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.


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 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.


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.

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.

Friends and Comrades

Alexandra Ekimova: Sasha married Vovka Emelyanov during an informal ceremony in the Katyusha unit in early January, 1945. Shortly thereafter, Vovka’s katyusha unit was reassigned to another part of the front and they were separated. He was given leave to see Sasha for International Women’s Day on March 8th, but arrived to find that Sasha had been killed on February 26th.

Sasha was normally paired with Kaleria Petrova, but Kalya was ill the morning of the 26th. Dusya Kekesheva took her place. Shortly after arriving at their trench, Sasha and Dusya were ambushed by a group of Nazis who cut their throats. Dusya was found in their trench and Sasha was found a short distance away – Kalya believed she had tried to escape.

Kalya and her friends brought the bodies back to their dugout and held a funeral the following day. Unlike so many other Soviet casualties, Sasha and Dusya were buried in coffins with full military honors.

Kaleria Petrova: Kalya was “mobilized” after she completed secondary school. She worked at an arms factory in Penza – her father and sister were already in the army. Work in the factory was dangerous and brutal – long hours, no days off, minimal rations. It was common for girls to pass out while running the machines. She worked for a year, and then ran away. Since she was technically part of the military while working in the factory, this qualified as desertion. Her father had served in the Tsar’s army during the Russian Civil War, and it was something of a miracle that he had not been killed during the purges. The family was still, however, under surveillance by the NKVD. To keep her daughter out of prison, Kalya’s mother got her accepted as a volunteer in the Red Army’s new sniper program.

Kalya’s first partner at the front was Masha Schvarts. Masha was killed by a Nazi sniper while returning to their dugout one winter’s day. Since no new partner was available, she was reassigned to the 1138th Infantry Regiment, where she met Roza and Sasha.

Kalya saw the East Prussian Offensive through to Konigsburg, after which she was reassigned to the Japanese front. There she worked as a telephone operator until the end of the war. She returned to Moscow, got a degree in hydrology, and spent the rest of her life as an academic. She died in 2014. Her memory proved “golden” until the end, and she was able to vividly recount life in the army.

Dusya Kekesheva: In February of 1945 she was pregnant and due to be reassigned off the front lines. She was killed before this could happen. She was 21.

Valya Lazarenko: Little is known about her life beyond what Roza wrote. She was born in 1925, and Kalya remembered that she was killed late in the war.

Vladimir Emelyanov: Vovka returned to his unit after learning of Sasha’s death. He was wounded in April, 1945, and died on the 5th. Kalya inherited his things.

Vinogradova, Lyuba. Avenging Angels. New York: MacLehose Press, 2017. [Citing interviews with Kalya Petrova]

Ipatova, N.V.; Istomin, A.A.; Mamonov, V.P. Brave Girl from Usti. Arkhangelsk: Usti Regional Museum, 2016. [in Russian]

Alexievich, Svetlana. The Unwomanly Face of War. New York: Random House, 2017.

What Happened to Anya Nesterova and Lyuba Tanailova

In late November, 1944, while fighting in Lithuania, a few girls from Roza’s platoon were stationed at a lookout post with some other soldiers. It was a very foggy morning, making any sharpshooting or observation impossible. The girls passed the time in conversation. A Nazi reconnaissance group managed to get to their trench through the fog and grabbed four girls: Anya, Lyuba, Dusya Kekesheva, and Dusya Shambarova. As the Nazis took them away, Anya and Lyuba shouted back to their trench to open fire – her comrades did not, as they feared hitting them. Then one of the Nazis stepped on a mine – Kekesheva was able to get free and run back to the trench. Shambarova was hit by shrapnel and fell to the ground, playing dead until the Nazis were out of sight. She had surgery to remove the shrapnel, but never recovered and died shortly after the war.

Anya and Lyuba were featured in a Nazi propaganda leaflet dropped on the Soviets in December, 1944, but the rest of the story would not be known until much later. After interrogation, the two were taken to a Nazi concentration camp. Anya died a short while later, but Lyuba survived until the Americans liberated the camp in 1945. However, she was not yet free. The Soviet army considered surrender or capture tantamount to treason; clearly, surviving Nazi captivity meant that one had collaborated willingly with their captors. Lyuba was transferred from the concentration camp to a Soviet prison camp. After serving her sentence, she was sent to internal exile in Kazakhstan. When the political climate finally relaxed in the 1960s, she was allowed to return to work at her childhood collective farm in Chelyabinsk.1

One of the innumerable tragedies of WWII, and of course every war, is that those who fought often must continue fighting after the war is over. The Soviet demands on their troops produced acts exceptional heroism, and near superhuman feats of endurance and survival. These demands, often unreachable ideals, also punished the innocent, and produced what several historians have termed “double-victims.” Understanding this is key to understanding the sacrifices made by so many.

1 Vinogradova, Lyuba. Avenging Angels. New York: MacLehose Press, 2017. p181-185. Vinogradova cites her interview with Kalya Petrova, who recalled the story from the front and had reconnected with Tanailova at a veteran’s reunion in 1970.