"The Russian "Girl" Sniper
Another gem in the WWII treasure trove
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn is a gem in the ever-expanding WWII treasure trove, and I hate to admit that I almost didn’t choose to read it.
WWII books seem to be proliferating as fast as global tensions, and there are so many of them that I’m beginning to suffer a bit of ennui at the idea of reading yet another novel-based-on-truth from the early 1940s. I’m happy I didn’t miss this one. The Diamond Eye is historical fiction based on the real life of Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, a young single mother and student who served as a sniper in Russia after the German invasion of Russia.
Lyudmila was one of the first female snipers in the Russian army and was eventually celebrated as a war hero by the American press, but she was NOT the only woman sniper. Russia accepted women into its ranks, including 2000 female snipers over the course of the war. (By the end of the war, only 500 survived.) While women in the Russian army did suffer sexual harassment and prejudicial attitudes, they played a crucial role in the survival of Russia against the brutal Nazi attacks. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of the most famous and notable female snipers.
The “female sniper’s” story
At the age of fifteen, Lyudmila “Mila” Belova was seduced by a much older surgeon, Alexei Pavlichenko, who got her pregnant. Mila’s father insisted they marry, but Pavlichenko was a terrible husband and absent father, so Mila moved back with her family who took care of her son while she pursued her studies at University, which included completing courses in shooting and certification in marksmanship.
The day Germany invaded Russia, Mila was in her final year of school, but she gave it up to be one of the first people at the recruiting office, believing she had to keep her country safe for her son. While the officers urged Mila to become a nurse, she held firm and was assigned to a rifle division. Soon, she proved herself by shooting two Romanian officers and started a long string of sniper-shot men in the German army. Eventually, she logged 309 official kills.
In between battles, Mila fell in love with her commanding officer, Alexei Kitsenko, and they began a fervent love affair. They wanted to marry, but since Mila had been unable to divorce her first husband, they were “married” only in their own minds. But it was a short period of happiness. Kitsenko was killed by a mortar shell, and after Mila got over the shock, she was even more committed to killing her foes, the people who had murdered her husband.
Mila Pavlichenko kept fighting, ending the war with a tally of 309 official kills.
The propaganda tour
When the Soviet Union was struggling to fight the German Army, they wanted the United States to lend soldiers and aid. To get American support, the Russians sent a delegation of war heroes to meet with politicians in cities all over the nation, pleading for their aid.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a member of that delegation. Appearing at the White House, Lyudmila was frustrated by the frivolous questions of the press who obviously didn’t understand that she was a real soldier fighting very real battles.
First lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, recognized Mila’s strength of character and took her under her wing, coaching her on how to make the Americans understand. The two women of different ages and different nationalities became friends for life, and Mila traveled all over the country winning Americans to her side. She helped convince Franklin Delano Roosevelt to aid Russia in a “second front.”
The appeal of truth in fiction
Historical fiction has the advantage of telling a story instead of just repeating the facts. If I had read a paragraph or two about Lyudmila Pavlichenko in a textbook, I would have thought, “Wow. That’s cool.” But reading her whole story woven into the web of battlefront strategy and life and death situations made the details of her life more memorable and meaningful, making me want to shout to the world, “She was amazing! Women rock the world! Bravery has no gender!”
I once wrote that “We Need a Veracity Scale for Historical Fiction.” If my idea is ever considered, Kate Quinn’s novel will score very high on the veracity scale. The events are taken from Pavlichenko’s memoir, newspaper accounts, Eleanor Roosevelt’s notes, and state records. In the author’s note, Quinn discusses the modifications she made to the actual timeline, which characters are real, and what historical points of contention might be.
The accuracy of her count
Kate Quinn’s book, The Diamond Eye, is based on fact and includes vast amounts of historical research, including Mila’s memoir.
Research, however, doesn’t always agree. Some sources contest the 309 count credited to Mila Pavlichenko, believing the numbers to be inflated or impossible. Some say that Mila’s memoir isn’t entirely accurate, written after the war with blurred memories. One particular point of contention is the fact that Mila claims to have belonged to a unit of snipers, but officially, a sniper unit wasn’t formed until later. However, as Quinn suggests in her author’s notes, it’s possible that the first group of snipers was loosely formed in the early stages of the war before the official unit was developed.
While we might not ever know Mila’s exact count or the verbatim conversations between Mila and Eleanor Roosevelt, we know that she killed hundreds of Nazi soldiers, that she came to America on a goodwill tour, and that she and Mrs. Roosevelt became lifelong friends.
Justice Robert Jackson, Lyudmila Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942. Photo: Library of Congress
Why you should read “The Diamond Eye”
You should definitely read this book if you appreciate the strength and courage of women. If you…
· like World War II history
· have ever wondered about the habits of a wartime sniper
· believe in friendship
· understand the ecstasy of love and the devastation of loss
· feel the power of a mother’s love
· are inspired by courageous, resilient, strong, intelligent women
Not only was this book about the role of a female in the Russian military, but it was also about the war from Russia’s perspective.
To get a fuller picture of the Russian front, pair this with The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, a story of two sisters and the misery of the Russian people during Hitler’s siege on Leningrad.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s is a story worth telling, a representative sample of the bravery of thousands of women trying to protect their country. It’s beautifully written and mostly true.
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