On an ordinary day in August 1905, Mariya Vasilyevna was born into a destitute Crimean family of twelve. For her fate, being born into poverty simply was not enough. She was born a Crimean peasant – synonymous with a medieval serf, her life was hard from the getgo. Her childhood years were spent in little more than broom closets with unpromised meals and little hope for the future. With ten children to feed, her parents were often starving. The winters were long and unforgiving with tattered clothes, sick siblings, skipped meals and neverending days reaping the fields.
A corrupt Empire on the verge of Antoinette-esque disconnect from its people meant peasants were starving, only becoming poorer on the backs of the Tsar and more than ready for change. Which is why 12 years later, when the Bolsheviks successfully couped the Romanovs and dismantled the Empire in the name of ‘Peace, Land and Bread’, Mariya was all about it.
Only a few years after the October Revolution, in 1922, the USSR was ‘officially’ up and running with Germany’s seal of approval. Being viewed by the Empire as little more than cattle, the Bolsheviks were a saving grace to peasants. Even if they were wolves in sheep’s clothing, the promises of the Soviet Union gave them hope. To the Mariya’s of the world who’d endured centuries of generations of peasantry under the Romanovs, the sickle and hammer was a symbol of change and opportunity to succeed. In no time, the velvet words of Lenin spoke right to her, and she became a proud Soviet woman. Mariya was officially freed from the chains of peasantry, and on her way to an education, employment and eventually, a husband.
By 1925, she had fallen in love with and married Soviet Army Officer Ilya Oktyabrskaya. Like so many other hardened Soviet women, if their husband served, then so did they. Mariya made it her business to know everything there was to know about the military. For most women, this meant learning a few bandage techniques and perhaps joining the Military Wives Council. But not for Mariya. She quickly completed training as an army nurse and become more skilled than her male counterparts on weaponry, strategy, mechanics and all-around badass-ness.
As the years went on and the face of communism changed from a once promising Lenin to Georgian devil incarnate, Josef Stalin – her duty to serve the ‘the motherland’ remained the same. Mariya’s love for the Soviet Union and her people knew no limits to power, leader or politics – she loved her country all the same.
In August of 1939, the world’s two worst people shook hands on a non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. Shortly after, Hitler betrayed (surprise) Stalin and invaded Poland effectively triggering WW2. By the summer of 1941, Operation Barbarossa was in full swing, and Hitler’s dream of repopulating the western Soviet Union with Germans was within reach. Mariya and Ilya were sweating. What would they do? How could they defend the motherland against the Nazis with weapon shortages, starving armies and a disproportionate government? En route to Moscow, the Nazis had strategically inched their way toward Kyiv resulting in Mariya and thousands of other women and children forcibly evacuated to Siberia. Ilya stayed behind.
Nazis came in full force, thoroughly trained, heavily armoured and ready to take the city. Kyiv was surrounded in what would later be remembered as the largest encirclement in the history of warfare. It seemed the Germans were impenetrable. The city of Kyiv was painted crimson with the blood of 600,000 Soviets killed, captured or missing.
One of those 600,000, was Ilya.
Due to the lack of resources and a country in shambles, it took two years for the news to reach Mariya in Siberia.
When she finally received news that Ilya had died in The Battle of Kyiv, she sold all of her belongings and penned a letter to Stalin himself. She didn’t want a Tokarev pistol or a few chances to pull the pin on an RGD-33 grenade – no, her revenge was bigger than that. Mariya wanted a tank.
‘Dear Joseph Vissarionovich! My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings—50,000 rubles—to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.’
Stalin swiftly replied,
‘Comrade. Oktyabrskaya Mariya Vasilievna. Thank you, Mariya Vasilievna, for your concern about the armoured forces of the Red Army. Your desire will be fulfilled. Please accept my greetings. J. Stalin.’
And off she went. The next months were spent pouring her rage into building “Fighting Girlfriend”. In no time she became the most high profile tank operator the Soviet Union had ever seen.
On October 21, 1943, Mariya’s Nazi-killing dreams would finally be brought to life in Smolensk. The city had mostly been taken back by the Soviets, but a few persistent Nazis just. Would. Not. Leave. As you can imagine, she was foaming at the mouth, ready to pitch in.
In a frenzy, Mariya and her Fighting Girlfriend T-34 took the Smolensk by storm obliterating machine-gun nests, anti-tank weaponry and sending Nazis flying into oblivion. Blind with rage, she singlehandedly tore through the city. It was fast, it was bloody, but most of all, it was revenge. Fighting Girlfriend took quite a hit and needed on the spot repairs. Ignoring orders to stand down, Mariya hopped out and repaired the tank right in the middle of battle. Missing gunshots and grenades by inches, she never even flinched – her hatred for Nazis was bigger than her fear of dying.
After the repairs, she hopped back in, wholly unphased and ready to continue.
This bravery inspired by anger and vengeance earned her new nickname by her crew, “Mother” and a new title, Sergeant.
Just a few weeks later, Mariya was back at it in Novoye Selo where she again, went on a Nazi killing spree stopping only to repair Fighting GIrlfriend before continuing. There were no gun-nests too hidden, no nazis too camouflaged nor German artillery concealed that Mariya couldn’t sniff out.
She later wrote to her sister,
“I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”
Sure enough, two months later, her Nazi-slaughtering spree came to a halt at the Leningrad-Novgorod offensive. In Oktyabrska fashion, she crushed the German defence. She did more than aim and fire, she painted the streets red with Nazi blood and stopped for no one. Inevitably, Fighting Girlfriend was damaged again. This time Mariya dismounted the tank for repairs but it would be her last time. Wounded in the head by a nearby shell fragment, her fate was sealed. While she remained comatose for two months before succumbing to injuries, her soul wilted on the battlefield.
In the chaos that surrounded in Mariya’s injury, she still managed to repair the Fighting Girlfriend, which eventually made it all the way to Berlin in 1945. Shortly after her death, she was made a Hero of the Soviet Union for her bravery and in turn, inspired thousands of other Soviet women to also defend their country as bravely and loudly as possible.
It’s clear that Mariya was one Hell of a woman. She was equally as angry and tenacious as she was brave. She, like so many other peasants who survived life under the Empire, had hope, however blind and naive, for the Soviet Union. She dreamed of a better future for herself and for her countrymen. She hoped. She fought. And she contributed bravely. In all respects, Mariya died an avenger, a hero and one angry widow. Despite her injuries and despite suffering what would only be a short term defeat by the Nazis, something tells me she was smiling. She did what she came to do, and that was to avenge her Ilya for the sake of their love for each other and their country.
It’s hard not to imagine what Mariya would think of all that became of the USSR. At the time of her death, Stalin had only just begun wreaking havoc from the inside out. Events like The Holodomor, the Katyn Massacre and manmade famines are just a few things that wouldn’t be fully understood by Soviets for decades. What would she say? What would she do?
Whatever the answer, the truth is, she went down swinging for her country. Sure, her story is sad, but that’s how heroes have it sometimes. She wanted to go out with a bang and take some Nazis with her, and that’s exactly what she did.