Daniel Beer at Literary Review:
In March 1945, with victory over Nazi Germany only weeks away, Pravda praised the nearly one million Soviet women who had fought the Germans and their allies. They had ‘proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners. But they don’t forget about their primary duty to nation and state – that of motherhood.’ In accordance with the official policy of the state, women combatants were henceforth to lay down not only their arms but also their wartime identities. While men were celebrated in the postwar years as frontoviki, frontline soldiers who had made heroic sacrifices to defeat fascism, the contribution of women to the struggle was reduced in popular memory to the traditionally familiar wartime occupations of nursing and cooking.
Drawing on diaries and her own interviews with veterans, Lyuba Vinogradova seeks to recover the experiences of Soviet women combatants from the obscurity to which they were consigned. Vinogradova’s rambling but highly readable Avenging Angels follows snipers from their first days of training and their first kills to their participation in great set-piece battles on the Eastern Front and their eventual deployment in the assault on Berlin. Some became accomplished soldiers who fought in the vanguard of the Soviet army and notched up dozens of confirmed kills. Yet in Vinogradova’s account, their voices are frequently submerged beneath a narrative that cannot decide whether it wants to be an exciting account of the heroic exploits of women in combat or a more reflective meditation on the personal dislocations, exhilarations and traumas of war. The female snipers themselves remain, for the most part, psychologically inaccessible. They fight, suffer the death of comrades, fall in love, participate in fierce battles, witness atrocities and (in some cases) eventually return home, often in a few short paragraphs that tend to summarise rather than illuminate.