Soviet Union, Women and the Home Front during World War II

The impact of World War II on the women of the Soviet Union. During World War II, Soviet women were unique among the women of the great powers in their large-scale participation as fighters in the armed forces. They also played a proportionately greater economic role than the women of the other major belligerents.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, led to the greatest land conflict in the history of warfare. Beginning in 1941 over half of Germany’s armored units fought only on the eastern front. At the end of the war three-quarters of the forces left in Germany’s 37 armored divisions were fighting on the eastern front. Hitler had asserted, "You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." He was mistaken. Although the Germans were welcomed in the Baltic states, newly occupied by the Soviet Union, and in parts of the Ukraine, the vast majority of Soviet citizens rallied to the defense of their homeland in its struggle for survival. Women were an essential part of the Soviet war effort and victory. Between 800,000 and 1 million women served in the Soviet armed forces (Cottam 1980, 345). Others participated as partisans in the resistance. More, however, did essential war work on farms and in factories and in preparing defenses in threatened cities. By the end of the war four out of five workers on collective farms were women, and the share of women in public employment rose from two-fifths before the war to nearly three-fifths by 1944 (Harrison 2002).

The suffering of all Russians was intense, but Russian civilians were allotted fewer rations than soldiers. When rationing was instituted in July, workers were allocated 800 grams (1.76 pounds) of bread a day and 2,200 grams (4.85 pounds) of meat a month, supplemented by cereals, sugar, and fat. The ration for older women and children amounted to only 400 grams (14.11 ounces) of bread a day; by the end of 1943 this had been decreased to 300 grams (10.58 ounces). People were reduced to eating dogs and cats. Food crimes—the theft of food and the theft and forgery of ration cards—were widespread. Incidents of cannibalism were even reported. All of these crimes were harshly punished, frequently by summary execution.

In Leningrad, which was besieged by the Germans for 900 days from early September 1941 until January 27, 1944, the rations were much smaller, and the bread that was distributed contained sawdust to give it greater weight. On September 2, 1941, the bread ration for the inhabitants of the city was decreased to 600 grams (1.32 pounds). On September 8, 1941, the Germans bombed the 4-acre Badayev warehouse complex where much of the city’s food supply was stored. On September 12 the bread ration was decreased to 500 grams (1.10 pounds); on November 20 it was cut to 250 grams (8.82 ounces) for workers and 125 grams (4.41 ounces), or 460 calories, for civilians. The inhabitants were without fuel, running water, and electricity. During the siege of Leningrad, 1 million of the city’s 3 million inhabitants died from starvation and cold, and several hundred thousand were killed by bombing and shelling (Museum of Tolerance 2005).

It is estimated that 7 million Russian combatants, male and female, died during the war. The toll on civilians was at least twice that. Among the millions of civilians who died, women constituted at least half, if not more, of the casualties. In parts of the Soviet Union occupied by the Nazis, Jewish and Roma females and males, adults and children alike, were rounded up and systematically exterminated by mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen.

Individual women distinguished themselves in combat. Among the women who contributed to the cultural life of the Soviet Union during the war, Anna Andreevna Gorenko Akhmatova (1889-1966), the great Russian poet, stands out. She expressed the patriotic feelings of the Russian people and their moral outrage at the ravaging of their country by its fascist enemy.

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