Eleanor Roosevelt Was Friends With A Top Russian Sniper

“We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

In A Nutshell

Eleanor Roosevelt became friends with the most feared female sniper in history, 25-year-old Lyudmila Pavlichenko from the Soviet Union. In 1942, the two women toured the US together as Pavlichenko made the case to the American public that the US should help to open a second front against Germany in Europe during World War II. Pavlichenko described her combat experiences, which were so legendary that the Germans had tried to bribe her to join their side. Pavlichenko considered it a point of pride that the Nazis knew exactly how many German soldiers she had killed.

The Whole Bushel

Eleanor Roosevelt became a forceful woman as an adult, working tirelessly to help people in need. She redefined the role of First Lady from a social secretary to a social activist, championing the rights of women and African Americans before it was fashionable. She gave press conferences, wrote a newspaper column and articles for magazines, and asked the public to write her with their problems and their joys. She did everything she could to alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression and World War II.

Even so, the press often overlooked her ideas and accomplishments to ridicule her teeth, her plump figure, and her general lack of style. So it was no surprise to Mrs. Roosevelt when 25-year-old Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most successful female sniper in history, visited from the Soviet Union in 1942 and was promptly ridiculed for her lack of style in the press. Mrs. Roosevelt had asked Pavlichenko to tour the US with her and tell the public stories of her combat experiences. But it seemed that everywhere she went, Pavlichenko was asked why she didn’t wear makeup or more stylish clothes. (You know, since those things are so relevant to her battlefield experience.)

Finally, she’d had enough. In a statement to Time magazine, she said: “I wear my uniform with honor. 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.”

Like her newfound friend, Mrs. Roosevelt, Pavlichenko found her voice in the public eye. As a decorated lieutenant in the 25th Rifle Division of the Red Army, Pavlichenko had been sent by her government to raise support for opening a second front in Europe during World War II. Joseph Stalin wanted to weaken the German forces by dividing their focus. With 309 confirmed kills, most of them German soldiers, the 25-year-old was the perfect person to talk about combat experiences with authority. She’d also been wounded four times while fighting.

As she described the effects of the German attacks in her country and her commitment to fighting, she not only made the case for women going to war, but also for the US joining the fight against the Nazis in Europe. Pavlichenko had tricked her way into the army because they didn’t take women at that time. She proved herself by killing two Romanians who were German sympathizers with two quick rifle shots.

When she went into a real battle for the first time, she was too scared to do anything. When a young comrade was killed right next to her by German gunfire, she found her resolve. Pavlichenko said that nothing could stop her after that. That same day, she made the first two kills of her official 309 when she shot two German soldiers who were scouting the region.

She was so accurate and deadly that she was put on countersniping duty, the most dangerous assignment of fighting duels with German snipers. She won them all.

Pavlichenko was so feared that the Nazis would blast messages to her over their loudspeakers, offering her bribes of chocolate and a German officer position if she would switch sides. When she didn’t respond, the Germans threatened to rip her into 309 pieces, which made her proud because they knew exactly how many Germans she had killed.

Eventually, the Soviets promoted her to lieutenant and reassigned her to train new snipers. A short time later, she went to the US for her public tour with Mrs. Roosevelt. Pavlichenko admitted that she felt no negative emotions about killing Nazis. To her, they were like prey. She felt that if she left them alive, the German soldiers would kill innocent people. To kill the Nazis first was to save lives.

As Pavlichenko grew bolder with the US crowds, she began to win them over, sometimes causing them to shout their support. Woody Guthrie, an American folk singer, even composed a song about her. When she returned home, Pavlichenko was promoted again and received her country’s highest award. The second front in Europe took two years to happen after her tour, but the Allies finally won the war.

Pavlichenko wouldn’t see Eleanor Roosevelt again until 15 years later, in 1957. As soon as the two women could get out of view of Soviet minders, they laughingly reminisced about their time together so long ago. It was an unlikely friendship, but apparently, an enduring one.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Smithsonian: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper
National Women’s History Museum: Eleanor Roosevelt
HistoryNet: Eleanor Roosevelt