Botchkareva, Maria (1889–?)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Botchkareva, Maria (1889–?)

Russian military commander who rose from the peasantry during World War I and organized the most successful women's battalion for the Provisional Government in 1917. Name variations: Leona Botchkarova, Mariya Bochkareva; nicknamed Yashka. Pronunciation: BOK-car-AVA. Born Maria Leontievna Frolkova in July 1889 in Nikolsko, Russia; date of death is unknown; daughter of Leonti Semenovitch Frolkov (a Novgorod peasant) and Olga Nazarev Frolkova; married Afanasi Botchkarev, in 1905; children: none.

Ran away from husband (1908); spent time in Yakutsk Prison with her lover, Yakov Buk (1912–14); ran away from Yakutsk and joined Russian army (1914); fought on Russian-German front (1915–17); wounded and won several medals for heroism (1915–17); organized Russian Women's Battalion of Death (1917); disbanded Battalion and imprisoned (1917); left Russia for the U.S. (1918); had audience with President Woodrow Wilson (1918); returned to Russia (1918); removed from active service and faded into obscurity (1918).

Maria Botchkareva was a stout, semi-literate peasant woman who ran away from an unrequited, prison-camp relationship to join the Russian army during World War I. Wounded several times in combat, she eventually organized an all-women's battalion in an effort to inspire the Russian military and bolster the Provisional Revolutionary Government that replaced the tsar in early 1917. Although they distinguished themselves in combat, Botchkareva's battalion disbanded rather than support the Bolshevik government that took power in late 1917. Botchkareva, after a period of imprisonment, visited the United States and Great Britain in an unsuccessful effort to gain support for rebel elements resisting the Communist regime governing Russia.

Maria Frolkova was born in July 1889 in Nikolsko, Russia. Her father Leonti Semenovitch Frolkov was born into serfdom in the province of Novgorod and served in the Russo-Turkish War in 1877–1878. Maria's mother Olga Nazarev was the daughter of the poorest fisherman in the village of Tcharanda when she met and married Leonti Frolkov. Maria was the third of four daughters born to the poverty stricken Frolkov family. When she was a year old, her father went to Petrograd hoping to improve conditions for his family, but he drank heavily and was abusive and unreliable; they did not hear from him for five years. When Maria was six (1895), he moved the family to Kuskovo, a village beyond Tomsk in Siberia. The destitute family had to beg for food during the train trip. Kuskovo proved to be a poor choice for farming, and Leonti Frolkov had to work in Tomsk. After two years, he moved the family there. Maria, not yet nine, babysat to augment the family's meager income. From age nine to fifteen, she worked in a grocery store for room and board, after her father, in a drunken rage, beat her and threw her into the streets.

During the years Maria worked in the grocery store, many soldiers were stationed in Tomsk because of the Russo-Japanese War. In 1905, she was seduced by Lieutenant Vasili Lazov on a promise of marriage. When his unit was reassigned, he refused to marry her because her class and illiteracy would hinder his advancement in the army. A disillusioned 15-year-old, Maria met Afanasi Botchkarev, a common soldier returning from the front. In a hasty decision, she agreed to marry Botchkarev only to find she had exchanged her father's cruelty for that of her husband. The young couple worked as barge loaders and then took better jobs in a company producing asphalt floors for public buildings. She advanced more rapidly than her husband, and he beat her severely because he resented her larger salary. After two years, Maria ran away to Barnaul which was the home of her married sister. When Afanasi found her, she tried to drown herself in the Ob River. For a time, her husband tried to improve himself but gradually drifted back to his cruel, jealous and petty ways. When he discovered and spent a sum of money she had hoarded, Maria unsuccessfully tried to kill him, then fled to Irkutsk where her sister had relocated. She once more found employment in the asphalt business but illness cost her the job in 1910.

When Maria's sister moved back to Tomsk, Maria took domestic employment in the town of Stretinsk. Upon arriving in there, Maria soon realized, however, that she had been misled and would be employed in a brothel. While contemplating suicide, she met a young man who sympathized with her circumstances. Yakov or Yasha Buk, a 24-year-old butcher's son with a high-school education, took Maria to live with his family. They fell in love, but because of her previous marriage they lived together by civil agreement without the sanction of the church, a common practice in Russia due to the difficulty of obtaining a divorce. For about three years, their life was hard but happy. They opened their own butcher's shop where Maria also produced and sold ice cream. Yasha was something of an adventurer who often helped those fleeing from tsarist authorities. In 1912, he aided a dangerous revolutionary, and he and Maria were arrested. Though beaten for seven days, she did not confess to any crimes, but when Yasha was sentenced to four years of exile in a Yakutsk prison, she convinced the court to permit her to accompany him. To save Yasha from extreme hardship, Maria reluctantly slept with Governor Kraft of Yakutsk. But Yasha changed in prison and became violent. In the late summer of 1914, in a drunken and jealous mood, he tried to murder her. World War I had just begun, and Maria, partly from a desire to escape Yasha and partly inspired by patriotism, fled from Yakutsk to fight for her country.

In November 1914, Botchkareva tried to enlist at the Headquarters of the 25th Reserve Battalion in Tomsk. When she was told that women could not serve in combat, she persisted until the commander telegraphed her request to Tsar Nicholas II (1894–1917), who authorized her enlistment. Because the Russian soldiers called each other by nicknames, she asked to be known as "Yashka" from the earliest days of her training. In early 1915, when her regiment received orders to move to the front, she was assigned to the Second Army headquartered under the command of General Vladimir Gurko at Polotsk. Her unit moved to the trenches and attacked across a field of barbed wire. Only 48 of the 250 men with her came back. She helped to rescue several wounded

men by crawling and dragging them back to the Russian lines. The following day, Maria was wounded in the right leg and had to lay on the battlefield for over four hours. She spent much of the spring of 1915 recovering in a hospital in Kiev. Rejoining her company, she took part in many skirmishes with guns and grenades. On August 15, 1915, she was shot in the hand and forearm by a sniper while rescuing her comrades after a battle that left 10,000 Germans killed. She recuperated with her unit while serving as a medical assistant. In October 1915, she went on a scouting mission that resulted in a grenade and bayonet battle. She bayoneted a German soldier in a skirmish that saw the loss of two-thirds of her fellow soldiers. Late in 1915, she suffered frostbite and was sent to a hospital at Beloye. Botchkareva would not permit an amputation of her right foot and soon recovered enough to again rejoin her company.

Soldiers and Peasants! Remember that only a full, clean sweep of the Germans from our soil can give you the free Russia you long for.

—Maria Botchkareva, 1918

On March 6–7, 1916, Maria was gassed during the Battle of Postovy and her eyes burned for three weeks. During another offensive on March 18, her right leg was shattered by a gunshot, and she lay in pain the entire day before being rescued. She spent three months in Ekaterina Hospital in Moscow before rejoining her regiment at the town of Lutzk. On June 22, a German shell fragment lodged near the end of her spinal column, and she was returned in a paralyzed condition to Moscow. After four months of paralysis and morphine and six months on crutches and in therapy, Botchkareva passed her physical examination. She was promoted to the rank of senior under-officer and returned to combat. A month later, she was in a force captured by the Germans. After eight hours, Botchkareva and other soldiers escaped during a Russian counteroffensive. She made over 100 combat incursions into "no man's land" and was decorated three times, but always maintained that she only received Third Degree Medals because she was a woman.

In February 1917, word came that the tsar had been overthrown, and the soldiers all swore to fight for the Provisional Government. Maria optimistically believed that the February Revolution was against the ill-conceived military policies of the tsar. When the soldiers and government both faltered in their resolve, she pleaded with her fellow soldiers to maintain order and to fight the Germans who were their real enemies. In May, unable to accept the collapsing discipline and defeatism at the front, Botchkareva traveled to Petrograd and secured a meeting with Michael V. Rodzianko, president of the Duma. He took her to meet the soldiers' delegates at the Taurida Palace, and it was there that she proposed the formation of a women's combat battalion to serve as an inspiration in battle to the Russian army. Although surprised by her proposal, Rodzianko and General Aleksi Brusilov, commander-in-chief of the Russian army, were willing to support her idea. On May 15, they took her to meet Minister of War Alexander Kerensky at the Winter Palace. Kerensky agreed to her proposal if she would guarantee the conduct, morality, and reputation of the women. Botchkareva agreed to these stipulations, and they named the new unit the "First Russian Women's Battalion of Death."

On May 21, when Botchkareva joined Kerensky and other speakers at the Mariynski Theater, she spoke with great fervor: 1,500 women applied that evening to join the battalion. The number of volunteers reached 2,000 after the newspapers reported the plan to the public. This number would rapidly decrease once physical examinations, military haircuts, uniforms, rifle training and discipline were confronted by the volunteers. Their uniforms included white epaulets with a red-and-black stripe, while a red-and-black arrowhead insignia was worn on the right arm. One day, when the training center was visited by Emmeline Pankhurst , the English suffragist leader, the two women became friends. During the ensuing weeks, Botchkareva and Pankhurst joined Kerensky for dinner at the Astoria Hotel, and Kerensky asked Maria if her unit would march in a parade to help offset the impact of Bolshevik demonstrations against the Provisional Government. By agreeing, she earned the absolute hatred of the Bolsheviks. When her battalion marched at Mars Field, though generally well-received by the public, it was attacked by the Bolsheviks. Botchkareva was knocked out and some of her troops were wounded.

On June 21, 1917, Maria met with Kerensky and General Lvar G. Kornilov, whose courage and patriotism she greatly admired. Later in the day, her unit went to the St. Isaac Cathedral where her battalion was consecrated and received its battle banners and standard. Botchkareva was given the unprecedented honor of having her name placed on the banner, and she was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Maria Botchkareva's Women's Battalion of Death left on June 24 for the front lines, assigned to the 525th Kuriag-Daryinski Regiment in Senki. On July 8, her battalion attacked the Germans during a major Russian offensive. Of the 300 women remaining in her battalion, 40 were wounded or killed, but her soldiers had performed with honor while their poorly disciplined and demoralized male counterparts argued among themselves, retreated, or failed to advance at all. The women held their position against German counter attacks for several hours but were finally forced to retreat when no reinforcements arrived. During the retreat, Botchkareva was knocked unconscious by an exploding shell. Though her hearing and speech were affected, after a few weeks in a Petrograd hospital, she returned to her battalion with the rank of captain. Once again, her battalion went into action and made an excellent account of themselves against the Germans.

On several occasions, Botchkareva tried to convince Kerensky that capital punishment and discipline must replace committee organization in the Russian army if it were to become an effective fighting force. A disillusioned Botchkareva had once bayoneted one of her own soldiers discovered making love to a male soldier during a lull in the combat. In the fall of 1917, news arrived that Kerensky and Kornilov had split over the discipline issue. In November, word arrived at the front that Kerensky had been overthrown and the Bolsheviks had seized Petrograd. Russian soldiers began to riot and accused Botchkareva's battalion of siding with Kornilov and espousing discipline rather than committee governance of the army. Twenty of Maria's soldiers were lynched. For their safety, Botchkareva led her remaining troops into a dense forest and instructed them to disband.

Botchkareva traveled to Petrograd but was arrested by the Bolsheviks when she arrived in the city. She was brought before V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky who hoped she would support their revolution. When she argued against their program and a weak peace with Germany, they smiled condescendingly before discharging her and issuing her a passport and train ticket to her home in Tomsk. After staying with her family for a short time, she received a telegram from a "General X" that her services were needed once again. Arriving back in Petrograd on January 18, 1918, she was sent to assess the military situation of rebel General Kornilov against the Bolshevik forces in the Don River region. Disguised as a nun, she reached Kornilov at his headquarters in Novocherkassk but refused to join the rebels after seeing Russians fighting Russians. During her return, she was arrested and witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed by the Bolsheviks. She saw her fellow captives executed, but her fame spared her for official trials in Moscow. She was imprisoned and abused for over a month before being released because of her peasant origins and gender.

As she traveled towards Tomsk, Botchkareva heard of new German offensives and saw the people gradually turning against the Bolshevik Government. She had located 30 of her soldiers, now invalids, in Moscow and took them home with her. After seeing to their safety, she and her sister, Nadia , traveled to Vladivostok. Botchkareva had decided to take her message to the world to gain support for democratic Russians fighting both the Bolshevik Government and Germany. With the help of the British Consulate in Vladivostok, Maria, Nadia, and Lieutenant Leonid Filippov, one of her former military aides, left Russia on the American transport ship Sheridan, on April 18, 1918.

After arriving in the U.S., Botchkareva held interviews with the press and made impassioned speeches across the country. Looking older than her age, she had strong features and the square, solid build of a Russian peasant. With her military trousers tucked into the high laced-boots and her uniform jacket decorated with her distinguished service medals, she created quite a commotion with the American public. During most of her visit, Botchkareva had as a patron Mrs. J. Borden Harriman (Florence Harriman ), a leading advocate of women's rights issues. While staying in the Prince George Hotel in New York City, Maria met and began collaborating with author Isaac Don Levine on a book about her life. She also attended a luncheon at the home of former president Theodore Roosevelt who arranged for a serialization of the Botchkareva-Levine book, Yashka, in the Metropolitan Magazine.

Botchkareva went on to Washington and through Harriman's connections met several dignitaries, including Secretary of State Robert Lansing. Eventually, she was briefly received by President Woodrow Wilson. Lieutenant Filippov reported that Botchkareva knelt on both knees while entreating Wilson to send American forces and equipment to help the democratic forces in Russia.

From the United States, Botchkareva traveled to London, England. Her patrons during her visit were her old friend Emmeline Pankhurst and Lady Muriel Paget . Botchkareva continued to speak to patriotic organizations and to use her connections to gain the ears of public officials. She finally convinced the British War office to send her to Archangel with General F.C. Poole's invasion force in August 1918. After the landing, she was frequently seen at the allied headquarters at Shenkursk. She hoped to either form another women's battalion or to have the British intercede on her behalf with the Provisional Government. Eventually, she received an audience with General William Ironside, who, out of compassion, sent her to General Vladimir Marushevsky of the North Russian army for a military assignment. He was not sympathetic to Botchkareva's requests. On December 27, 1918, he issued an Order of the Day based on the premise that summoning women for military duties, inappropriate for their sex, would be a disgraceful stain on the armies of the Northern Region. This effectively stripped Botchkareva of her uniform and rank.

Following her separation from the military, Maria faded into obscurity. Once hailed as the "Russian Joan of Arc" by Western correspondents and proclaimed as "the greatest woman of the century" by Emmeline Pankhurst, Botchkareva's name disappeared from newspaper accounts. There are no references to her in any official records of the Soviet Union. The circumstances of Maria Botchkareva's death are unknown.


Botchkareva, Maria. Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Officer and Exile. NY: Frederick A. Stokes, 1919.

Dorr, Rheta Childe . Inside the Russian Revolution. NY: Macmillan, 1917.

Harriman, Florence Jaffray. From Pinafores to Politics. NY: Holt, 1923.

Levine, Isaac Don. Eyewitness to History. NY: Hawthorne Books, 1973.

suggested reading:

Bryant, Louise . Six Red Months In Russia. NY: Arno Press, 1970.

Long, Robert Crozier. Russian Revolution Aspects. NY: Dutton, 1919.

Russell, Charles Edward. "Russia's Women Warriors," in Good Housekeeping. Vol. 65. October, 1917, pp. 22–23.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama