The Womanly Ways of War : THE CAVALRY MAIDEN<i> by Nadezhda Durova; translation, introduction and notes by Mary Fleming Zirin (Indiana University Press: $25; 242 pp.) </i>
Amazons--fierce female warriors--exist not just in myth but in reality. Every nation has its female heroines, celebrated whenever patriotism is again necessary. Which is to say, celebrated when war sacrifices are necessary.
Russia enjoys a wealth of Amazons, thanks to its turbulent history. As the Soviet Union lurched toward World War II, the career of the impetuous, willful and well-born Nadezhda Durova was used to serve as an example of womanly military virtue.
Born in Siberia in 1783, Nadezhda hated the confinements of women’s lives, and she hated the confinement of winter. She escaped the former--and sometimes even the latter--by running away and enlisting in the Uhlans, a light-cavalry regiment. We would call them lancers.
This sexual sleight-of-hand was easier than you might suppose. Among the military, physical exams generally did not come into practice until World War I, so, if you could stand up, you could sign up. Officers, especially, enjoyed more privacy than they do today, and an aristocratic officer with some money had more authority than his/her modern counterpart.
Durova, aristocratic--and if not wealthy, at least comfortable--took full advantage of her birth. She operated on the principle that the world was her oyster, and she intended to pry it open.
Enlisted men and fellow officers suspected that the boyish soldier was a woman. They chose to ignore it because she was incredibly brave, which in the heat of battle proves far more important than gender. In short, they needed her.
Durova may have lacked sense but not courage. She fought through the Napoleonic War, charging to the front at every available opportunity. She was so wild, with so little thought for her own safety, that her commanding officers despaired of keeping her alive. Finally, she was recommended to Czar Alexander I for her valor.
The young czar had heard rumors of a warrior woman in his ranks, and when he received a letter from Durova’s uncle begging that she be returned to her father, the Czar demanded to see her.
He told her to go home. Durova begged and Alexander, moved to tears, gave in. He also gave her a full commission and money at generous intervals.
Durova did not disappoint her worshiped sovereign. As the Napoleonic War grew more brutal she grew more reckless. She delighted in daring death and hadn’t a scrap of fear when surrounded by it.
In her diary--and “The Cavalry Maiden” is essentially her re-written diary--she admires Napoleon. However, if he was such a genius she can’t understand why he allowed himself to be sucked into the depths of Russia. Her conclusion was that he’d been successful for so long that he’d become arrogant.
Her snapshots of the French retreat, the result of Napoleon’s arrogance, are vivid, harrowing and pitiful. She reveals the human history, the suffering and emotional numbness that these catastrophic events caused.
A poignant encounter says as much about Durova as the time. She was nipping at the enemy’s heels near Smolensk in 1813. The French came to Russia certain of victory and permanent residence. In this certainty they brought their families. Many of the soldiers, exhausted by the constant running skirmishes, withdrew into the forests with their wives and children. They hoped to hide from the killing frost and the Cossacks.
One such family was attacked when a fire gave them away. They scattered, only to be slaughtered, but the eldest daughter, a child of 8, clad only in a thin frock, crawled into the thick bramble and escaped death. After the Cossacks finished their grim work, she crawled through the thickets on her hands and knees, finally emerging on a road at nightfall. A Cossack officer rode by and she cried to him. He took pity on her, lifted the half-frozen child onto the saddle and delivered her to the post station at Smolensk. He ordered the station master’s wife to care for the child. She said she could not. Enraged, the officer shouted at the woman that if she didn’t take the little girl he’d dash her brains out since he couldn’t bear to see her suffer. The good woman took the child.
Durova met the child and the woman shortly after this, and the little French girl had so completely won over the hearts of the station master and his wife that Nadezhda and another cavalry officer burst into tears upon hearing the story and witnessing the love these people had for one another.
In Mary Fleming Zirin’s spirited re-telling of an extraordinary story, Durova’s voice is a modern voice. “I don’t know what to do! Money vanishes like smoke, and I can’t understand where it goes.” Durova realized that she had but one life to lead and one chance to be happy in it. To her credit she seized the opportunity and died at age 83 in 1866.
Durova’s conundrum was that in order to fulfill herself she had to disguise her gender and throttle her desire for men. She never wanted to be a man. She wanted the freedoms of a man.
Male or female, there are those personalities entrusted to Mars, the god of war. If Mars cannot free his 20th-Century Amazons, they will have to free themselves. Durova provides an exciting example.