Roza Shanina (3 April 1924 – 28 January 1945) was a Soviet sniper during World War II who was credited with fifty-nine confirmed kills, including twelve soldiers during the Battle of Vilnius. Shanina volunteered for the military after the death of her brother in 1941 and chose to be a marksman on the front line. Praised for her shooting accuracy, Shanina was capable of precisely hitting enemy personnel and making doublets (two target hits by two rounds fired in quick succession).
In 1944, a Canadian newspaper described Shanina as “the unseen terror of East Prussia”. She became the first Soviet female sniper to be awarded the Order of Glory and was the first servicewoman of the 3rd Belorussian Front to receive it. Shanina was killed in action during the East Prussian Offensive while shielding the severely wounded commander of an artillery unit. Shanina’s bravery received praise already during her lifetime, but came at odds with the Soviet policy of sparing snipers from heavy fights. Her combat diary was first published in 1965.
On 2 April 1944 Roza Shanina joined the 184th Rifle Division, where a separate female sniper platoon had been formed. Shanina was appointed a commander of that platoon. Three days later, southeast of Vitebsk, Shanina killed her first German soldier. In Shanina’s own words, recorded by an anonymous author, her legs gave way upon that first encounter and she slid down into the trench, saying, “I’ve killed a man.” Concerned, the other women ran up saying, “That was a fascist you finished off!” Seven months later, Shanina wrote in her diary that she was now killing the enemy in cold blood and saw the meaning of her life in her actions.She wrote that if she had to do everything over again, she would still strive to enter the sniper academy and would go to the front again.
For her actions in the battle for the village of Kozyi Gory (Smolensk Oblast), Shanina was awarded her first military distinction, the Order of Glory 3rd Class on 17 April 1944. She became the first Soviet female sniper and the first servicewoman of the 3rd Belorussian Front to receive that order. According to the report of Major Degtyarev (the commander of the 1138th Rifle Regiment) for the corresponding commendation list, between 6 and 11 April Shanina killed 13 enemy soldiers while subjected to artillery and machine gun fire. By May 1944, her sniper tally increased to 17 confirmed enemy kills, and Shanina was praised as a precise and brave soldier. The same year, on 9 June, Shanina’s portrait was featured on the front page of the Soviet newspaper Unichtozhim Vraga.
When Operation Bagration commenced in the Vitebsk region on 22 June 1944, it was decided that female snipers would be withdrawn. They voluntarily continued to support the advancing infantry anyway, and despite the Soviet policy of sparing snipers, Shanina asked to be sent to the front line. Although her request was refused, she went anyway. Shanina was later sanctioned for going to the front line without permission, but did not face a court martial. She wanted to be attached to a battalion or a reconnaissance company, turning to the commander of the 5th Army, Nikolai Krylov. Shanina also wrote twice to Joseph Stalin with the same request.
From 26 to 28 June 1944, Shanina participated in the elimination of the encircled German troops near Vitebsk during the Vitebsk–Orsha Offensive. As the Soviet army advanced further westward, from 8 to 13 July of the same year, Shanina and her sisters-in-arms took part in the struggle for Vilnius, which had been under German occupation since 24 June 1941. The Germans were finally driven out from Vilnius on 13 July 1944. During the Soviet summer offensives of that year Shanina managed to capture three Germans.
From her time at the military academy, Roza Shanina became known for her ability to score doublets (two target hits made in quick succession). During one period she crawled through a muddy communications trench each day at dawn to a specially camouflaged pit which overlooked German-controlled territory. She wrote, “the unconditional requirement—to outwit the enemy and kill him—became an irrevocable law of my hunt”. Roza Shanina successfully used counter-sniper tactics against a German cuckoo sniper hidden in a tree, by waiting until dusk when the space between the tree branches would be backlit by sunlight and the sniper’s nest became visible. On one occasion, Shanina also made use of selective fire from a submachine gun.
In August 1944 advancing Soviet troops had reached the Soviet border with East Prussia and by 31 August of that year Shanina’s battle count reached 42 kills. The following month the Šešupė River was crossed. Shanina’s 184th Rifle Division became the first Soviet unit to enter East Prussia. At that time, two Canadian newspapers, the Ottawa Citizen and Leader-Post, reported that according to an official dispatch from the Šešupė River front, Shanina killed five Germans in one day as she crouched in a sniper hideout. Later in September her sniper tally had reached 46 kills, of which 15 were made on German soil and seven during an offensive. On 17 September, Unichtozhim Vraga credited Shanina with 51 hits. In the third quarter of 1944, Shanina was given a short furlough and visited Arkhangelsk. She returned to the front on October 17 for one day, and later received an honourable certificate from the Central Committee of Komsomol. On 16 September 1944, Shanina was awarded her second military distinction, the Order of Glory 2nd Class for intrepidity and bravery displayed in various battles against the Germans in that year.
On 26 October 1944 Shanina became eligible for the Order of Glory 1st Class for her actions in a battle near Schlossberg (now Dobrovolsk), but ultimately received the Medal for Courage instead. Shanina was awarded the medal on 27 December for the gallant posture displayed during a German counter-offensive on 26 October. There Shanina fought together with Captain Igor Aseyev, a Hero of the Soviet Union, and witnessed his death on 26 October. Shanina, who served as an assistant platoon commander, was ordered to commit the female snipers to combat. She was among the first female snipers to receive the Medal for Courage. Schlossberg was finally retaken from Germans by the troops of the 3rd Belorussian Front on 16 January 1945 during the Insterburg–Königsberg Operation.
On 12 December 1944, an enemy sniper shot Shanina in her right shoulder. She wrote in her diary that she had not felt the pain, “the shoulder was just scalded with something hot.”Although the injury, which Shanina described as “two small holes”, seemed minor to her, she needed an operation and was incapacitated for several days. She reported in her diary that the previous day she had a prophetic dream in which she was wounded in exactly the same place.
On 8 January 1945 Nikolai Krylov formally allowed Shanina to participate in front-line combat, albeit with great reluctance: previously Shanina was denied that permission by the commander of the 184th Rifle Division and the military council of the 5th Army as well. Five days later, the Soviets launched the East Prussian Offensive, which prompted heavy fighting in East Prussia. By 15 January, travelling with divisional logistics, Shanina reached the East Prussian town of Eydtkuhnen (now Chernyshevskoye), where she used white military camouflage. Several days later, she experienced friendly fire from a Katyusha rocket launcher and wrote in her diary, “Now I understand why the Germans are so afraid of Katyushas. What a fire!” At the border of East Prussia, Shanina killed 26 enemy soldiers. The last unit she served in was the 144th Rifle Division. According to the online Book of Memory of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Shanina served in the 205th Special Motorized Rifle Battalion of that division. Shanina had hoped to go to university after the war, or if that was not possible, to raise orphans.
In the course of her tour of duty Shanina was mentioned in despatches several times. Her final sniper tally reached fifty-nine confirmed kills (fifty-four, according to other sources), including twelve kills during the Battle of Vilnius, with sixty-two enemies knocked out of action. Domestically her achievements were acknowledged particularly by the war correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg and in the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, which said that Shanina was one of the best snipers in her unit and that even veteran soldiers were inferior to her in shooting accuracy. Shanina’s exploits were also reported in the Western press, particularly in Canadian newspapers, where she was called “the unseen terror of East Prussia”. She paid no special attention to the achieved renown, and once wrote that she had been overrated. On 16 January 1945 Shanina wrote in her combat diary: “What I’ve actually done? No more than I have to as a Soviet man, having stood up to defend the motherland.” She also wrote, “The essence of my happiness is fighting for the happiness of others. It’s strange, why is it that in grammar, the word “happiness” can only be singular? That is counter to its meaning, after all. … If it turns necessary to die for the common happiness, then I’m braced to.”
In the face of the East Prussian Offensive, the Germans tried to strengthen the localities they controlled against great odds. In a diary entry dated 16 January 1945, Shanina wrote that despite her wish to be in a safer place, some unknown force was drawing her to the front line. In the same entry she wrote that she had no fear and that she had even agreed to go “to a melee combat.” The next day, Shanina wrote in a letter that she might be on the verge of being killed because her battalion had lost 72 out of 78 people.
Her last diary entry reports that German fire had become so intense that the Soviet troops, including herself, had sheltered inside self-propelled guns. On 27 January Shanina was severely injured while shielding a wounded artillery officer. She was found by two soldiers disemboweled, with her chest torn open by a shell fragment. Despite attempts to save her, Shanina died the following day near the Richau estate (later a Soviet settlement of Telmanovka), 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) southeast of the East Prussian village of Ilmsdorf (Novobobruysk (de)). Nurse Yekaterina Radkina remembered Shanina telling her that she regretted having done so little. By the day of Shanina’s death the Soviets had overtaken several major East Prussian localities, including Tilsit, Insterburg and Pillau, and approached Königsberg. Recalling the moment Shanina’s mother received notification of her daughter’s death, her brother Marat wrote: “I clearly remembered mother’s eyes. They weren’t teary anymore. … ‘That’s all, that’s all’—she repeated”. Shanina was buried under a spreading pear tree on the shore of the Alle River—now called the Lava and was later reinterred in the settlement of Znamensk, Kaliningrad Oblast.