The Fighting Girlfriend

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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The United States got into World War II relatively late, but when it did, it was all hands on deck. Large numbers of young men shipped off to the European and Pacific theaters to fight, leaving a labor vacuum at home. Traditional gender roles in the workforce made way for necessity, and women often picked up the mantle typically carried by men at the time, taking factory jobs and giving rise to the “Rosie the Riveter” ideal.

In Eurasia, however, things were decidedly more f*cked up. With the Eastern Front bringing Hitler’s army to the Russki motherland, Russian women and kids sometimes had to fill the shoes of their dead fathers, brothers, and husbands. That could mean laboring to support the war machine, but it could also mean sniping SS officers and whipping molotov cocktails at half-tracks.

When Mariya Oktyabrskaya’s husband was killed by the Germans, she didn’t join the war effort by swinging a hammer or sickle, and her rage was too big for small arms like the Mosin-Nagant rifle. Mariya instead sold all her stuff, donated her life savings to the Red Army, and wrote a letter to Stalin asking for two things in return: a tank, and orders to drive that tank to the front lines. Uncle Joe said, “Da.”

Mariya Don’t Serf

Fun fact: The photographer for this photo
told Mariya to “smile.” He’s dead now.

Mariya (née Vasilyevna) was born in 1905 on the Crimean Peninsula as—get this—a serf. Just for context, that basically means Mariya was born into the “medieval slave” social class in f*cking 1905. Let’s say Mariya wanted to take a walk to—nope, tough sh*t, her feudal lord said she couldn’t leave. In 1905. Not to belabor the point, but that was the 20th century. Also, Mariya had nine siblings. I’m guessing food wasn’t necessarily an everyday thing for the Vasilyevna kids.

So, Mariya was a 12-year-old medieval peasant living in the Russian Empire when communism happened (the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917) and she got into it pretty hard. I can’t say I blame her: if a social revolution rolls around and you’re currently at “serf” level in the status quo system, you gotta go for that revolution. It’s not like she was working retail, then jumped ship from capitalism—she was an accessory to a piece of land.

Compared to serfdom, being a communist was pretty sweet. Freed from indentured bondage, Mariya was educated and employed—first working in a cannery, and later as a telephone operator. If these sound like dead-end jobs, keep in mind that Mariya’s old gig was basically as an extra from Braveheart, minus the Craft Service table.1

Red Wedding

The year 1922 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union and, three years later, Mariya formed a Soviet union of her own. She married Ilya Oktyabrskaya, a Soviet army officer. I wasn’t around to third-wheel their dates, so I don’t know what the chemistry was like, but they must have done some his-and-her weapons training, because Mariya became a real military nut.

Mariya did everything a Soviet woman could do at the time to get involved with the military: she trained as an army nurse, was a member of the Military Wives Council, received weapons training, and was one of the few women at the time to learn how to drive. For Mariya, if her husband served the Red Army, then so did she. When the couple couldn’t conceive any children, they focused their attention on serving their country.1

Hitler Lies, Ilya Dies

In 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets signed a nonaggression pact which went great for almost two years. In June of 1941, the pact hit a snag when Hitler launched the biggest military invasion in the history of war against the Soviet Union. His goal was to wipe out all the Slavic people who were already living there, ultimately replacing them with German-type folks. It was a surprise attack that, suffice to say, was in breach of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

Mariya’s tank, the Fighting Girlfriend.

The invasion, called Operation Barbarossa, would later become Hitler’s undoing, after the German army was somehow surprised by winter—one of only four regularly occurring seasons on planet Earth (which is where World War II happened), and arguably the one Russia is most known for. Seems to me like a pretty obvious concern, but then I’m not addicted to amphetamines like Hitler was, so I can’t speak to his capacity for critical thinking.2

But I digress. With the Nazi invasion, the war came for Ilya Oktyabrskaya and he went off to the front. Meanwhile, Mariya was shuffled off to Tomsk, Siberia, to keep safe. Ilya was killed shortly after the Nazi invasion began, in August 1941, but Mariya wouldn’t find out for another two years what had happened to her husband—it takes a while for news to reach Siberia.1

Woman on Fire

When Mariya got the news that Ilya had been killed by the Nazis, she did two things. First, she went to the bank and made a hefty deposit. Second, she wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin:

“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings—50,000 rubles—to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.”

Stalin is more famous for his cavalier attitude toward gulags and famine than for being a sympathetic fella. Still, no man is made of stone, and Stalin had a soft spot in his heart for people that were excited to die for him. If this lady wanted to spend all her own money on a one-way trip to hell, bringing every Nazi she could with her, well, that was just fine.

Mariya in 1943.

It was a bit unorthodox, but even the State Defense Committee saw the public relations value Mariya might have for the Soviet war effort. They rolled out a T-34 medium tank, just for Mariya.

Perhaps because she would be such a high-profile tank driver, Mariya had the benefit of a real, five-month course in tank driving, as opposed to the fake bullsh*t course most drivers were rushed through to keep warm bodies at the front line.

Mariya graduated and got to put her treads in the mud as a driver and mechanic for the 26th Guards Tank Brigade, and was immediately ridiculed by her comrades for being a girl and doing guy stuff, like war.

But the fellas didn’t keep Mariya down—she just shoveled that sh*t onto to her tirefire of rage. In a letter to her sister, Mariya wrote: “I’ve had my baptism by fire . . . sometimes, I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”1

Appetite for Destruction

On October 21, 1943, Mariya got the chance to release some of her seething anger in a positive, destructive way. Most of the city of Smolensk had been taken back from the Germans about a month earlier, but there was still some resistance. The Red Army wanted the remaining Nazis outta there, and Mariya was happy (well, mostly angry) to oblige.

Mariya and her Fighting Girlfriend T-34 busted out, killing German soldiers and destroying anti-tank guns and machine gun nests. But there’s a reason tanks are generally considered to be death traps—they’re big targets. Sure enough, Fighting Girlfriend took a hit. Mariya was ordered to stay inside the tank, but she was just so mad at everything in the g*ddamn world that she climbed out of the tank, fixed it (remember: she was also a mechanic), got back in, and kept fighting.

“Drive me closer to the Nazis so I can hit ‘em with this stick.”

Having disobeyed orders, killed a bunch of people, and put herself in grave danger, Mariya had finally won the respect of her male comrades. Her new nickname: “Mother.” Freudian stuff. More important than getting the boys to respect her was the rank up: Mariya made sergeant.

A month later, she gave an encore performance at Novoye Selo in Vitebsk: she used her tank to attack German defensive positions until it was disabled by enemy fire (this time, an artillery shell), hopped out, fixed the damage, then kept the fight going.1

Anger and Vengeance Are Actually Pretty Effective Motivators

Two months after Novoye Selo, Mariya fought her final battle. The same series of events played out: Mariya wiped out German defenses, took damage, and dismounted her tank to make field repairs.

This time, Mariya didn’t get so lucky. After throwing a band-aid on the Fighting Girlfriend, she took a wound of her own. Shell fragments from an anti-tank shell that had impacted several meters way struck Mariya in the head.

Mariya’s tank, the Fighting Girlfriend, outlived its driver, making it to Berlin in 1945.

Like a driver trapped in a disabled tank, Mariya was trapped, comatose, in a broken body for two months. On March 15, 1944, she finally succumbed to her injuries. For her tenacity (and, yes, clearly some anger management issues), she was posthumously designated a Hero of the Soviet Union, which was like the Soviet equivalent of the Medal of Honor.1

Look, it’s not a happy story. But think of it this way: Mariya blew her life savings on the right to drive a tank to the Eastern Front. That’s not something you do if you plan on living for too long. She wasn’t looking to spend the rest of her years as a widow. She wanted to burn out nice and bright, take some Nazis with her, and safeguard her country from genocide. She made all three things happen and, as a bonus, she advanced feminism—even if she was too ripsh*t to notice.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Russell, Shahan. (2015, September 3). Nazis Killed Her Husband, She Bought & Drove a T-34 Then Went On a Rampage. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/amazing-nazis-killed-her-husband-she-bought-drove-a-t34-then-went-on-a-rampage-m.html
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, April 26). German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/German-Soviet-Nonaggression-Pact

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Barnes, Angie. (Accessed May 24, 2018). Meet the Russian Widow Who Took Revenge On The Nazis With Her Very Own Tank. Retrieved from http://boredomtherapy.com/mariya-oktyabrskaya/
  • Blake Stilwell. (2016, August 30). Hell hath no fury like this Russian war widow who bought a tank to fight WWII. Retrieved from https://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/hell-hath-no-fury-like-this-russian-war-widow-who-bought-a-tank-to-fight-wwii
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, April 26). German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/German-Soviet-Nonaggression-Pact
  • Russell, Shahan. (2015, September 3). Nazis Killed Her Husband, She Bought & Drove a T-34 Then Went On a Rampage. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/amazing-nazis-killed-her-husband-she-bought-drove-a-t34-then-went-on-a-rampage-m.html

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