In the the 2001 movie, Enemy At The Gates, a female Russian sniper is shot in the head and killed as she and her partner play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Germany’s Top Gun in Stalingrad. “Lyudmila, get back,” whispered Vasili Zaitsev moments before the fatal shot was fired.
German Major Erwin Konig was sent to Stalingrad to kill Zaitsev, a young shepherd boy from the Urals who had killed 100 German soldiers. Lyudmila was simply a product of a Hollywood screenwriter. There was, however, a real-life “Lyudmila” in the Soviet sniper ranks, but she never fought in the rubble of Stalingrad.
When Germany invaded the “Motherland” in June 1941, Lyudmila M. Pavlichenko, like many Soviet women, left civilian life and joined the ranks of the Soviet Army. Her recruiter urged her to become a nurse, but she insisted on becoming a soldier. A shooting certificate from a gun club in Kiev that she earned at age 14 apparently sealed the deal, and she was allowed to join the Russian 25th Infantry Division.
In the first two and a half months of urban combat in Odessa before the German army drove Private Pavlichenko and her comrades out of town, she recorded 187 enemy kills. When Odessa fell to the Nazis, Pavlichenko’s unit was sent to Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula where she resumed her deadly profession.
A Record That Still Stands
By mid 1942, Lieutenant Pavlichenko had killed 309 German soldiers with her 1891/30 Moisin-Nagent sniper rifle. The 5-shot bolt-action rifle fired a 148-grain bullet at about 2,800 fps. The Moisin-Nagent with a P.E. 4-power scope was effective out to 600 yards.
Pavlichenko was wounded by mortar fire in June and pulled from the front lines in July. She was sent on goodwill tours in the United States and Canada where she received a hero’s welcome at the White House in Washington, D.C. In Canada, Pavlichenko was presented with an optically equipped Winchester rifle, which is on display today at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow. She also took home a Colt semi-automatic .45-caliber pistol, presented to her when in the United States.
When she returned to Russia, Pavlichenko was awarded the rank of Major and subsequently trained hundreds of snipers after becoming a sniper instructor.
After the war, Pavlichenko picked up where she left off in 1941 at Kiev State University and completed her education. She became a historian and served in various government posts, including that of a research assistant at the Chief Headquarters for the Soviet Navy.
In 1943, Maj. Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, an award she proudly wore until she died on October 10, 1974 at the age of 58. In 1976, the Soviet Union issued a stamp with a portrait of her in uniform with the Gold Star on her tunic. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of some 2,000 female snipers who served in the Russian army, only 500 of whom survived “The Great Patriotic War.”
Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko is buried in the Novodevichiye Cemetery in Moscow. But her memory lives on, especially in the lives of young enlisted women in the United States Air Force who are following in the footsteps of the “Greatest Female Sniper.”
Her Record Speaks Volumes
By the end of WWII, Major Pavlichenko had twice as many kills as any other female Russian sniper: 36 of Pavlichenko’s kills were German snipers who were trying to kill her.
On the body of a Nazi sniper she killed, Pavlichenko found a logbook containing times, dates and locations of 500 Soviet snipers he claimed to have killed, although a check of the Sniper Log Book at Sniper Central on the Internet shows only two snipers with that many kills; Ivan Sidorenko of the U.S.S.R with 500 and Simo Hayha of Finland, with 542 kills.
“Sniper Log” shows Erwin Konig and Vasili Zaitsev each wound up with 400 kills before Zaitsev killed Konig in Stalingrad. Ironically, there is no record of the duel-to-the-death in German records. The only account is contained in Soviet records, and some historians say the duel is the product of Soviet propaganda.
In his postwar memoirs, Zaitsev never mentioned Konig by name. His writings refer to documents found on the sniper’s body that identified him as Heinz Thorvald, an SS Colonel, who commanded the German sniper school at Zossen. Without German documentation, we will never know the true identity of the sniper Zaitsev killed that day in Stalingrad. But there is no doubt as to who Lyudmila Pavlichenko was. Her record is historically accurate.