The Short Daring Life of Lilya Litvyak

2tfx2vr-1024x679Edward White at Paris Review:

During her several months of training, Litvyak took every opportunity to assert her individuality. First, she refused to have her light brown curls cut short like all the other recruits. When she finally relented, she got hold of peroxide to bleach her hair white-blonde. When handed her standard-issue uniform, she customized it with a glamorous fur collar, an offence for which she was, briefly, arrested. It may seem odd that Litvyak felt so free to express her sense of agency given that she was forever being watched, not only by her military superiors, but by agents of party and state. Yet, despite the horrors it brought, many Soviet citizens experienced the war as an oasis of (relative) freedom, when one could speak and act without worrying about toeing the party line. “To think,” the writer Nadezhda Mandelstam acidly remarked to her friend Anna Akhmatova, “that the best years of our life were during the war when so many people were killed, when we were starving, and my son was doing forced labor.” Ivakina branded Litvyak “a swanky, flirtatious, aviatrix.” It was meant to be a lacerating indictment, but if she’d been asked to describe herself in three words, Litvyak might’ve plumped for the same ones.

Despite Ivakina’s reservations, Raskova felt that Litvyak’s obvious flaws were outweighed by her instinctual brilliance in the air. It was a rare gift that no amount of training could provide. Nothing threatened Litvyak’s place in Air Group 122, not even the revelation that she had lied on her application form and grossly overstated her experience as a pilot .

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