded the entire western border of the Soviet Union, opening an 1,800-mile-long front. The Soviet economy was devastated. Free secondary education was discontinued, and the living stipends were revoked. By September, Roza had taken a job at Kindergarten No. 2 in order to pay her tuition. She took classes during the day and taught in the evenings, graduating with honers the following spring. When the Nazis began bombing Arkhangelsk, the only port through which the Soviets could receive supplies from the West, she volunteered for air raid duty on the roof of the kindergarten.

Roza’s brother Mikhail died during the Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in December, 1941. Ultimately, three of her brothers would die in the war. She began tracking down military officers on the school campus, asking permission to serve, and was refused – women were not yet eligible for military service. By the following March, that had changed. The country had sustained devastating loses over the winter. Soviet military leaders believed women’s higher levels of body fat would make them more resistant to cold weather and hunger, and that child birth gave them a naturally high pain tolerance. Their nature as care-givers would make them excellent medics, and their patient temperament would make them good snipers.

Roza enrolled first in the Vsevobuch basic training program, then in the Central Female Sniper Academy. Shanina graduated with honors in April, 1944, and was made a commander in the 184th Rifle Division’s female sniper platoon on the 3rd Belorussian Front. She had just turned 20.

sniper-school-12-24-43-ed-nef

A class photo for the Sniper Academy, 12/24/1943.

In October, 1944, Roza began keeping a diary of her life in the army. This was strictly forbidden and, as such, it is one of only a handful in existence.

October 17-24, 1944

October 17th, 1944

War. Spent the night by Vovik Yemelyanov with Sasha and Kali, but also accidentally got left behind, and was found. Breakthrough of the German border near the city of Naumiestis, Lithuania. Invited to the tanks, was introduced to the tank unit. What good, delicate guys. I’m always known from the newspapers.

Met the artillery guys, who saw 5 of our girls killed at the Neman [river]. They see that our fate is not easy. Again ready to run away to the front, even crying, that is was not allowed. I want, how can I explain? Some force draws me there; I get bored here. Some people think that I’m chasing a boyfriend, but I do not know anyone there. I want to see a real war. Prevented, because I am a platoon commander, or else I would have already gone.

October 18th, 1944

Searched for the Katyushi1, not found. We spent the night in another battery. “Attack”… Break through the border. There met Vanya and the 338th Rifle Division. What a meeting! Separated again. Found a division of ours. Already straying on German territory. Prisoners, killed, wounded. Attacked bunker, took 27 prisoners, 14 officers, hard resistance. Going “home” to my division. I see the division headquarters. Drove up closer to the front. Spent the night by [Sergei] Osmak. He likes me, but he is very prideful, it seems, and that’s why he likes me?

Was with general Kazaryan2, and the political commissar, sincerely cried when I was not allowed to the front, how to explain? Arrived “home” and received a letter from Agnes Butorina. I always remember this girlfriend from grades 5-7 well. She writes that her life is fractured, boring. I believe she has no children, and no other girlfriends in her life. So it will be after the war. It seems to me that whenever I’m sent to the rear, I dream about escaping to the front.

October 20th, 1944.

Yesterday once again ran to the front. There was an attack, but here we stood, entrenched. Rain, mud and cold. Long night; we march on.

October 24th, 1944.

Was in no condition to write. Fought. Went together with everyone. Wounded, killed. I returned with the forward regiment commander. Oh God, how much gossip. I remember I cried in the battalion, resentful, that I was allowed to tell a bad joke. I found it disrespectful. I remember their fallen comrades during this period. I was waiting for the same fate, and here’s my thanks. Even my girlfriends joked ironically. The world is filled with lies. It seems I don’t have the strength to look at the end of life in this lying world.

Got 8 letters from Yashka Gudkov. Because of that I responded with a small one out of courtesy, etc. He does everything for me, expected a photo, and now I get here and I won’t write back. Yashka understands proper army girls.



1 Soviet rocket artillery. Roza’s sniper platoon was working support for a group of Katyushniks.

2 Andranik Kazaryan, Hero of the Soviet Union

Roza’s Character

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.