The Deadliest Sniper: Lyudmila Pavlichenko

She was a thorn in Hitler's side.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of the five deadliest snipers of all time, and a major thorn in Hitler’s side.

Born in 1916, Lyudmila grew up in Kiev. She was athletic and very competitive. After hearing a boy boast of his prowess at a local shooting range, Lyudmila was determined to show that a girl could do just as well. She joined a shooting club and practiced incessantly. By 14, she stood out as a talented marksman.

Lyudmila was at college studying history in 1941 when Hitler’s troops attacked the Soviet Union. She immediately volunteered for the Red Army as a shooter. Her recruiter laughed at the beautiful young woman with manicured nails, and suggested she become a field nurse. Lyudmila pulled out her marksmanship certificate.

Eventually, the Red Army allowed her to “audition” for the job. They positioned her on a hill they were defending, then handed her a rifle and pointed toward two enemy soldiers. She picked off both of them with two shots, and was accepted into the army.

On her first day in the field, she became paralyzed with fear and could not raise her weapon. Suddenly, a young soldier positioned next to her was shot.

“He was such a nice, happy boy,” she later recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”

Lyudmila fought for several months in Odessa and Moldavia. As her kill count rapidly rose, she was given increasingly risky assignments. Lyudmila became a counter sniper, engaging in duels with enemy snipers.

She never lost a single duel, sometimes maintaining positions for 15 or 20 hours at a time. One duel lasted three days.

During this period, Lyudmila recorded 187 kills.

The Nazis occupied Odessa, and Lyudmila was sent to Sevastopol in the Crimea. After eight months of heavy fighting, her kill count rose to 257 and she was promoted to sergeant.

Though wounded three times, she kept going back to the front. Finally, however, she was seriously injured by a mortar blast in 1942, and taken off active duty.

The Soviet High Command sent Lyudmila to the United States to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Stalin desperately wanted the U.S. to invade Europe so that the Nazis would be forced to shift resources from the Soviet campaign.

Lyudmila met President Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to visit the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt befriended her, and invited Lyudmila to accompany her on a speaking tour of the US.

Dressed in an olive green uniform, Lyudmila shared her experiences as a woman in a combat zone with audiences all over the country. She was gracious to reporters, even when asked silly questions like, “Can you wear makeup at the front?”

Lyudmila answered, “There is no rule against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”

She lost her cool only once, when a reporter criticized her dowdy uniform, implying that it made her look fat. She snapped back, “I wear my uniform with honor. It’s been covered with blood in battle.”

America fell in love with Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Politicians and admirers gave her gifts of rifles and pistols. Woody Guthrie even wrote a song about her called Miss Pavlichenko.

As an effective mouthpiece for the Soviet propaganda machine, Lyudmila also spoke out against gender and race discrimination in America.

After returning home, Lyudmila was commissioned as a major and awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union,” her country’s highest distinction. She served as an instructor, training other snipers, before returning to college to complete her history degree.

In 1957, Eleanor Roosevelt toured Moscow and visited her old friend in her two bedroom apartment. Uncomfortable with Eleanor’s bodyguard, Lyudmila pulled the former First Lady into her bedroom and hugged her warmly. The two women laughed and cried as they reminisced about their remarkable summer together in 1942.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko died in 1974, at age 58, and is buried in Moscow. Her recorded kill count is 309, but was probably much higher because a “confirmed kill” needs to be witnessed by a third party.

For her epic courage in fighting Nazis on the battlefield, as well as her advocacy for women’s rights, we honor Lyudmila Pavlichenko as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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