Saturday, April 9, 2016

Badass Women of History- Marina Yurlova

Marina Yurlova

The Soldier


Though she never gained the fame or notoriety of some of history's other 'warrior women', Yurlova has a unique story. Her memoir 'Cossack Girl' provides an interesting account of her time serving as a solider in the Russian army during WWI.

Joining the war at just fourteen she would spend her formative years living the life of a soldier and enduring the hardships of life at the front.

Born in a village in the Caucasus Mountains in 1901, Yurlova was a member of the Kuban Cossacks, one of the many Cossack groups that inhabited southern Russia.

Historically, Cossacks were primarily known for two things- A strong sense of independence and their military prowess.

The word Cossack literally means free-man and adventurer.

Descended from Mongol Tatars, Russian peasants, and immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries, the Cossacks coalesced into small self-governing military communities.

These communities stayed independent for over a century before being recruited by the Russian monarchy in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. In exchange for certain privileges the Cossacks were the vanguard for many of Imperial Russia's campaigns of expansion. Serving as scouts, shock troops and bodyguards, the Cossacks earned a reputation for being fierce fighters and steadfast servants of the Czars.

Cossack soldiers in WWI

It was no surprise that when Europe descended into the hellish chaos of the First World War, the Cossacks were called into action. Marina's father, a colonel, set off for the front in 1914. Marina, swept up as so many young people in Europe were by nationalism and patriotic fervor, decided to follow in his footsteps. 

At fourteen years old, she slipped away from her village and climbed aboard a military train in the hopes of uniting with her father. Attached to a group of a Cossack women following their men to the front, Marina eventually found herself in a Russian military camp on the Russian-Turkish front.

Despite her age and gender, Marina was accepted quickly by the men of the camp. Taken under the wing of a soldier named Kosloff, she was given a uniform and was assigned to the stables where she looked after the horses. Though she still looked for her father, her life became consumed by her new regiment.

Marina Yurlova as portrayed by Natalia Witmer in the series '14- Diaries of the Great War'

In time, Marina was also trained as an automechanic and was taught how to shoot by her mentor. Still only fourteen when she tasted combat for the first time, Marina joined her company for an assault to blow up bridges controlled by the Turks.

The attack ended in disaster. Shot in the leg early in the battle, Marina was helpless as her entire company was mowed down by Turkish gunfire. Among the dead was her friend Kosloff. Crawling her way back to her lines, Marina was taken to a hospital where her leg was nearly amputated.

Fortunately, she recovered. The only survivor of the attack, she was awarded a medal and was assigned to a new company. She received a much cooler welcome from her new comrades who regarded her as a child and a camp-follower. She was frequently left behind on missions. One night, while her company was on a dangerous night attack, Marina took a horse from the stables and rode to the front lines.

She found her unit and her courage in the battle cemented her status with the other soldiers.

Marina would continue to serve at the front for three more years, working as a stable-hand, automechanic, truck driver, scout and soldier.

She would survive many battles and close calls, including a night attack where she was knocked unconscious during an artillery barrage in no man's land. She awoke to find herself buried almost up to her face with dirt dispersed by the shells and had to be dug out by other Russian soldiers.

Marina remained at the front until 1917 when the Czar was overthrown. With supply shortages and a lack of morale in the Russian army, desertions and talks of mutiny grew. When Bolshevik soldiers in her unit slew the commanding officers and took control of the regiment, Marina's Cossack heritage made her a target. 


Bolshevik Recruiting Poster During the Russian Civil War

Because of her people's staunch loyalty to the Czar (and because many Cossacks were joining anti-Communist armies) she was detained and sent to a Bolshevik prison. She spent several months in a cell by herself. Then, as Russia descended into civil war between pro and anti Communist forces, Marina heard gunshots in her wing of the prison.

A White Russian army just a few days away, the Bolsheviks in charge of the prison had decided to execute their remaining prisoners before fleeing. With her cell all the way at the end of the hall, Marina listened as the Reds shot down the captives inside each room. Expecting her time to come, she stood in the center of her cell waiting for the door to open. However, the Bolsheviks forgot she was there and left after killing the man in the room next to her.

Marina spent several days without food or water in her cell before the White Army arrived and freed her. She joined the anti-Communists for a while before suffering severe shell shock and being hospitalized in Moscow.

Marina was still recovering when she decided that she had endured enough hardship. Seeing no future for herself, she left the hospital with the help of a sympathetic doctor and began an arduous journey across the vast expanse of Russia to Vladivostok. There, she hoped to reach someone at an American run mission and find passage on a ship to the US.


Route of the Trans-Siberian Railway which Marina Yurlova used on her journey

Taking a train across the vast expanse of Siberia in 1919, Marina joined a group of Royalists and Cossacks who jumped off in the Siberian wilderness and continued their journey on foot.

A month later, after hiking through wilderness and dodging Bolshevik patrols, the now nineteen year old Marina reached the American mission in Valdivostok, where she secured passage to Japan and then America.

Marina spent the rest of her life living quietly in the US, performing as a dancer before marrying an American filmmaker and becoming a US citizen in 1926. 

Marina Yurlova in 1919.