Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Battle For Sevastopol

(Битва за Севастополь, Ukraine, Russia, 2015)

The Ukrainian title was Незламна: Indestructible. A reader recommended this one to me, but since Lee has sworn off war movies, I watched it on my computer in ten-minute increments late at night or when I was taking a short break from the things I’m supposed to be doing. I’m glad I did.

It tells the incredible story of Major Lyudmila Mykhailovna Pavlichenko, the deadliest Soviet sniper in the Great Patriotic War. The Russians never had the qualms that Americans and Europeans had regarding females in combat. Women served in all capacities: in the trenches, in tanks, in aircraft, and in the elite sniper corps.

She was either the third- or fourth-ranking sniper of all time, depending on who is counting. She was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, and the Order of Lenin, twice! She took out 306 fucking Nazis. That included 36 German snipers, the hardest targets of all because they know all the tricks that you know. To kill another sniper one has to be able to lie absolutely still for up to a couple of days at a time, not eating, probably not drinking, in the snow or rain, blazing heat, suffering swarms of mosquitoes or ants, watching for that slight twitch of a blade of grass, the tiny movement of a branch.

She once took out three German officers with one shot! It was a lucky alignment that allowed her bullet to pass through the first two before lodging in the third, but she is the only one who ever made a shot like that.

She was badly wounded several times. After she was torn up by a mortar round she spent a month in the hospital. Then the higher-ups decided that she would be more useful in another capacity. This was because of her huge reputation as a hero; it would be a big blow to the Russian people if she were to die. So they sent her to America where she delivered morale-building speeches to large groups. (Her mother was an English teacher, so she was quite fluent.) She was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. She met Woody Guthrie, who wrote a song about her. Woody was a peaceful man, but he had no illusions about the way to deal with fascists: Kill them before they breed. He wrote THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on the side of his guitar. While I doubt the ability of folk music to deal out death, I applaud the sentiment. The refrain of his song was “More than 300 fascists felled by her gun!” You can find it on YouTube.

This is a very good film. There is violence, of course, but it’s not excessive. Lyuda is portrayed by Yulia Peresild, a small woman who plays her as intense, laconic, all business, but not heartless. But killing so many people, even if they are invading your motherland, your Rodina, raping and pillaging as they go, must take a toll on you. At one point she seems to have hardened herself to the point that she no longer sees her targets as human beings. She shoots one German in the leg, listens to him howling for a while, then shoots him in the shoulder. She looks prepared to chip away at him all day until her partner puts him out of his misery and admonishes her. From then on it was head or chest shots only. And she suffered badly from what we now call PTSD, as just about anyone would.

I have heard it claimed that snipers are cowards. They fire from concealment, at great distances, and then slip away. No one has ever explained to me why that is more cowardly than dropping napalm on a village, killing dozens, or dropping bombs from 30,000 feet, killing hundreds or even thousands. Or shooting into advancing infantry from a tank or a machine-gun nest. What is this, fucking Medieval England where knights battled it out, man to man, with swords? High Noon with Gary Fucking Cooper or Matt Fucking Dillon giving the other hombre the chance to draw? War is ugly by nature, there is no “brave” way to kill, unless you’re a goddam idiot. You do what you have to do, both to save yourself and to kill the other guy. There is no pretty, chivalrous way to do it. I applaud the snipers, who may actually save lives by taking out an officer. If they don’t have a lieutenant or major to push them on, a battalion may just stay in their trenches instead of charging into machine-gun fire.