World War II was the most devastating and deadliest war in human history. The conflict involved 62 states and more than 80% of the world's population. The hostilities directly affected 40 states and were conducted in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the vastness of all oceans. According to various estimates, the total number of casualties, including the military and civilian population, ranges from 50 to 80 million deaths.
Also, one of the features of the Second World War was the unprecedented involvement of women in hostilities. The leader in the women's participation in the war was the Soviet Union. Women replaced the men who had gone to the front in production and made up the vast majority of the medical staff of military hospitals. But perhaps the most famous were Soviet female snipers. They aroused the admiration of allies and sowed fear among enemies. More than 2,000 Soviet women underwent special training in sniper courses during the war and subsequently went to the front.
Most of them were very young girls, and it's no wonder since youths don't think much about death and have a high degree of social mobility. At 20, it is much easier to leave your home and go to war than, for example, at 40.
Given these circumstances, the story of the sniper Nina Petrova, who volunteered to the front at the age of 48 and became one of only four women to be awarded all three classes of the Order of Glory, seems even more striking. She was credited with 122 kills, making her one of the most successful female snipers. Moreover, as an instructor, she trained 512 snipers during the war.
Nina Pavlovna Petrova (Russian: Нина Павловна Петрова) was born in the Russian Empire on July 27, 1893. In some publications, Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov, Leningrad Region) is indicated as the place of her birth, while other sources say that she was born in Kronstadt. Anyway, the Russian naval officer Pavel Semenovich Deshevov and his wife Varvara Mironovna, in addition to Nina, had four more daughters: Lyudmila, Lydia, Tatiana, and Evgenia. The first three were older than Nina the last one was younger. After some time, their family moved to St. Petersburg. Pavel Semyonovich died there in 1900. So, Nina, to quickly start working and help her mother, completing secondary school, enrolled in trade school. After studying there for three years, in 1912, she left for Vladivostok, where at that time living her older sister Lydia with her family. Nina worked as an accountant during the day and went to school at night. So she managed to graduate without interrupting work. After some time, Nina moved to Revel (now Tallinn, the capital of Estonia), where she worked as a typist at a shipyard.
In 1914, the First World War began, then in 1917, the Russian Revolution took place, followed by the Civil War. These events affected the destinies of the Deshevov sisters in different ways. The eldest of them, Lyudmila, was married to a naval officer Alexander Alexandrovich Shafrov, who fought after the Revolution in the Civil War on the side of the Whites. Following the defeat of the White Army, he and his family emigrated to Belgium. Interesting to say that their daughter, Marina Aleksandrovna Shafrova-Marutaeva, later became a hero of the Belgian resistance during World War II. Nina's other older sister, Lydia, also ended up in Belgium. Another sister, Tatiana, was probably married to a naval officer Nikolai Vladimirovich Vedernikov. He lived in Estonia until 1927, then in France, from where after World War II, he moved to Belgium. About the youngest sister, Evgenia, we only know that she lived during World War II in besieged Leningrad, but whether she survived the siege or not is unknown.
Also, we know very little about where Nina was and what she was doing during that troubled time. She, apparently, not long before the Revolution, got married and took the surname Petrova. And in 1917, she was obviously in Helsinki, Finland, where her daughter Ksenia was born. Then Nina worked as a librarian in Svirstroy, a typist in Lodeynoye Pole in 1924, then as an accountant in Gdov. Despite the worries about raising her daughter and being busy at work, the woman actively participates in public life. Vasily Mizin, in his book Sniper Petrova, quotes a certificate from the military commissar:
"The Red Army soldiers and servicemen of the Lodeiopolsky District Military Commissariat, the 6th Special Forces Company, and the local team bring you deep gratitude for your enthusiastic participation in the organization of our holiday dedicated to the 7th anniversary of the Red October Revolution. Taking upon yourself the lion's share of the worries and hassle of arranging the evening, you brightened up our holiday for many, and for this, accept our deepest Red-Army-soldier's thanks. Lodeynoye Pole, November 11, 1924"
In 1927, Nina finally returned to Leningrad. She found employment as a gym teacher and was active in various sports, including horseback riding, cycling, rowing, swimming, basketball, skiing, hockey, and skating.
However, bullseye shooting became her favorite sport. In 1928, Petrova performed as part of the women's team at the All-Union Summer Spartakiad of the Central Committee of the Labour Union of Local Transport Workers and won first place. For her achievements, she was awarded a personalized small-bore rifle. Then In 1930, Nina Petrova received the title of first-class shooter. And a year later, in April 1931, for first place in the shooting competitions of the Smolninsky district of Leningrad, she was awarded the second personalized rifle. While diligently engaged in shooting, Nina didn't forget about other sports. So, for example, in February 1934, Petrova took first place in a skiing competition at a distance of 5 km. Also, in 1934–1935, Nina was the captain of the women's team in the bandy of the Leningrad military district.
Anyway, bullseye shooting remained her prior hobby. On the advice of her coach and fellow athletes, she entered the city sniper school and successfully graduated in October 1936. Then, working as an instructor, she exceeded the established standards for training Voroshilov Sharpshooters (Russian: Ворошиловский стрелок, was an honorary title and a badge for marksmanship) by 400–450 percent. One of the magazines of 1937 published that in 1936 alone, she released 102 Voroshilov Sharpshooters.
In the summer of 1939, Nina Pavlovna Petrova won another victory. This time in the all-Union cross-country — the forty-six-year-old athlete was the first to break the finish line. Altogether, she had many sports awards: up to 30 diplomas and more than 40 different signs.
The Winter War And The Beginning Of The Great Patriotic War
At the end of 1939, the Winter War began. Petrova couldn't stay at home, she asked to volunteer for the active army, but she was refused every time. However, she was not one to give up after the first setback. Nina Pavlovna managed to join up as a physiotherapy exercises teacher in an evacuation hospital №2015, which was housed in the Military Medical Academy, without interrupting her primary duties. When the Soviet-Finnish armed conflict ended, Nina began to think about sports again. She wanted to try her hand at major competitions. But dreams did not come true: the Great Patriotic War broke out.
After a short family council, Petrova came to the city committee for physical education and sports and put a statement on the chairman's table:
"Please send me to the front. During the Soviet-Finnish war, I worked in a hospital, was awarded valuable gifts, received gratitude. Also, I graduated from sniper school. I am a master of shooting sports and can handle perfectly combat rifles and personal weapons. I ride a bike well and can generally be helpful. June 28, 1941, Petrova"
She was refused. The woman turned to the military commissar then. At first, he also did not want to satisfy her request. But finally, he yielded, and Nina Petrova got to the medical department of the 4th division of the people's militia as a nurse.
In the medical battalion, Nina served until September 1942, when she was transferred to a training battalion to teach snipers. There Petrova proved to be a competent instructor. She was explaining to the students that a sniper is not just a well-aimed shooter. The sniper is a soldier of iron will, excellent health, the kind of person who fights inventively and prudently, cunningly, and even witty. The sniper studies the enemy's habits. It is perhaps the most patient person in the army. For days — in mud and frost, in rain and blizzard — he hunts down the enemy and strikes him for sure.
The study days flowed by; some students were leaving to the front line in their units — others were taking their place. The male groups were replacing the female ones, and this was repeating many times. Nina Pavlovna worked, not sparing herself, but somewhere in the depths of her soul, she felt dissatisfaction. She wanted to go to the front line herself. On the appropriate occasion, Petrova turned to the commander with a report. The battalion commander hesitated for a long time but finally allowed. In December 1942, he temporarily assigned Nina Pavlovna to the first battalion of the 284th Rifle Regiment. There she was given a combat mission.
The soldiers helped her cross the minefield early in the morning when it was still quite dark. Then Petrova had to crawl, sinking deep in the snow. Finding a suitable spot, she set up a firing position and waited, watching the enemy trenches. The time was already approaching noon. And, suddenly, the German's head appeared over the entrenchment for some seconds. Petrova hadn't stirred. She thought, let him wash his face with snow and tell others that everything is alright. After a while, another German leaned out of the trench and began to look around. A shot rang out, and the enemy, dropping his head on the parapet, slid to the bottom of the entrenchment. Immediately after that, enemy mortars opened fire indiscriminately, hoping to destroy the Russian sniper. There was no point in crawling over to the reserve position. The Germans would notice and intensify the fire. So, Senior Sergeant Petrova squeezed deeper into the snow. She lay there until dark and then returned safely. "Everything is alright. I've opened my account," Nina Pavlovna answered the questions of her fellow soldiers.
In early January 1943, Petrova received an order to return to the medical battalion, in which she was still listed at that time. Then she participated in the operation to break the blockade of Leningrad as a nurse. At the end of the same month, when the situation in this front's sector became relatively stable, an order came from the division headquarters to send senior sergeant Petrova to the 169th Rifle Regiment to serve as a sniper instructor. Then, in March, she was transferred to the 284th Rifle Regiment to the same position. Shortly after she arrived at her new duty station was a meeting of the division's snipers. There Petrova was awarded a medal For Military Merit for her tireless work in training snipers. Also, in the award certificate, it was said that, being at the forefront when training snipers, she took the opportunity and destroyed two enemy soldiers.
Soon after the snipers' meeting, Petrova was appointed as a commander of a training sniper platoon. Sniper training for soldiers in the platoon was not always easy. Some students were giving up at the first setbacks and saying that they would never make a sniper. The Senior Sergeant urged them otherwise. For her, there were no incapable students. There were only unskillful who usually got better with honest, selfless work.
Demanding in teaching, Nina Pavlovna always remained kind, courteous, and modest in relations with her comrades, constantly showing concern for others. To wash and mend a uniform, sew on a collar, reheat a cooled-down kettle — Petrova did for her fellow soldiers everything that mother does without hesitation for her children. The soldiers called her — Mama-Nina. At the halts, she joked, sang mischievously, held short conversations. She was respected and loved by both soldiers and officers. Everyone knew where Senior Sergeant Petrova was — there was always order and success.
On June 23, 1943, a sniper competition took place. Nina Petrova became the winner in the individual championship, not making a single miss. For this, she received a ladies wristwatch from a member of the Military Council of the front. Soon after that, in August 1943, she was awarded the rank of Starshina (Russian: Старшина; this is a senior non-commissioned military rank in Russia roughly equal to a NATO OR-8).
On January 14, 1944, the Red Army launched the Leningrad-Novgorod strategic offensive operation with an attack on the German Army Group North by the Soviet Leningrad, Volkhov, and part of the 2nd Baltic fronts. Soviet troops threw the enemy back from the city by 70–100 kilometers and liberated the Moscow-Leningrad Railroad by the end of January. These successes made it possible to declare Leningrad to have been relieved on January 27. In a further offensive, Soviet troops released almost the entire Leningrad region and the western part of the Kalinin region from the enemy. On March 2, 1944, sniper Nina Petrova was awarded the Order of Glory 3rd class for participation in battles for the Leningrad Region liberation.
On July 30, 1944, the 86th Rifle Division crossed the border of the Estonian SSR. The Germans tried desperately to stay in the Baltic, but they retreated to the sea under the pressure of the Soviet troops. The 1st battalion of the 284th Rifle Regiment, in which Starshina Petrova served, pursued the retreating enemy. The road was not easy. It was pouring rain. The hilly terrain, with long climbs along narrow forest paths, exhausted the already tired soldiers. A fifty-year-old woman walked at the head of the column and, despite her weariness, walked with a firm gait, without complaints, with full gear. Seeing such an example in front of them, the soldiers tried not to lose heart and found the strength to go forth.
Tartu lay ahead. The party organizer of the battalion gave Petrova a particular assignment - to hold a conversation with the personnel about the city of Tartu since she had often been there in her youth and was interested in its history.
Little after the capture of Tartu, Nina Petrova, sitting on the porch of the house, had a conversation with the senior lieutenant of artillery that both of them were not seriously wounded during the war, even though they were always on the front line. The Nazis began shelling, but the shells flew past and burst behind the house in the hollow. Meanwhile, a messenger came running from the battery and called the officer to the firing position. The artilleryman barely had time to jump off the steps when a shell exploded in his place. Two people died on the spot, and several soldiers were wounded. The senior lieutenant fell not far. He got hurt in both arms and legs. Nina Pavlovna flew into the trench, thrown by the blast wave, and was stunned. On the third day, she wrote home, "Now I am in the medical battalion, I've entered for the minor repairs. In the last battles, I got shell-shock, my left ear went deaf, and my back hurts very much ..."
Nina learned from the next batch of wounded who arrived for treatment that the division would soon be transferred somewhere. She decided that it was impossible to stay in the medical battalion, and shared her thoughts with the commander, assured that she felt well and completely recovered. Two days later, a passing ambulance escorted her to the regiment.
For success in battles during the liberation of the Baltic States, sniper Petrova was awarded the Order of Glory, 2nd class.
On September 30, 1944, the 86th Rifle Division was withdrawn to the reserve and transferred to Poland to the 2nd Belorussian Front. Then, at the end of January 1945, the division reached the German Elbing (now Polish Elbląg), where it got involved in tough multi-day battles for the city. Rifle companies burst into the outskirts and lay down. The heavy fire wasn't to let them raise their heads. From the attic of a three-story building, a German machine gunner was beating accurately. The battalion commander ordered Petrova to remove it. Shot— The enemy machine gun fell silent.
The assault on the city continued. Petrova ran a little ahead of the battalion commander. Suddenly she stopped abruptly and fell. The commander fell head over heels across the lying Nina Pavlovna.
- What's the matter with you, Starshina?
The battalion commander removed the winter hat that was shot through and smelled the smell of singed hair.
Nina Pavlovna, having come to her senses, began to calm down the captain,
- It's nothing! The sniper, you see, is a greenhorn since he shoots in the hair. I noticed him late. His bullet swirled through my hair. Never mind!
After heavy fighting on February 10, 1945, the 86th Rifle Division captured the central quarters of Elbing and merged with units of the 98th Rifle Corps.
The command of the regiment wrote in the award list:
"… Petrova is a participant in all combat operations of the regiment. Despite her advanced age (52 years), she is hardy, courageous, and brave. During the breaks, she trained 512 snipers. In the battles for Elbing, comrade Petrova exterminated 32 German soldiers and officers from her sniper rifle, bringing her score to 100. Worthy of being awarded the Order of Glory, 1st class."
General Fedyuninsky, the commander of the 2nd shock army, did not believe that Petrova was already over 50 when he read the award list. He thought it was some mistake. When it turned out that everything was correct, he wanted to meet her personally.
When Petrova came in, he saw a thin, gray-haired but still strong-looking woman. Her quick, confident movements indicated that she was an athlete in her youth. The general was interested in everything: where she was born, studied, how the food, how the family lives, etc. Nina Pavlovna told as much as possible about everything. Among other things, she said that she had already become a grandmother. Her daughter Ksenia and granddaughter Larisa lived in Leningrad. Ksenia also was at war, but in August 1944, she demobilized for health reasons.
As a keepsake, Fedyuninsky presented Nina Pavlovna a ladies' watch with a dedication: "To N. P. Petrova from the commander of the army Fedyuninsky. March 14, 1945" He also handed her a new personalized sniper rifle with a telescopic sight.
Meanwhile, the war continued. The units of the regiment were getting closer and closer to Danzig. On the way, there was an altitude with a mark of 141.7. The enemy held it tight. Nina Petrova was at the forefront of the attackers and noticed three Nazis in a deep and wide crater. They lay face down, waiting for the night, to escape to their troops. She pointed a rifle at them and ordered them to raise their hands. The Germans jumped up, threw down their weapons, raised their hands. Nina Pavlovna, taking their submachine guns, led the prisoners to the battalion commander. In addition, she killed fifteen Nazis from a sniper rifle in this battle. For this, by order of April 2, 1945, the brave woman was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, 2nd class.
May 1945 was approaching. After an eight-day forced march, the regiment took up defensive positions on the eastern coast of the Stettin Bay. Everyone felt that the war would soon be over. However, the closer the Victory was, the more fatigue affected. Nina Pavlovna wrote to her daughter,
"My dear, dear daughter! I'm tired of fighting, baby. After all, it is already the fourth year at the Front. I can't wait till we finish this damned war and return home. How I want to hug you, kiss my dear granddaughter! Maybe we'll live to see this happy day.
Soon I will be awarded the Order of Glory 1st class, so grandma will be a complete Chevalier if she'll carry her head to the end."
At the end of April 1945, Petrova was sent for replenishment. On the way back, the driver of the car, in which Petrova was, probably did not notice the detour sign and drove off the broken bridge flight. So, on May 1, 1945, Nina Pavlovna Petrova died in a car accident while crossing the West Oder River near Stettin (now Polish Szczecin). The deceased were buried in a mass grave in the southern outskirts of the Greifenhagen (now Polish Gryfino) twenty-five kilometers south of Stettin.
In June 1945, sniper Petrova was posthumously awarded the Order of Glory 1st class.
In 1978, a postal cover featuring a portrait of Nina Petrova was published.
In 1988, V.M. Mizin published the biographical book Sniper Petrova.
The 6th episode of the Russian documentary series The Beautiful Regiment (Russian: Прекрасный полк), released in 2017, is dedicated to Nina Pavlovna Petrova.
Alexander Derwinter (author) from Russia on May 19, 2021:
Thank you, Emge, for your comment. This fact also struck me.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 17, 2021:
Very interesting article about the brave woman. The fact that she became a sniper at the age of 48 looks unbelievable but it's true.