As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history. I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War. The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid. First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book. It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.
The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’ The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’. Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s. In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’
The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty. With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’ Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias. Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence. After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’ Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.
Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals. Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’ Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each. They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.
Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’ Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime. She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’ As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.
Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating. She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently. It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor… Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’
The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels. Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs. This created a feeling of imbalance in the book. Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.
I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment. The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather. They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl… There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady. They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’
Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more. I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.
I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later. This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring. I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume. Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.
I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place. This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book. The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead. Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.
As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy. There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this. My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.
It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read. To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution. Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion. This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.