Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper

Shannon Quinn - May 29, 2019

World War II history is often filled with stories glorifying the bravery of the men who fought to defend their countries. Most ladies were at home doing their duty in factory jobs and taking care of the home front, but one 24-year-old woman dedicated her life to killing Nazis. Her name was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, and she was a sniper on behalf of the Soviet Union. She had a kill count of 309, which made her the single most successful female sniper in all of history. After the war was over, she toured the United States, and formed an unexpected friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt before she went back to a very normal life. Decades have gone by, and her memory has nearly been forgotten. Lyudmila Pavlichenko deserves to be honored for risking her life for her country.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, in a colorized photo. Credit: Airsoft Action Magazine

Pavlichenko Wanted Revenge on the Nazis

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was born in Bila Tserkva, which is modern-day Ukraine. When she was a young girl, she was a tomboy and was competitive in sports. She heard a boy in her neighborhood bragging about the fact that he was a real sharp-shooter. After hearing this, she thought to herself that she could be just as good at anything that a boy could do. So, she learned how to use a gun, and started training. She turned out to be correct, because she won multiple awards in marksmanship.

Pavlichenko got married when she was just 16 years old, and had a son named Rostislav. But she wanted so much more from her life than being a housewife. She got a divorce, and years later, when her son was old enough to go to school, she attended Kiev University as a history major. When she was in her senior year, Nazis bombed her school, and it stopped her from finishing her Bachelor’s Degree. This was the beginning of her deep-seated hatred for the Nazis.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
Pavlichenko with her comrades. Credit: Colored by Za Rodinu on Flickr.

At 24 years old, she signed up to be a sniper in the Soviet army. At first, they denied her for being a woman, but she came prepared. She had earned several marksmanship awards for shooting throughout her lifetime. After seeing her talent, they made an exception, and allowed her to enlist. The Russians sent her to study at “sniper school”, where they trained her to use her shooting skills. However, The Red Army officers expected her to prove herself far more than any man. The officers shoved her out into an open field, and told her to kill two enemy German soldiers. The Nazis fell to the ground, because Pavlichenko did not hesitate to shoot. She passed the test, but those two deaths did not count toward her official total kill count. The Soviet Union accepted a total of 2,000 female snipers, but only 500 survived the war.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
After the war was over, Pavlichenko demonstrated how she would perch herself in a tree. Credit: YouTube

Going Into Battle

Lyudmila Pavlichenko killed two Nazi soldiers on her first day of active duty, and she kept up that momentum throughout the war. The Battle of Odessa only lasted for 73 days, and she had 187 confirmed kills. And after the Battle of Sevastopol, her new total kill count was 257. One day, she was hiding in a tree. An enemy soldier discovered her, and they began to shoot. So she fell out of the tree and lay on the ground. She played dead for several hours, laying completely still, until nightfall. Pavlichenko was able to make it back to her camp, giving her a reputation that she had literally come back from the dead. She earned the nickname “Lady Death”, and word spread that the Soviets had an incredibly skilled woman on their side.

Soviet soldiers completely respected her, and she was moving up in the ranks of the Soviet army. During a particularly difficult battle, the senior officers were all killed, and there was no one left to give commands. She naturally stepped into the role, and everyone listened to her orders on what they should do next. One of the soldiers yelled out, “Cowards! Look at this woman! Pavlichenko has the balls of a man!” This fired the men up, and they made it out alive. She was so popular, even met her second husband, Sergeant Major Kitsenko, while they were at war together.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
Lyudmila Pavlichenko holding her gun. Credit: Getty Images

As the war went on, Pavlichenko became better and better at sniping. She began to use various tactics to distract Nazi soldiers, like tying bright colorful scarves to plants, and store mannequins dressed up in German uniforms. The Nazis stopped to stare at her distractions. She was able to get a clear shot at them, setting her sights on their heads and pulling the trigger. At one point, the Soviets needed her help to get rid of the enemy’s most skilled shooters. She was assigned to become a “counter-sniper”, which was when two snipers go head-to-head. This meant that she had to stay in hiding for days at a time without taking any breaks. She never lost, though. She managed to kill 36 of the most talented German snipers.

When German soldiers saw her on the battlefield, they would should that they would kill her and “cut her into 309 pieces.” Instead of intimidating her, she was actually happy about this. It meant that they knew exactly who she was, and her reputation had proceeded her. She knew that they must be frightened. Other times, they would shout over the loudspeaker that if she chose to come to their side, they would give her chocolate and make her a German officer. Obviously, she didn’t fall for the bait, and shot at those men, instead.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt smiling and laughing together. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Friendship With Eleanor Roosevelt

Lyudmila Pavlichenko left the army, because her health was declining. Pavlichenko was rushed to the hospital. The shrapnel was all over her body after her close encounters with death. To make matters worse, her beloved husband was killed in battle. She was able to go home to see her son and start living a normal life in Ukraine, but nothing could really ever be the same again. Even though she sacrificed everything to fight the Nazis, there would be no “happily ever after”.

In 1941, the United States was fighting Japan as a direct result of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was working together with Joseph Stalin to bring up public approval to send troops to Europe to help the USSR to fight the Nazis. The two leaders decided that Lyudmila Pavlichenko would be a great example to show the American men, because it would rub it in that in the Soviet Union, even women were going to war, with the theory that it would dig into their pride. She accepted this new assignment, and saw it as doing her duty for her country once again.

So, in 1942, Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in The United States. For her, visiting America was like coming to another planet. Reporters asked her rude and sexist questions, like why she didn’t wear makeup or curl her hair. One reporter said that her uniform made her look fat. Another asked if she was allowed to stop fighting to powder her nose, and she responded, There is no rule against it, but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?” They didn’t seem to comprehend that she was one of the most skilled snipers on the planet.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a.k.a. “Lady Death” Was The Greatest Soviet Female Sniper
Pavlichenko posing for a photograph during her tour. Credit: The Library of Congress

At first, she felt very awkward at these speeches, and the Americans were not treating her with the respect she deserved. She really wasn’t sure what to say. Instead of speaking for herself, Pavlichenko would speak to her translator, and stand very seriously behind the podium. She formed an unexpected bond with the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt. They went on tour, and visited 43 US cities together. Mrs. Roosevelt took Pavlichenko under her wing, and they became very good friends.

In 1943, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was featured on a Russian postage stamp, and her photos were published in international newspaper. She became famous all over the world for her achievements. After a while, she grew more and more confident during her tour. During one speech, she said, “I am 25 years old, and I have killed 309 Fascist occupants by now. Gentlemen, don’t you think you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” That line sank in deep with the men in the audience. The United States sent troops over to Europe to help in the fight against the Nazis. After this tour, though, few people ever heard from the sniper again, because she returned to her home in Ukraine.

Fifteen years later, Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to know what happened to Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She traveled to the Soviet Union, and had to fight hard to find out where she lived. Pavlichenko had returned to her hometown and finished her studies at Kiev University, where she earned a Master’s Degree in History. She was able to get a job as a research specialist for the Chief Headquarters of the Soviet Navy.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper. Gilbert King. Smithsonian Magazine. 2013.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Meet a Soviet Sniper. Drunk History. Comedy Central. 2016.

Meet Lyudmila Pavlichenko- The Deadliest Female Sniper In History. Katie Serena. 2018.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Rejected Princess.