Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a Russian sniper known as the most feared female sniper in history, Lyudmila had her heyday during the U.S.-Soviet Union alliance so essential to defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. As one of the 2,000 women eventually trained as snipers for the Soviet Red Army, she was a skilled killing machine and proud to fight for the Allied cause and defend her country.
From the time she joined the Red Army at 24 to the time she stepped down to train other snipers, she killed 309 German soldiers, 36 of them snipers for the Nazis. But her story is more than remarkable numbers. In addition to her shooting record, here are six remarkable facts about the female sniper who came to be known as “Lady Death.”
Scoffed at for being beautiful
As a teenager, Lyudmila participated in OSOAVIAKhIM, a paramilitary sporting organization that taught weapon skills, where she learned and became a master at shooting. Other experiences helped her hone her skills and refine her athletic skills. At one point she had a job at an arms plant, for example, and when she attended Kiev University in 1937 she competed in track as a sprinter and pole vaulter.
When Hitler broke ties with Joseph Stalin in 1941 and started attacking the Soviet Union, Lyudmila immediately dropped out of grad school to join the military and protect her country. This wasn’t a simple feat, however, since her very appearance made the recruiters laugh aloud when she suggested becoming a sniper. They thought she looked like a model and could never take on such physically demanding and brutal work. Her fashionable clothes, up-to-date hairstyle and well-manicured nails reinforced their objections, though she presented her marksman certificate and sharpshooter badge from OSOAVIAKhIM.
Accepted into the Red Army after passing an “audition”
Despite her shooting credentials, recruiters from the military urged Lyudmila to just serve as a nurse. They protested that they were not taking girls in the army. But she persisted and the Red Army eventually agreed to take her in if she passed an audition.
One of the units defending a hill handed Lyudmila a rifle and told her to prove her skills by taking out two Romanians known to be working with the enemy. Pavlichenko picked them off in short shrift, and she was in. If there was ever a doubt about her sheer dedication and larger than life personality, the female sniper always declined to count those first two kills in her total count. She offhandedly described them as “test shots.”
She was the one who fought enemy snipers
Lyudmila was not content with just standard sniping, soon taking on enemy shooters in a technique known as “counter-sniping.” She would engage Nazi snipers in an extended duel where they’d shoot back and forth until one of them died. She never lost one of these epic clashes of will.
German taunting sort of tickled Lyudmila Pavlichenko
The sniper known as “Lady Death” got wounded four times but stayed in her post and kept adding to her record until she took shrapnel in her face. She didn’t leave the Red Army, though. Instead, she helped train new snipers. It was just as well that she was ready to take a home front role because the Germans had become very aware of this sniper who was killing both their soldiers and their own snipers.
The Germans didn’t vow revenge, though. Instead, they tried to cajole her into joining their side. While a lesser woman might have been intimidated, Lyudmila was sort of pleased when the Germans tried to bribe her with chocolate and offers of commissions in the Nazi army. (These messages were blared over radio loudspeakers when the two forces were close enough.) The Germans also taunted her with death threats, and this time it was Lyudmila’s turn to react in an unusual fashion. Instead of being scared that they wanted to tear her into 309 pieces, she was tickled that even her Nazi enemies knew her score.
Lyudmila was once welcomed at the White House
While Pavlichenko was always comfortable with the stealth, marksmanship, and reconnaissance involved in sniping, on a U.S. tour in 1942 she demonstrated a different set of skills. According to Smithsonian magazine, the highly decorated lieutenant came to Washington, D.C. in late 1942 as a visible reminder to Americans that the Soviets needed this country’s support for a “second front” in Europe. She was the first Soviet ever to visit the White House, hosted by President Franklin Roosevelt. His first lady Eleanor Roosevelt followed the visit with a request that Lyudmila take a tour of the U.S. with her and describe her combat experience. Lyudmila Pavlichenko did just that, speaking across the country of her fervent beliefs about women’s call to arms in such drastic times and the case for a U.S. commitment to battling the Nazis.
Friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt persisted into the Cold War era
Lyudmila did eventually resume her studies, completing the Kiev University education that had been derailed by her sniper career. She went from making history to becoming a historian. But her connection to Eleanor Roosevelt never quite disappeared. Fifteen years after the Roosevelt-Pavlichenko tour around America, Roosevelt took a tour of Moscow. The tone was far different than the years from 1941-45 when the Soviet Union and the U.S. banded together to fight the Nazis, though.
With the Cold War in full swing, Eleanor was closely monitored her entire trip. Still, she managed to wrangle a visit to Pavlichenko, then living in a tiny apartment in Moscow. The two observed the formalities at the start of the visit. Later, though, Pavlichenko drew Roosevelt into another room and they had a heartfelt conversation full of laughter, nostalgia and mutual admiration.