The funeral of Soviet aviator Marina Rashkova in January 1943 was carried out with all the pomp that Stalin’s regime could muster. As the urn containing her ashes made its final journey to Red Square, leading figures in the government formed a solemn guard of honour. The roar of aircraft engines could be heard from a fly-past overhead, while a threefold rifle volley marked the moment that the urn was placed in the Kremlin wall. ‘One of the most remarkable women of our time, Hero of the Soviet Union,’ proclaimed Pravda on its front page.
The official lamentations for Rashkova reflected the high esteem in which the female pilots of the Soviet air force were held during the titanic struggle against the Third Reich. These women were placed in the combat units not only because of the severe shortages of manpower but also because their presence helped to promote the Soviet doctrine of equality. Heroines like Rashkova were symbols of the new order, smashing the old class-bound hierarchies.
Britain, the Soviet Union’s ally, also had women in her formidable air force during the Second World War, but they served as technicians, radio controllers, ferry pilots and armourers. None flew in direct combat against the enemy. But in the USSR the situation was very different. In 1941 an entire