Spotlight On: Mariya Oktyabrskaya & the Fighting Girlfriend

Welcome to the first instalment of my new 'Spotlight On' series where each post will look at the incredible life of a different historical figure. From the famous to the unknown, the subject of each post will range in notoriety.
"Mariya Oktyabrskaya" in H. Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003)

First up is Mariya Oktyabrskaya. Mariya was born in 1905 in the Crimean region of the Ukraine. She was one of ten children in a peasant family and was considered a serf. As a result of her peasant status in life, she welcomed the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent Communist regime that followed. It was under Communism that Maria was able to free herself from serfdom and gain an education and a job,firstly in a cannery and later as a telephone operator.

Key Word: serf - an agricultural labourer bound by the feudal system who was tied to working on his lord's estate.

In 1925, she married Ilya Oktyabrskaya who was a member of the Soviet Army. Mariya also took an interest in military matters. She learnt how to drive, how to use firearms and took an interest in nursing. Alongside this she joined the Military Wives' Council. However when the Second World War, or Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, rolled around she was sent to Tomsk in Siberia, far away from the fighting.

Antonov14 / CC BY-SA (
In August 1941, Ilya was killed in battle but poor Mariya didn't find out until two years later. Devastated by her husband's death, she did what any woman would do - she sold all her belongings and bought a tank. To be more precise, she used the money to actually build her own model T-34 1941 medium tank which she donated to the Soviet army on the condition that it would be called the Fighting Girlfriend and that she would be the one to drive it. Blaming the fascist enemy for her husband's death, she wrote the following in a letter to Stalin:

“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs  for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.” - Via Rejected Princesses

Stalin responded in agreement. Oktyabrskaya joined the 26th Guards Tank Regiment and participated in her first battle on 21 October 1943 in Smolensk. Her male comrades regarded her a somewhat of a joke and some kind of publicity stunt but boy did she prove them wrong. During her first battle, Mariya killed 30 German soliders, took down a machine gun nest and took down a German anti-tank gun. If that wasn't enough, mid-battle she realised that the Fighting Girlfriend had taken damage to both the engine and the hydraulics. Being a bad ass, Oktyabrskaya got out of the tank in order to fix it amidst a huge tank battle. She then did this again in another battle the following month in Vitebsk.

Perhaps Maria got too cocky. During another action filled night, she once again left her tank to make repairs but this time she was not so lucky. During some intense fire, Mariya Oktyabrskaya was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel, knocking her unconscious. She remained in a coma for 2 months before dying in March 1944. For her acts of bravery and valour, Mariya was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union award in August 1944.

Comment below with more stories of bad ass women from history!

Further Reading: 
Mariya Oktyabrskaya 
The Fighting Girlfriend T-34
Mariya Oktyabrskaya, the Fighting Girlfriend
H. Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-45 Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003
A. Streather, Red & Soviet Military and Paramilitary Services: Female Uniforms 1941-1991 Dorchester: Velcoe Publishing, 2010


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