I have been attempting to write a novel about World War Two women Aviators. The stories are taken from information that I have gleaned from reading about these remarkable women and I have added my own imagination to create stories around them.
Russian Women Pilots
There was a knock on the door, I wondered who would be visiting me as I seldom had visitors these days without a prior arrangement. I heaved myself up from the depths of my armchair and went to answer the door. I looked through the spyhole and saw on the other side a man wearing round glasses, his eyes round like those of a fish, his bulbous nose dominated his flattened face. I turned the key and allowed the door to open just enough as it pulled on the security chain.
‘Yes?’ I enquired.
‘Elena Semenova?’ he said.
‘I wish to speak with you.’
‘What is it about?’
‘It is a matter of public security.’
My legs sank at the knees and I had to hang onto the door for support. No, it can’t be, I had done nothing, said nothing. My mind scrambled thoughts and conversations; Galina, what had she said, who had she been talking to? Would she do such a thing?
‘What security?’ I said mustering all the strength I could gather to sound strong and incredulous.
‘It is a matter of discretion.’
‘I do not understand.’
‘If I could come in and talk to you or I can let all your neighbours know the reason why I am here,’ he said glancing around him.
I slid the little bar across and released the chain, I opened the door just far enough for him to pass through. He was a short stocky man and his clothes smelled of stale tobacco, he brushed passed me without any formalities by way of introductions. Once inside he turned and told me that he was from the authorities and it had come to their attention that I had been in touch with an Englishwoman.
‘It is true an Englishwoman did contact me to ask me about my experiences as a pilot during the war.’
‘This woman wants to come to Moscow to meet you?’ Again was it a question or a statement.
‘How do you know this?’ I asked feeling a little bolder.
‘Elena Boloveskia we know everything.’
For a moment he unnerved me and I felt the need to sit down but I was not going to be intimidated by this man from the authorities.
‘Would you like some tea?’ I asked waving my hand towards the samovar.
‘I have not come for tea. I have come to ask questions.’
I sank into my armchair and waited.
It did not take me long to wonder if the telephone was still bugged, was it because of my conversation with Galina that this man was here.
‘I was led to believe that I had been exonerated from any war crimes many years ago,’ I said defiantly.
‘We have to be careful how we approach the West,’ he said taking a packet of cigarettes out of his overcoat pocket.
‘Please, do not smoke. I have respiratory problems.’
He sighed and put the packet back deep into his pocket.
‘It is in the interest of the new republic not to meet or communicate with the English woman.’
‘What happened to our new open approach, to our need to embrace a new way of thinking?’
‘I am here to advise you,’ he said emphasizing the word ‘advise’, ‘that the authorities would not wish you to talk with the English.’
‘Thank you for your advice,’ I said pulling myself up out of the chair. I walked towards the door, the man from the authorities stood still watching me, his bulbous eyes glaring.
Opening the door, I thanked him again and stood back to let him out. When he had gone I could feel my stomach collapsing, I was shaking and sweat clouded my vision.
‘Not again,’ I thought.
I am old. I have nothing to lose. I may die at any time and women must have their story told. First I needed to know if Galina had let slip our conversation.
I composed myself with a cup of hot clear tea, allowing the warm liquid to soothe me, the gentle bubble of the hot water in the samovar giving off comfort. I dabbed at my face with my handkerchief and sat for a long time thinking about the KBG, the Politburo, the authorities, the neighbours too afraid to speak in case they incriminate themselves. What kind of life had I been living? Why did I fly aircraft laden with bombs low over the enemy lines if not to liberate our country? Why did I suffer torture and humiliation if it was not so that I could live as a free citizen? We were never free, we were watched and controlled. How I miss my big bear, my husband Ivan, he showed me love, he was clever. He played by the rules but did not allow them to rule him.
I look at myself in the mirror, framed by gold and carved with roses, I am ninety years of age, my grey hair is a light ball of fluff, the slash of red lipstick looks shocking against my pale powdery complexion and my eyes no longer see the detail. The room I sit in is small and stuffy laden with heavy furniture, the lace antimacassars and tasseled cushions are faded and worn. My red painted Samovar decorated with gold leaf roses, is bubbling away on a side table and six small blue Russian bowls stand by ready to serve tea.
I came from a large family, we lived on the outskirts of Moscow, and three of my brothers went into the army and I too wanted to help my country fight the Germans. How can you know what it was like, living in a small apartment with so many people, brothers and sisters sleeping in the same bed, my father coughing, always coughing. My mother adding more water to the weak broth until it tasted of nothing. The smell of bodies and turnips in the overcrowded apartment. My father had been an important man once in the early days and then he became ill and lost favour with the politburo, and we lost our large apartment. We were rehoused in a different part of Moscow with fewer rooms and as my father’s illness took hold so my mother became more silent. Women were presented as strong and supportive by the party, working in factories and on the land as well as being mothers and wives but the reality was that as the war took hold life for women became very hard. My father took me up in a training aircraft when I was only twelve years old and I loved the freedom flying high above the tree tops and flitting in it and out of the clouds. When I heard about the need for women to come forward and fight for Russia I was one of the first to become a pilot. I was only twenty years old but it was a relief to get away from home and join the women preparing to fight.
Natasha, Galina and Lydia, all friends of mine, we learned how to fly those small air planes made from wood and canvas, they had been used for crop spraying but now they were to be laden with a bomb and flown by women. There was no radar, no radio; we used only maps and compasses and because we flew so low we often did not have parachutes.
We were given uniforms that the men had finished with, they did not fit properly, they were bulky and the coarse fabric was itchy and hung awkwardly on our bodies, but we were proud and wanted to be as good as the men.
Of course we were afraid of being shot down and we were given a pistol with one extra bullet in case we were captured and we knew what we had to do. True patriots do not surrender to the enemy. I have known women who had used that final bullet but I didn’t want to think about it. I am old now look at my arthritic hands I can hardly turn my wedding ring, look at my nails they are ragged and chewed.
The Germans called us Nachthexen, or night witches, because we flew at night and as we reached the target we would idle our engines and glide in low to drop our bombs. The whooshing sound, they said, reminded them of the swish of a broomstick. Witches, we were not witches, we were brave, flying low over the German lines returning as many as six or seven times in one night we went back to refuel and take on another bomb. The searchlights pierced the black night as we flew towards the enemy, it was terrifying, knowing that the little aircraft caught fire easily. The cockpit was open and the cold night air, often below freezing, stung your body.
In November 1944 I was shot down as I flew over the enemy lines. My plane burst into flames and I fell to the ground, I lost consciousness and was very badly injured. The Germans captured me and took me to a hospital in Warsaw where I was treated for my burns and broken bones and before they took me to a camp and interrogated me, I gave nothing away, nothing, nothing.
My fellow Russians thought that I had died. But I did not die, I survived. Five months later in April 1945, when the war was nearly over, I was sent back to Moscow. What can anyone understand of these things? After I was repatriated the KGB took me to the Red Army Intelligence Unit where they tortured and interrogated me worse than the Germans. They called me a fascist bitch and said that true patriots did not surrender to the enemy, that I should have used that final bullet. It took twenty years before they believed my injuries were so severe I could not move when I fell to the ground. When the phone call came exonerating me and offering me fine medals it was too late, something inside me had already died. The photos, the medals, the interviews, they are all superficial trophies.
The war, it never ended. Communism made sure of that. They wanted the women to fight but once it was over they had no use for us and we returned to living in the background supporting the men, bringing up families, afraid to speak out. They did not need our skills, our courage, but I was lucky I met Ivan, a bear of a man, he was kind, didn’t drink too much vodka and always worked hard for the party. My friend Galina was the one who got away she married a politburo man, and travelled to Poland with her husband where they lived in a big house with a garden. She asked me to visit her but how could I, it was difficult enough to get a permit to leave Moscow but when you were tarred as a traitor, with or without a reprieve, it was impossible. Galina was invited to go to America to meet some of the WASPs, the American Women Air Service Pilots, she told me they had plenty of everything and she wanted me to go to America with her, she told me that those American women pilots were brave as well.
Women have to be brave every day just to survive. Now I am old and I know my time is nearly finished, I have time to remember when I flew like a bird over the tree tops and in and out of clouds. I was happy for a while. An English woman wants to interview me for a radio programme, she said that she had read how brave the Russian women pilots were and that we were the only women to fly in combat during the War. I was not sure if it would be safe for me and my family if I agreed to this interview, I do not trust the new way of thinking, I do not know how to trust. They took my life away from me but I would like to know what happened to the other women pilots. Galina spends all her time in her dacha these days and when she telephones me she wants only to talk about how brave we were but I am tired, I must rest. I recalled the conversation that I had with Galina.
‘The English woman has been in contact and she wants to come and meet us.’
There was a silence and I could hear the hum of the heating as it gurgled through the pipes.
‘What do you think Galina, should we meet up with her?’
‘It is you she wants to talk to.’
‘I thought we could suggest that she could speak to us both.’
‘This free speech is not for all of us Elena.’
‘You have travelled, you have spoken to the Americans and met women from other countries.’
‘It was in private, it was not printed in newspapers or broadcast on radios, worse, on television.’
‘We were brave once, we were not afraid then to fight for our country, we have to brave for our daughters, for all the young women who have a different fight on their hands.’
The telephone conversation was not going as well as I had expected, I could feel a tightness across my chest, the foul taste of fear was in my mouth. After I put the phone down I thought I am not going to keep silent, I am going to tell them how they used us and then abandoned us. The women of Russia will stand.
Galina sent me a letter to say that she would be visiting Moscow and would like to meet up with me but not in the apartment. She suggested the Café Margarita and I agreed. I had written to her telling her about my visit from the man from the authorities and to tell her to be careful what she said on the telephone. I am now wondering if I can trust Galina; I will go; I will speak to her. I have heard from the English woman again; she is coming to Moscow in October before it gets too cold. She told me that she has an assignment to interview women pilots from America and England and that there is now a lot more interest in the roles that women played during the second world war. It is known that Russian women played an important role in the air force and took part in bombing raids something that did not happen in other countries.
Galina arrived on time wearing a slim fitting black coat with a soft fur trim. She stood erect and still as she waited for the waiter to approach her. He pointed towards me and she waved a leather clad hand and smiled in my direction. She then spoke to him and he led her between the tables and chairs to where I was sitting.
She bent and kissed me on both cheeks before settling herself into the chair opposite.