The Meditations is a curated series of reflections on writing and storytelling from contributors to Going Down Swinging No. 35. This reflection comes from Chloe Wilson on her poem ‘Lyudmila Pavlichenko, From the Orchard’.
Only the witnessed kills count.
No one except the more meticulous
gods know the number
of notches I’ve earned.
— excerpt from ‘Lyudmila Pavlichenko, From the Orchard’
With 309 kills to her name, Lyudmila Pavlichenko is the most successful female sniper in history. After she was wounded and removed from active duty, she became a national hero – sent to tour Canada and the U.S. (and later the U.K.), and posing for publicity photographs, including one that shows her staring down the barrel of her weapon with a satisfied, enigmatic half-smile. Later, she was commemorated on postage stamps. ‘Lady Sniper,’ ‘Mankiller,’ ‘Russian Army Girl Sniper’ – the popular image is of Pavlichenko as a glamorous figure, a femme fatale whose deadliness was made palatable by the fact that it was directed towards an invading Nazi force.
This image, of course, obscures the reality. There were about 2,000 Soviet women snipers active during WWII, of whom approximately 500 survived. Roza Shanina was disembowelled by enemy fire. Natalya Kovshova pulled the pin on a grenade and killed herself (along with another sniper, Maria Polivanova) rather than be captured. Tatiana Baramzina was tortured and shot by her Nazi captors. Pavlichenko, working alone in no-man’s land, lived with the constant threat of death or capture. She was also an agent of death to a greater extent than the infamous ‘309 kills’ suggests – for a ‘kill’ to be recorded, there had to be an eyewitness. No one knows how many Nazi soldiers Pavlichenko actually shot, but estimates suggest the total number was closer to 500 than 300.
In writing about Pavlichenko, I wanted to focus on these and other gaps in the popular version of her story. The long hours of isolation, hoping for targets to emerge. The tension between total concentration and inevitable boredom and fatigue. The silence and stasis in which she must have waited, as to move or make noise would attract the attention of enemy snipers. And the space for thought (if there was such a space, between terror, weariness, cold, and the hyper-focus required of snipers) that such an existence may have opened up.
The poem I wrote about Pavlichenko considers what her interior monologue may have been like. This is not to say that I believe it is a faithful representation of anything Pavlichenko herself thought – it’s fictionalised, speculative, meant as an invitation to consider all the blank hours of stillness and staring that composed a sniper’s experience, rather than the seconds in which a shot was fired and a note was added to the logbook.
Initially, ‘Lyudmila Pavlichenko, from the Orchard’ was a longer piece. However, I wasn’t quite satisfied with this earlier version. It seemed unwieldy, as though it had the potential to be more condensed, more concentrated. I experimented with deleting lines, then took out two entire sections, believing at the time that it was because they were the weakest (and perhaps they were). But, looking at those sections now (one is about the act of shooting a target, the other recounts an incident in which Pavlichenko saw a fellow sniper shot) it’s evident that they both consider the external. What remains is a fictional construction of Pavlichenko’s inner world: the impressions, memories, and thoughts that occur to her as she waits, hunched in a tree, for the next unwitting enemy to wander into her crosshairs.