Of all the fierce Ukrainian warriors who have grabbed the world’s attention as they battle the current Russian invasion, one of the most unusual (and deliberately unsung) is a female Ukrainian Marine sniper known to the outside world only as “Charcoal.”
Here at home in the U.S., the stealthy world of the sniper has traditionally been a male-only domain — in fact, the American military only trained and graduated its first female sniper in 2021. But in Ukraine, female warriors of this most lethal kind spring from a long tradition, the most famous of those being World War II’s Lyudmila Pavlichenko, credited with 309 Nazi kills in eastern European battles.
This is Pavlichenko’s story.
Never One to Be Outdone
Born in Ukraine in 1916, she moved to the city of Kyiv with her family at 14. A self-described tomboy, she was “unruly in the classroom” and fiercely competitive, refusing to be outdone by anyone — especially “any boy.” After a neighbor’s son boasted of his shooting ability, she joined a paramilitary youth sporting group that taught rifle skills, setting out “to show a girl could do just as well.” Not only did she do just as well, she honed her skills to become an amateur marksman, earned a Voroshilov Marksman badge and her marksman certificate.
But at 15, with two years of high school to go, she found herself pregnant, a situation she described as “the end of the world…a voluntary blindness and loss of reason. Such was my first schoolgirl love.” Though she married Alexei Pavlichenko and gave birth to their son, the marriage failed and she returned to live with her parents, attending night school to complete her high school studies and working by day as a metal grinder at a munitions factory. She enrolled at Kyiv University in 1937, where she studied history, fully expecting to become a teacher and a scholar, and competed on the university’s track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter. She also found time to attend an elite sniper school run by the Soviet military.
Operation Barbarossa Nazi Invasion
She was 24 and in her fourth year of studies in June 1941 when Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. Pavlichenko was among the first eager round of volunteers at the Odessa recruiting office, where she specifically asked to join the infantry. The male registrar turned her down, urging her instead to become a nurse. Needless to say, Pavlichenko wasn’t having it.
After completing basic training, she was assigned to the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, becoming one of 2,000 female snipers, of whom only 500 survived the war. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the only one of those 500 to receive the Hero of the Soviet Union award, the military’s highest honor, while she was still alive.
187 Kills and Love in the Trenches
She fought on the front line for two and a half months during the Siege of Odessa, earning a documented 187 kills, and was promoted to Senior Sergeant in August of that year. At 25, she married fellow sniper Alexei Kitsenko. Sharing a trench, the newlyweds spent the first few days of their marriage hunting Nazis. As Pavlichenko recalled, “the honeymoon had a positive effect on my shooting.” But the honeymoon came to an end in March of 1942 when Kitsenko was mortally wounded by a mortar shell and died several days later. Now the war was personal for Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
When the Romanian Army gained control of Odessa in October of 1941, her unit was withdrawn to Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. There, she trained other snipers who killed over 100 Axis soldiers during the siege of Sevastopol. In May of 1942, newly-promoted Lieutenant Pavlichenko was cited for killing 257 Axis soldiers.
Sniper Duels & “Lady Death”
The higher the number of her kills, the more dangerous her assignments became, including engaging in duels with enemy snipers. Never one to be outdone, Pavlichenko won every duel she fought, including one lasting 3 days, holding her position for 15-20 hours at a stretch. In the end, she calmly stated her Nazi stalker made “one move too many,” becoming one of the 36 enemy snipers she took down.
Her total of confirmed kills during World War II was 309, including those 36 Axis snipers, making Lyudmila Pavlichenko the most successful female sniper in recorded history.
She was known as “Lady Death” for her ability with a sniper rifle. But in June of 1942, she was hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell and evacuated by submarine from Sevastopol to Moscow, spending a month in the hospital. Once recovered, she was withdrawn from battle by the Soviet High Command, who
saw her as too valuable an asset.
By then, the German Army knew “Lady Death” all too well. They tried to bribe her, blaring messages over radio loudspeakers: “Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.” But when the bribe of all the chocolate she could eat failed, the messages became threatening, one stating, “If we catch you, we will tear you into 309 pieces and scatter them to the winds!” Unfazed, Pavlichenko was just happy the enemy got her tally of recorded kills right. Once she was fully recovered, she was given her a new role — that of public spokesperson for the Red Army, and a trip to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Soviet Union Propagandist
A living legend at the age of 25, battle-hardened, wounded four times, and speaking very little English, Pavlichenko set off for a publicity tour as part of the Soviet Union’s attempt to convince its allies to open a second front against Nazi Germany. She was the first Soviet citizen received by a U.S. president when Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to accompany her on a tour of the country to tell American audiences about her experiences as a woman in combat. She accepted the First Lady’s offer and the two became fast friends.
Standing awkwardly next to her translator, she spoke before thousands of Americans who came to see a battle-hardened woman in uniform. But she was never taken seriously by the American press. She was dubbed the “Sevastopol Amazon” and considered a curiosity or, worse, a traitor to her sex as seen through the male gaze. The New York Times referred to her as the “Girl Sniper,” noting her uniform had a “lack of style.” And one reporter asked if women were allowed to wear makeup on the frontlines, to which Pavlichenko shot back, “Who has time to think of a shiny nose when there is a battle raging?”
Sniping at the Press
Meeting with reporters in Washington, she was amazed by their ridiculous questions, recalling, “one reporter criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying American women wore shorter skirts and, besides, my uniform made me look fat.” Having had enough of the press’s sniping, she returned fire: “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women, what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
The American press found her responses blunt and unemotional. But once she found her voice, she held audiences spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion of her homeland, and her amazing combat career. And in doing so, she never failed to drive home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight. It was in Chicago she fired back: “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” After a moment of stunned silence, the audience burst into an uproar of support.
Charlie Chaplin and a First Lady
She spoke at factories, attended dinners and galas, led sharpshooting demonstrations for American sharpshooters, raised money for the Red Army, and rubbed elbows with luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. After four months, she returned to Moscow ready to fight. But having been made an officer, she was too valuable an asset to send back into the fray, so she was given the post of sniping instructor for the next wave of Red Army sharpshooters, a position she held until 1944. In 1943 she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet union as well as the Order of Lenin (twice), the highest civilian decoration awarded by the Soviet Union.
When the war ended, she returned to Kyiv University to finish her education and became a historian, just as she had once planned. From 1945 to 1953 she was a research assistant at Soviet Navy headquarters. Four years later, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Soviet Union, refusing to leave Moscow without seeing her good friend, Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
In 1974, Pavlichenko died of a stroke at the young age of 58. She had suffered for years from depression and PTSD while battling alcoholism. She was cremated, her ashes enurned in the columbarium of the Novodevichye Cemetery in Moscow.
Popular Culture Icon
Today Lyudmila Pavlichenko is celebrated as a military hero and the most successful female sniper in recorded history. Two commemorative Soviet postage stamps were printed in her honor — one in 1943 at the close of her fabled battle career, the second in 1976 after her death. She has also been celebrated in popular culture. American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song in 1942 called Miss Pavlichenko as a tribute to her war record that was released as part of The Asch Recordings.
“Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame,
Russia’s your country, fighting’s your game.
The whole world will always love you for all time to come,
Three hundred Nazis fell by your gun.”
More recently, she was the subject of a 2015 movie released in Russia and Ukraine, “Battle for Sevastopol,” which was among the top 100 most-viewed movies on Amazon in 2017. It was a romanticized version of Pavlichenko’s life based loosely on her memoirs, the first English version of which was published in 2018 as part of Greenhill Books’ Sniper Library series.
Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper offered a fascinating view from the trenches of World War II. Never one to discuss her feelings, Pavlichenko wrote in amazing detail about her missions, military maneuvers and even the mechanics of military rifles; yet she glossed over her two marriages and the birth of her only son. When she died before finishing her manuscript, her daughter-in-law stepped in to oversee its completion.
Today the world watches in horror as war unfolds in the Ukraine, agonizing about what to do when confronted with a fascist. But for Lyudmila Pavlichenko, it would have been a no-brainer: “If you don’t kill them at once, you’ll have no end of trouble.”
Note: Most sources credit her with 309 kills based upon her claims and official Soviet accounts. But today’s historians have questioned that number, with Russian historian Oleg Kaminsky questioning many feats attributed to her by analyzing her contradictory claims and timelines of events. But other sources indicate her score could actually be higher, since witnesses were required for every confirmed kill.