Thursday, December 24, 2020

I will become a fighter

‘I want to devote my life to science, and I will, but if necessary, I will forget astronomy for a long time and I will become a fighter.’ This from the diary of a young Russian woman, Yevgeniya Rudneva, born a century ago today. She was studying astronomy at Moscow University but heeded a call by Stalin’s government to train as a military aviation navigator. She flew over 600 bombing raids and, tragically, died aged but 23.

Rudneva was born on 24 December 1920 in Berdyansk, a Black Sea port in southeast Ukraine. (Although most sources, including the Russian-language Wikipedia, cite this as her birthday, the English-language Wikipedia cites it as 24 May 1921). Her mother was Jewish but her father was Russian Orthodox. She went to secondary school in Moscow, and then studied astronomy in the faculty of mechanics and mathematics at Moscow State University. 
In October 1941, after Stalin’s government began recruiting young women to fight in the war (the so-called Frontovichki), Rudneva volunteered for military service. She undertook a navigators courses at the Engels Military Aviation School, and made her first flight in early 1942. Later that year she joined the 588th Night Bomber Regiment (later known as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment) and was deployed to the Southern Front.

Rudneva flew some 645 night time bombing missions (in Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes) across the Transcaucasian, North Caucasian, and 4th Ukrainian fronts as well as in battles for the Taman and Kerch peninsulas. During her career, Wikipedia says, she flew with many pilots, including future Heroes of the Soviet Union, Yevdokiya Nikulina and Irina Sebrova. She was shot down on the night of 9 April 1944 - she was still in her early 20s! Subsequently, she was honoured as a Hero of the Soviet Union and with the Order of Lenin. Several monuments were built in her memory; and Asteroid 1907 Rudneva, a school in Kerch, streets in Berdyansk, Kerch, Moscow and Saltykovka were all named after her.

There is very little information about Rudneva freely available online, though Wikipedia has a short article, and tbere are more biographical details in Soviet Women on the Frontline in the Second World War (available to preview at Googlebooks). However, she did keep a diary, and this was published after the war by a contemporary of hers, Irina Rakobolskaya, who had seen Rudneva shot down. (Rakobolskaya went on to become a celebrated scientist, living to the age of 96.) A few extracts from Rudneva’s diary translated into English, can be found in the same book, and also at Top War and this Russian site.

31 December 1936
‘Although I want to live peacefully
For war I am ready - here is the reason why:
Beware! Not only I alone proudly
Hold a Komsomol ticket!’

‘So that the enemies of sleep have forgotten.
If the year flew together,
If there are more than two hundred sorties,
Wherever I later be,

Anyway, I won't forget you.
I will not forget how weave sat down,
As on the Manych guns we were beaten,
Over the burning homeland, we raced.’

‘I know very well, the hour will come, I can die for the cause of my people . . . I want to devote my life to science, and I will, but if necessary, I will forget astronomy for a long time and I will become a fighter . . .’

January 1942
‘On January 5, for the first time in my life, I was in the air for 10 minutes. It’s such a feeling that I don’t dare to describe, because I still don’t know how. It seemed to me later on earth that I was born again on that day. But on the 7th it was even better: the plane made a tailspin and performed one coup. I was tied with a belt. The earth swayed, swayed and suddenly stood over my head. There was a blue sky under me, clouds in the distance. And I thought at that moment that the liquid does not pour out of it when the glass rotates . . .

After the first flight, I seemed to be born again, began to look at the world with different eyes ... and sometimes it even scares me that I could live my life and never fly . . .’

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