"Lady Death" and The First Lady

February 23, 2022 Posted by: Eric Faeder
Lyudmila Pavlichenko wanted to be a teacher.  Instead, she became the most successful female sniper in history.  Born in what is now Ukraine, Lyudmila and her family moved to Kiev when she was fourteen.  A self-described tomboy who was fiercely competitive and enjoyed sports, she joined a shooting club and became an accomplished sharpshooter, earning the Voroshilov Sharpshooter badge and marksman certificate.  She took a job at the Kiev Arsenal factory and attended night school before enrolling at Kiev University in 1937.  She studied history there, intending to be an educator, and was a member of the school’s track team.  Also, she enrolled in a Red Army sniping school while attending university.

Lyudmila was in her fourth year studying history at Kiev University when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.  She was among the first round of volunteers to enlist at her local recruiting office army.  Initially pressured to be a nurse, she used her background as an amateur sharpshooter and her awards to join the infantry and become a sniper.  The principal battles she fought in were the Siege of Odessa (August-October 1941) and the Siege of Sevastopol (October 1941-July 1942).  She quickly proved her skills under fire.  During the Siege of Odessa, she recorded 187 kills.  In the Siege of Sevastopol, she skilled 257 enemy soldiers.  At this point, her skills were renowned within her own army, as well as the German army.  More dangerous missions were assigned to her as a result. These included counter sniping; one such duel lasted three days.  The German army attempted to bribe her to defect by offering chocolate.  Later, they threatened her via loudspeaker to dismember her into amounts equal to each of her kills.  Lyudmila was happy to hear that the enemy accurately knew her kill number.  By the time she was wounded by a mortar shell in June 1942, she had been promoted to lieutenant, trained other snipers, and had 309 confirmed kills, all by the age of 25.

A young woman in a white shirt stands in sunlightLyudmila Pavlichenko (Library of Congress)

In 1942, Lyudmila was sent to North America at the behest of the Soviet Union to drum up support for the allies to open a second front against Nazi Germany.  She became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. president when Franklin Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House.  Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to tour the U.S. and talk about her experiences, and during the tour, the two struck up a friendship.  Unfortunately, the press did not take her seriously.  In a 1942 Time magazine interview she stated, "I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don't they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish, and do I curl my hair? One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat.”  In due time she would find her voice, famously admonishing sexist reporters in Chicago with: “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now.  Don’t you think gentleman, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”  The crowds roared in support.  She toured England as well before returning to the Soviet Union.  Eleanor Roosevelt would say of Lyudmila “There is something very charming to me about the young Russian woman, Junior Lieutenant Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She has suffered… and is suffering something which is universal and binds all the world together regardless of language.”

A man in a suit stands next to a young woman in an army uniform and an older woman
Justice Robert Jackson, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, and Eleanor Roosevelt during Pavlichenko's press tour of the United States (Library of Congress) 

After the war, Pavlichenko finished her education and began a career as a historian, later becoming a research assistant for the Soviet Navy.  Eleanor Roosevelt visited her in 1957 during a trip to the Soviet Union.  Lyudmila Pavlichenko passed away in 1974.  She was one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red Army and one of 500 who survived. She was also the only one of these women who received the Hero of the Soviet Union award, the highest award in the Soviet military, while she was still alive.  Though some estimate it to be higher, Pavlichenko’s confirmed kill count of 309 makes her one of the most successful snipers in modern warfare. A part of her legacy is the Woody Guthrie song “Miss Pavlichencko.”


"Army & Navy- Lady Sniper." Time. September 28,1942. http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,773683,00.html.

Dean, Mack. LYUDMILA PAVLICHENKO. February 16, 2021. http://www.worldwar2facts.org/lyudmila-pavlichenko.html

Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day, September 3, 1942," The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition (2017), accessed 2/23/2022, https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1942&_f=md056281.

The National World War II Museum. "'Lady Death' of the Red Army: Lyudmila Pavlichenko." March 22, 2021. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/lady-death-red-army-lyudmila-pavlichenko

Rejected Princess. "Lyudmila Pavlichenko: The Deadliest Female Sniper in History." Accessed February 23, 2022. https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/lyudmila-pavlichenko

Last updated: February 23, 2022

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