In 1905, Mariya Oktyabrakaya was born into a poor family in the Crimean Peninsula, one of ten children. As a young adult Mariya worked in a cannery, and then later as a telephone operator. But it was in 1925, when she married a Soviet army officer, that the atlas of her life changed course.
As an army wife, Mariya either became interested in–or perhaps indulged an interest in–all things military. She trained as a military nurse. She learned to drive, which was unusual at the time. And she learned how to handle weapons. Clearly, Mariya viewed her role as military spouse as more than just flag waving and having a hot dinner on the table for her fightin’ man when he came home after a long day.
Time went by, as it has a tendency to do. And suddenly, all was decidedly NOT quiet on the Eastern Front. Hitler has welched on his deal not to invade and the war expanded into Russia. Mariya was evacuated to Siberia while her husband marched off to war. And there she waited. And waited.
It took two years for the news to reach Mariya that her husband had been killed in fighting near Kiev.
And that is when Mariya Oktyabrakaya got royally pissed. But instead of bitching about it over Stolichnaya and blini with the other wives, Mariya did something else. She sold off all her possessions, donated the money to the Red Army and wrote to Stalin:
“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.”
Mariya was not going to go gently into that good night. She was going to rage, rage and she wanted a tank to fight.
The army…agreed. Unusually, she was given five months of training before she was sent into battle. In September 1943, she joined 26th Guards Tank Brigade, part of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps as a driver and a mechanic.
She had the name Fighting Girlfriend emblazoned down the side of her tank. The soldiers thought it was a joke. Or a stunt.
There, Mariya drove Fighting Girlfriend straight into battle. She took out machine gun nests and artillery guns. She killed lots of the facist barbarians. When the Fighting Girlfriend was hit by fire, she literally got OUT OF THE TANK in the middle of battle, fixed it, got back in and kept going.
No one thought she was a joke after that, especially when she was promoted to Sergeant.
In a letter to her sister, Mariya wrote:
“I’ve had my baptism by fire . . . sometimes, I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”
I hear you girl. I’m right there with you some days.
A month later, Mariya and the Fighting Girlfriend did it again near Novaje Siało. Mariya maneuvered Girlfriend to attack German defensive positions. An artillery shell disabled the tank, but Sergeant O? She jumped out, fixed the damage–AGAIN–and fought on.
In January, 1944 Sergeant Oktybraskaya took part in the Leningrad–Novgorod Offensive. There her tank was once again immobilized by enemy fire. Once again Mariya jumped out to fix her tank. She managed to repair the vehicle enough to keep it moving, but Mariya herself was hit in the head by exploding shell fragments. She was transported to a field hospital near Kiev where she remained in a coma for two months until she succumbed from her injuries. She was 38.
After her death, Sergeant Oktybraskaya was made a hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor for bravery during combat. She was the first of only two female tank drivers to receive the honor.
It’s easy with a story like Mariya’s to link her burning desire for revenge for the loss of her husband. To file it under “hell hath no fury” stories we all seem to like. And it may be just that. Or maybe it’s more than that.
It’s clear that Mariya took an interest in the military in her role as army wife. Maybe her husband’s death was an impetus…or maybe it was just the springboard she was looking for. Perhaps Mariya’s patriotism and eagerness to defend her country from the invading hordes of “facist barbarian” Nazis had burned within her all along and her husband’s death gave her a way in. Or perhaps, it was a little bit of both.
Women’s anger, after all, is rarely legitimized, and women are not often given agency over how to manage their own rage.
Mariya Oktybraskaya’s story shouldn’t get buried under the cover of a love story. It takes a certain type of woman to sell her possessions and drive into hell.
Long may you rage, rage against the dying of the light, Mariya.
Happy Women’s History Month!