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How could a quiet bookworm become a ruthless female sniper?

A Historian-turned-Sniper

Nicknamed “Lady Death” by the Nazis, Lyudmila Pavlichenko is a historian-turned-sniper who is so good at her craft that she tallies 309 Nazi deaths in the space of about 10 months.

But Mila (as she is usually known) is not arrogant about this. She is only doing her duty. “I serve the Soviet Union,” she says more than once in response to praise for her actions.

Like so many of her age (she was born in 1916), Mila has to abandon her plans to become a historian and embark on a totally new life when Nazi Germany declares war on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. 

Mila, then about 24 or 25, has a son who is about 9 or 10 years old. Yes, she thinks she made a colossal mistake when at 14 or 15, she was seduced by a much older man, who abandoned her. But Mila has family, a mother, a father, and an older sister named Valentina. Mila’s parents take her in and Mila works so hard to make her son proud of her, doing a factory shift by day and taking classes at Kyiv University by night so that she can graduate with a Ph.D. in history. 

The Nazis declare war on the Soviet Union 22 June 1941

Then fate intervenes and Mila, a proud Soviet citizen, joins up immediately. Already, she is an accomplished marksman, having taken classes and gained certificates. Needless to say, the men wearing military uniforms cannot believe that a (gasp!) woman could actually be a sniper, and they keep suggesting that she serve in the medical ward. 

But Mila does NOT want to do that. She wants to use her sharpshooting skills, and eventually, she gets the men to listen to her.

Mila the Sniper

An example of a compelling cover that captures the feel of the story.

In her novel about Lyudmila Pavlichenko, The Diamond Eye, author Kate Quinn gives us a detailed and thrilling account of what a sniper must do in order to be successful. I found this fascinating as I had no idea about the effort involved in selecting the right place to wait, how to prepare the rifle, how to prepare yourself, and how to keep calm when actually shooting someone dead. (Mila likes to aim right between the eyes.)

MIla seems so invincible at this point in the story. Apparently, most snipers last about two weeks, because after they’ve been discovered the Germans throw heavy mortar rounds at them. But Mila – although she has a couple of near misses -manages to survive.

Tragedy

Real heartbreak comes when she falls passionately in love with her superior, the lieutenant commander of the company Alexei Kitsenko. They spend three blissful weeks together, until one day, in early March, Alexei decides that it is such a beautiful day they should have breakfast outside.

Oh, dear. Mila must have wished so often that she had NOT agreed to this idea. For as they were sitting outside, enjoying each other’s company, the Nazis opened up and they were surrounded by flying debris. Alexei threw himself on top of Mila, saving her life. She escaped without any serious injury. But Alexei Kitsenko was not so lucky. One of his arms was nearly blown off (and subsequently had to be amputated.) Flying slivers of wood made their way into his lungs. He died in Mila’s arms the very next day.

Epilogue

According to Ms. Quinn, Mila never got over the death of this love of her life. Not only did she suffer from PTSD, hearing loss, and other physical disabilities due to her time at the front, but the loss of Alexei Kitsenko led to a festering depression and alcoholism. 

How tragic that such a magnificent woman was brought so low by being asked to do too much for her country. Mila Pavlichenko finally succumbed in 1974, dying at age 58,

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