If your husband was killed in the midst of World War II, what would you do? If your name was Mariya Oktyabrskaya, you’d sell everything you own to buy a T-34 tank and go into battle to avenge him. And you’d be the first women to be made an official Hero of the Soviet Union.
One of ten children, Oktyabrskaya was born into a poor Ukrainian family in the Crimean Peninsula. She didn’t have an interest in the military until, at age 20, she married a Soviet army officer named Ilya Oktyabrskiy in 1925. At that point, she became as active as she possibly could in military matters, joining something called the Military Wives Council, training as an army nurse, learning how to use weapons, and driving vehicles. It was a way to keep herself occupied and grounded as she and her husband traveled from place to place in the Ukraine.
Because of that, the Oktyabrskiy family was one of the first impacted as World War II kicked off. On June 22, 1941 they were transferred to Kishinev, Moldova following Ilya’s 134th Howitzer Artillery Regiment. The next day, the family of command staff were evacuated to Tomsk. She suffered from spinal tuberculosis but still tried to stay working. She did so for two years without having received word about her husband.
In 1943, Oktyabrskaya finally learned that her husband had died on August 9, 1941, less than two months after she had been evacuated from Moldova.
As you’d expect, Oktyabrskaya was devastated. Both angry and depressed by the fact that she had spent two entire years dreaming of the day she’d be reunited with her husband only to discover he had died long before, she submitted a request to enroll in the military. They denied her request.
So, instead, Oktyabrskaya sold all of her worldly possessions to buy a T-34 medium tank, which she named “Fighting Girlfriend” and donated to the Red Army. And after completing a five month training regimen, the army actually let her join up as part of the 26th Guards Tank Brigade as a driver and mechanic in September of 1943. People didn’t realize how serious she was until she actually fought in her first battle, at which point they realized her desire to fight was inspired by her commitment to her husband, whom she felt she needed to avenge.
“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.”
Stalin granted her permission.
And she pulled off some impressive feats. She was promoted to sergeant after her first battle, where she and her crew members destroyed machine gun nests in Smolensk and where she effected repairs on her tank under heavy gunfire to rejoin the battle. It would be a feat she repeated again in November of 1943, when a German artillery shell exploded on her tank’s tracks. Rather than admit defeat, she repaired her tank while her other crew members—who called her ‘mother’—held off enemy fire and rejoined her main unit after several days.
She later wrote to her sister that, “I’ve had my baptism by fire. I beat the bastards. Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t even breathe.”
Her military career wasn’t to last long, however. Oktyabrskaya fought in a night attack as part of the Leningrad-Novgorod Offensive. Her crew was on the front lines destroying German defenses, at which point her T-34 was hit by an enemy anti-tank shell. Once again she leapt from her tank to start repairing the tracks, but this time, she wasn’t so lucky. She was struck in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness. After spending two months in a coma, she died on April 15, 1943. In August of 1944, she received recognition as a Hero of the Soviet Union. Her tank, though, made it to Berlin in 1945 to see out the end of the war.
Mariya Oktyabrskaya had a long trip. She was born into serfdom, which was about as low on the social totem pole as she could possibly get. She took advantage of marrying into a military family by broadening her skillset. And when she lost the love of her life, she went out and took vengeance on the army that killed him because she had the skills to do so. A badass indeed.