Maria Bochkareva, the third daughter of a peasant family, was born in Novgorod Oblast in 1889. Badly beaten by her alcoholic father, she left home at fifteen to marry Afansi Bochkareva. The couple moved to Tomsk, Siberia where they worked as labourers on a construction site. A good organiser, Maria eventually became foreman of a team of 25 male workers.
Physically abused by her husband, Maria left him and found work on a steamship. Later she married a second man, Yakov Buk, but he was also violent towards her and and in 1914 she left him and joined the 25th Reserve Battalion of the Russian Army. Although the men laughed at having a woman in their regiment, she soon gained their respect in battle. She admitted in her autobiography: "The news of a woman recruit had preceded me at the barracks and my arrival there precipitated a riot of fun. The men assumed that I was a loose-moraled woman who had made her way into the ranks for the sake of carrying on her illicit trade."
Over the next three years Maria was wounded twice and decorated three times for bravery. Florence Farmborough, a nurse working in Russia, recorded in her diary: "Maria Bochkareva... a Siberian woman soldier had served in the Russian Army since 1915 side by side with her husband; when he had been killed, she continued to fight. She had been wounded twice and three times decorated for valour."
In May 1917, Maria persuaded Alexander Kerensky, the country's new leader, to allow her to form a Women's Battalion. In a speech given in June, she argued: "Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke - to protect the freedom of our country."
Maria Bochkareva managed to persuade over 2,000 women to join the Women's Battalion. The American journalist, Bessie Beatty, went to see the women on the Eastern Front: She wrote: "Women can fight. Women have the courage, the endurance and even the strength for fighting. The Russians have demonstrated that and, if necessary, all the other women in the world can demonstrate it."
Florence Farmborough commented on 13th August, 1917: "At dinner we heard more of the Women's Death Battalion. It was true; Bochkareva had brought her small battalion down south of the Austrian Front, and they had manned part of the trenches which had been abandoned by the Russian Infantry. The size of the Battalion had considerably decreased since the first weeks of recruitment, when some 2000 women and girls had rallied to the call of their leader. Many of them, painted and powdered, had joined the Battalion as an exciting and romantic adventure; she loudly condemned their behaviour and demanded iron discipline. Gradually the patriotic enthusiasm had spent itself; the 2000 slowly dwindled to 250. In honour to those women volunteers, it was recorded that they did go into the attack; they did go 'over the top'. But not all of them. Some remained in the trenches, fainting and hysterical; others ran or crawled back to the rear."
On 25th October, Bochkareva and the few remaining members of the Women's Battalion attempted to defend the Winter Palace against Bolshevik forces. John Reed, an American journalist in Petrograd during the revolution reported that "all sorts of sensational stories were published in the anti-Bolshevik press, and told in the City Duma, about the fate of the Women's Battalion defending the Palace. It was said that some of the girl-soldiers had been thrown from the windows into the street, most of the rest had been violated, and many had committed suicide as a result of the horrors they had gone through."
Alfred Knox, the British Military Attaché in Petrograd, intervened in order to help free members of the Women's Battalion who had been captured during the attack on the Winter Palace. This involved him negotiating with Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: "I borrowed the Ambassador's car and drove to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. This big building, formerly a school for the daughters of the nobility, is now thick with the dirt of revolution. Sentries and others tried to put me off, but I at length penetrated to the third floor, where I saw the Secretary of the Military-Revolutionary Committee (Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko) and demanded that the women should be set free at once. He tried to procrastinate, but I told him that if they were not liberated at once I would set the opinion of the civilized world against the Bolsheviks."
The Duma appointed a commission to investigate the claims of ill-treatment and on 16th November, Dr Mandelbaum, reported that three had been violated, and that one had committed suicide. However, he claimed that none had been "thrown out of the windows of the Winter Palace." On 21st November, 1917, the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion.
After her release Maria Bochkareva fled to the United States. Funded by Florence Harriman she lived in San Francisco before travelling to New York City and Washington to meet leading politicians. This included President Woodrow Wilson, who promised to do all he could to defeat the Bolshevik government. While in America, Bochkareva dictated her memoirs, Yashka, My Life as Peasant, Exile and Soldier to Isaac Don Levine.
Bochkareva travelled to London where she was granted an audience with King George V. She also met members of the British government and it was agreed to pay for her to return to the White Army controlled Russia. Attempts to form another Women's Battalion ended in failure. In April 1919 she moved to Tomsk and served under Alexander Kolchak. Later that year she was captured by troops led by Nestor Makhno and Mikhail Frunze.