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Stalin's last flying female and the soapstone bear love story

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Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945.  Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For a 16-year-old Soviet girl during World War II, the first surprise after enlisting to fight the invading Nazis was the freezing, filthy stables where she was to sleep with other female trainees.

Much of Moscow's bureaucracy had been evacuated in 1941 to the Volga River city of Samara, including 300 female trainees. Galina Brok-Beltsova found shovels and crowbars and led the others in breaking up the manure and cleaning up the bathroom in a few short hours, winning praise from her superiors.

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Galina Brok-Beltsova, the last surviving member of three Soviet women's air regiments. Photo: Washington Post photo by Robyn Dixon.

Galina Brok-Beltsova, the last surviving member of three Soviet women's air regiments. Photo: Washington Post photo by Robyn Dixon.

The Washington Post

Galina Brok-Beltsova, the last surviving member of three Soviet women's air regiments. Photo: Washington Post photo by Robyn Dixon.

Now, at 95, she is the last surviving member of Stalin's three famous all-female air regiments and one of the dwindling cadre of World War II veterans in Russia - and among its wartime allies and foes.

Today, Russians will mark Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. It is usually the nation's most glorious celebration - and this year President Vladimir Putin planned a particularly grandiose parade in Red Square to demonstrate Russia's military power for the 75th anniversary. But it was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's parade - to have been attended by an array of world leaders including China's Xi Jinping and France's Emmanuel Macron - was designed to mark a glorious symbolic moment for Putin, who recently ushered in constitutional changes that could see him rule until 2036.

Brok-Beltsova planned to be at the Kremlin for the annual luncheon with Putin, who always invites members of the thinning veterans' ranks.

She wears a white bouffant hairdo, a gold necklace in the shape of the Pe-2 Soviet plane used by her air force regiment, a scarf with crimson splashes, transparent pink nail lacquer and liberal amounts of heavy, floral perfume.

The shelves of her home in Mytishchi - a town built for veterans about 25km north-east of Moscow - are stuffed with nostalgic photos. And in pride of place stands a small white soapstone bear that is part of a wartime love story.

Brok-Beltsova learned the mantra of self-reliance from Marina Raskova, a pioneering Soviet navigator and pilot, who persuaded Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to set up three female aviator regiments in 1941. Raskova died in an air crash two years later.

After the Nazi invasion in 1941, the streets of Moscow were full of patriotic recruitment posters pulling at Brok-Beltsova's conscience. The 16-year-old was coming out of a movie with her girlfriends in central Moscow that summer when an air raid alarm sounded, signalling that residents should take shelter, and a policeman hurried them to the half-built Metro station, full of terrified women, children and elderly people. Instead, the girls marched off to the nearest military office and signed up.

"We were athletic and strong and very brave. We were maybe too brave, showing off," she said.

Her hair was cut as short as a man's. She was given men's military boots four sizes too big and a uniform jacket with pockets too low to reach. But eventually they found her a boy's short jacket and small boots.

In 1943, with female crews being shot down, there was a call for nine female trainees to volunteer early to be trained as navigators for combat. Brok-Beltsova was among them and was sent to learn how to be a navigator on the 'Peshkas', the Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-engine dive bombers, the pride of the Soviet air force.

When she stood stiffly in line with the other volunteers, the officer in command, Georgy Beltsov, could not help noticing those tiny boots and short jacket, she recalled. Other women were smitten with Beltsov, but if Brok-Beltsova liked him she did not let on. When he approached her at one of the dances, she told him to find someone else and went home early.

In 1944, she was sent on a mission to the front. As her crew waited in their plane to take off for the front, he came to see her off.

"Of course I didn't want to look at him," Brok-Beltsova said. "I was focused on going to the front. He started to write me three letters a day." He took a photo of a small white soapstone bear and posted it to her.

"He said, 'This is our talisman. Please always carry this photo with you when you fly. It will keep you safe,'" she said.

As her 587th Bomber Aviation Regiment flew in tight formation, she perched with her parachute as a cushion, scanning the ground. But everything was confusing that first time, she recalled. Roads, villages and forests marked on the map had been blown away by war. In 1945, she took part in the battle of Konigsberg, then Germany's easternmost city, a fortress bristling with artillery. After Soviet air and ground attacks the city was a devastated ruin. Brok-Beltsova saw it as revenge for the Nazi destruction of Stalingrad.

"That's war. We were destroying them and conquering them because they were trying to destroy us," she said. "They occupied our villages and towns."

The 587th Regiment flew more than 1,100 missions.

After the war's end, Beltsov, by then a general, came to find Brok-Beltsova where she was stationed in Penevezhis, Lithuania, and proposed marriage. He brought her the small white stone bear. But she demurred, planning to go to university.

"He said, 'I waited the whole war for you. You, with your soldiers' boots, you are tramping on the soul of a man who's devoted to you,'" she recalled him saying. His lips trembled, she added. He was on the verge of tears. "I was shocked," she said. "It was a cold shower that sobered me up. I decided to change my mind."

The wedding arrangements were hasty. There was no money to buy a goose. The only thing they had to trade for the bird was some sought-after decent underwear.

She did go to university and became a history professor. In 60 years of marriage before Beltsov's death in 2005, she said the couple quarrelled only once, when she grew upset, believing he was spending too much time at work as head of an aviation school. (© The Washington Post)

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