Deadly aim: USSR's women snipers
History: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45), Lyuba Vinogradova, Quercus, hardback, 304 pages, €24.99
An impressive book tells the story of the women in arms who had the steely will to be cold assassins in a game of ballistics chess
It is often forgotten that if it wasn't for the heroic efforts of Soviet Union, and its determined and brave people, the West would not have defeated the Nazis, and Europe - all of Europe - would have remained in constant fear or domination by the Third Reich.
And this victory would not have taken place had it not been for the efforts of Soviet women, who not only provided huge logistical and physical support in the farms, factories and hospitals, but also on the front line, where they replaced the huge casualties struck down in the German invasion of 1941 and the subsequent efforts to reverse that incursion.
The fact that the Soviet Union was a Communist system which, for all its faults and subjugations, was at least nominally egalitarian and gender-balanced, contributed to this female military equality. However, the real, compelling reason was the immense and sudden losses of men on the Eastern Front, necessitating a desperate influx of women, often only too willing themselves to sign up and fight the outrageous and brutal German occupation of their land.
This fascinating and absorbing book focuses on just one aspect of this: the story of the young women who served as Soviet snipers during World War II. It is story that could not be more heroic or emblematic of the country's resistance: raw, idealistic, young women from the four corners of the Soviet empire, signing up to crawl through the ruins of their Motherland or camp out in the marshes and vast tundra of Russia and then Eastern Europe, waiting for the chance to pick off the unsuspecting enemy.
The women were mostly in their early twenties, and had been teachers, farmers, factory workers and domestic servants. Given the Soviet upheavals of the 1930s, many had led hard lives even before the war, but this was nothing compared to brutal reality of their new wartime existence, and the occupation by one of the more murderous armies of modern history. But in many ways, the hardy women were thus well prepared for this epic struggle.
The author Lyuba Vinogradova is especially good at describing the landscape and conditions these female snipers operated in, spending long hours in cramped, wet conditions with meagre rations and a constant sense of tension and loss. It is a narrative that brings us from the catacombs beneath the Kerch Peninsula in the north to Byelorussia's primeval forests, across Czechoslovakia and, eventually, into the ruins of the Third Reich itself.
The Moscow-based author worked closely with Anthony Beevor on his monumental account of the Stalingrad battle, and her own book has the same pacey interweaving of personal story and unfolding events, leading to a victorious but brutally fought conclusion.
There is also a something of a sour aftertaste when the surviving women, often traumatised, returned to civilian life in a suspicious and economically backward Soviet Union where their achievements were awkwardly celebrated, if at all, by a still patriarchal political establishment.
The women were, mind you, treated as celebrities when a group of them visited America in a spirit-rousing propaganda trip: this was in 1942 when US and USSR military co-operation was at its height in the great push against Hitler.
But of course there were the patronising questions by the media: like "do the girls were lipstick at the front line and what colour do they prefer?" and what was their "favourite brand of cigarettes?"
Much of the fascination was that the women were 'killers', so to speak, albeit brave ones in a military context. But they were snipers, which in army terms is considered a special and often disturbing type of warfare, quite different to the cut and rush of open battle. Snipers operate through stealth and secrecy and inflict disproportionate psychological damage by striking the enemy singly when they least expect it. But it also requires a psychological strength and coldness in the assassin.
It is rare in war to get to see the enemy's face, but a sniper can see it all and be exposed to the humanity of the target coming alive at the end of their gun sight. Killing at such range, when the 'target' is cleaning their shoes or fetching water, can have a disturbing effect on the shooter, but as Vinogradova relates, the women always steeled themselves by remembering lost loved ones and the brutalities that other German soldiers had dished out.
The shooters sometimes came upon snipers from the other side and a game of wits ensued as lone shots were traded from different positions, often at intervals of up to 10 hours, like a deadly game of ballistics chess. One account describes how a log book is found by the body of a German sniper with a list of all his kills stretching back to Dunkirk - up to 500 in total.
However, the author rightly questions the veracity of many such stories, which developed later with the telling. The Soviet women didn't have the time or resources to keep such trophy lists. They were focused on survival and on winning. However, the author has vividly brought to life their humanity, and also their femininity and deep sense of comradeship.
Sometimes they would collect posies and reeds to decorate and insulate their hideouts, tell stories, sing or escape for an occasional swim.
In the exhaustively documented history of World War II, this is a welcome and different story - and one from the Eastern Front about which we in Western Europe do not hear nearly enough.
Vinogradova has written an impressive book, and drawing on letters, diaries and interviews with doughty survivors, she has woven a powerful and moving account of a people at war and of women rising up to take arms, free their country - and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.