Episode 38 - A Noble and Historic Parking Lot Brawl (Revenge Week)
Updated: Apr 18
Sam's Episode Notes: Mariya Oktyabrskaya and the Fighting Girlfriend
There's something about Ukrainians and revenge Tom. The last time we went to Ukraine, it was to talk about Olga of Kiev, the 10th Century saint and widowed ruler who went on a very Christian and quite sadistic rampage after the murder of her husband. And today, I'm talking about a badass Ukranian widow who, erm, went on a rampage after the death of her husband, pretty much exactly a thousand years later.
Welcome to the heroic and probably/possibly mostly true story of Mariya Oktyabrskaya, and The Fighting Girlfriend. Now if you've ever seen a fight in a pub car-park where two guys go at it and then one of their partners launches in and turns out to be more vicious than both of them combined, this is pretty much that in Russian historical form.
So, Mariya. She was born in the Crimea in Ukraine and/or Russia delete as appropriate in August 1905, and was pretty normal for most of her youth. She had a job in a cannery. Not to be confused with a job in a canary, where she worked in the left wing. Mind you it was the Soviet Union, so everyone was in the left wing. Thank you very much.
And she also had a job as a telephone operator. Avoid obvious 1950s joke about all women being experts at using a phone.
So far, so normal. But in 1925 she married a Red Army officer and began to take a very keen interest in military matters. She joined the Military Wives Council and qualified as a nurse, driver and gunner. Which was very unusual at the time – there were very few cars in the USSR, and even fewer women who knew how to drive them.
Here's an easy question for you Tom, can you name any other famous female truck drivers from WW2? How about the then Princess, now Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II?
So in June 1941 the German's launched the Eastern offensive and invaded the Soviet Union. Mariya's husband was sent off to fight, and Mariya herself was evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia. Which sounds a bit rough, being taken from the beautiful resorts of the temperate Black sea to Siberia. But hey, probably better than the alternative.
And it was certainly better than the fate of her husband, who died in battle near Kiev in August 1941, just a few weeks into the war. Although to be honest, despite beign a qualified military officer he survived Stalin's great purge in the late 1930s, so he didn't actually have a bad run.
In the chaos of the early days of the Eastern Front, information travelled very slowly, if at all – and it took two years for news of his death to reach Tomsk.
Mariya, presumably already livid that he hadn't text, was apoplectic with rage at the news, and immediately began to plot her revenge against the nazis. Cue sporting montage. First, she sold everything she owned. Literally, all her worldly posessions were flogged, and she donated all the cash she made, around 50,000 roubles, to the Government. And then she wrote a letter. Sporting montage of letter writing over candlelight. She wrote a letter to Stalin, explaining what had happened and stating that the 50,000 roubles was to pay for a tank. A tank that she would drive. And tank that she would drive straight at the first Nazis she saw.
Now this was way too good a propaganda opportunity to throw away. A widow selling her worldly possessions to aid the motherland and get revenge? Straight out of the Chekov playbook. And so Stalin said yes. Or rather that's how the story goes. A nameless bureaucrat stamped 'Da' on the request. And mariya got her tank.
A version of the letter has survived – though how true to life it is I've no idea: “My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings–50,000 rubles–to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the front line as a driver of the said tank.”
Interestingly, she wasn't the only person to buy herself a tank in WW2 - Aleksandra Boiko and her husband Ivan also raised and donated 50,000 roubles and ended up driving and fighting in their tank as a husband and wife team on the Eastern front, with her in command and him as the engineer. They were both injured on the same day and recovered together in hospital together. Which is quite sweet.
Anyway, back to Mariya. She's got her tank. But she didn't actually know how to use it. Ordinarily, for the Soviets, this wasn't an issue. Russian tanks at the worst points in WW2, at the Battle of Stalingrad, for example, were rolled straight from the factory on to the battlefield without even being painted by crews who had just the barest minimum of training, often just a couple of days or even less. Mariya was a special case, though. She was a propaganda victory, so they wanted to make sure she lasted more than five minutes.
So she was sent off for five months of intensive tank driver training. And in September 1943 she was shipped off as a driver and mechanic, alongside Fighting Girlfriend, to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade. Who thought this was hilarious.
Now in WW2, over 800,000 women served with the red army. But very few of those were at the spearhead of the offensive, many were truck drivers or anti-air gunners. Still very very dangerous, but not bayonets fixed over the top dangerous. And so this now 38-year-old officer's wife in her angrily named tank with a letter from Stalin was a bit of a novelty.
She pretty quickly proved them wrong. In fighting around Smolensk in October, she knocked out several German anti-tank guns and machine gun nests. When the tank was hit, she lept out to fix it in the heat of battle, earning herself a promotion to sergeant. A couple of weeks later, again, her tank was involved in heavy fighting where it knocked out several German guns before again being hit and losing a track, which she jumped out and repaired. By this time, she was gaining a pretty fearsome reputation.
Unfortunately, it wasn't to last. On January 14th 1944, just three months after reaching the front line, the tank was again hit whilst in fierce fighting. Mariya got out to repair the tank and another shell exploded next to her, hitting her in the head. She survived in a coma for a couple of months, but died on March 15th 1944. She was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest honour, and was one of only two female tank drivers to receive the award. And she became the propaganda star the soviets had hoped – they put her on postcards, wrote newspaper articles about her... She was a real celebrity following her death.
Most importantly, however, the greatest award of all, she was declared an overlooked Disney Princess in a recent poll by an American newspaper. I don't know what you'd call a Disney film set in the Russian winter, given that Frozen is already taken, but I imagine the song would go something like this...
Do you want to kill a nazi?
Come on, let's go and fight,
My husband's been dead several years,
If I have to fix this tank once more, I might get blown awaaaay.
Tuneless and insensitive all in one. That's this podcast in a nutshell.
Interestingly, she wasn't the only soviet revenge fighter, though. Roza Shanina was another particular badass, a nursery or kindergarden teacher who became one of the Soviet's best snipers after signing up when her brother was killed in the siege of Leningrad. The Russians particularly liked women as snipers because they could squeeze into tight spaces, and were viewed slightly sexist-ly but probably not entirely wrongly as being more patient and cunning than men. She was one of about 2,500 female Russian snipers in WW2 and one of the best, eventually getting 59 confirmed kills before being shot and dying herself in January 1945 aged just 20.
Tom's notes: The bizarre and brutal story behind Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo
· We could go on forever with honourable mentions for this topic!
· I want to mention one that is so brutal that it could easily come out of a history book, but it only happened 15 years ago.
o Just briefly, in 2004 an Indian man called Akku Yadav was being tried for rape in Nagpur in India.
o He was accused of raping around 200 women over a decade (and worse; murders)
§ He was basically a gang leader with the police in his pockets
o The accusers did not feel that the police were taking their accusations seriously (what!? Corrupt India officials not taking their job seriously and showing no integrity?!)
o So 200 women stormed the court, hacked Yadav to death, cut off his penis, stabbed him 70 times, stoned him and rubbed chilli in his face
o In the days that followed the event, every women in the local slum district claimed to be the murderer to make the Police enquiry as difficult as possible
o No one does mob justice quite like the Indians!
In the end, I settled on the topic of the inspiration behind Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo; one of the most famous stories of epic revenge.
· The Count of Monte Cristo was written in 1844 by French author Alexandre Dumas. I won’t talk about the plot of this story specifically, go read it! Or watch one of the very many films or television adaptations based on the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the French series with Gerard Depardieu in the lead role; his giant conk has such presence in every scene.
Let me start by introducing you to Pierre Picaud; the shoemaker of Nimes
· Dumas claimed that Picaud was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo.
· Dumas discovered his story when looking through a police archive of criminal cases.
o For anyone who is familiar with the book, this is pretty much the exact same plot!
· In 1807 Picaud was engaged to a wealthy woman.
o Three of her friends were jealous and so falsely accused Picaud of being an English spy (this date is smack bang in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars where the English and the French weren’t really on talking terms. Only 2 years after the Battle of Trafalgar).
o Picaud was sentenced to 7 years in prison in Fenestrelle (fen est tray lee) Fortress in the Italian Alps and didn’t even know why for the first 2 years.
§ In Dumas’s story, this is the Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille
o Whilst in prison, Picaud went Shawshank and burrowed a hole through to his neighbouring cell where an Italian priest was writing bad reviews about the Air BnB he’d booked.
§ Traditional hostel situated high in the Italian Alps with views over the historical town of Turin my arse! Fully air conditioned with a spa bath my backside!
o Father Torri and Picaud became good friends. Incidentally, Father Torri translates into Irish as Father Ted
o Father Torri died in his Air BnB but shortly before this he told Picaud of some treasure he had buried in Milan
o In 1814 Picaud is released from prison after the fall of Napoleon and the French First Empire
§ 1812 Napoleon had foolishly invaded Russia and had a rather nasty time retreating from Moscow. The tides subsequently turned against him and a few years later he was exiled to the Island of Elba (but not for long!).
o Picaud then goes full Liam Neeson!
§ He has one of his plotters murdered
§ Another of the plotters, called Loupian, married his fiancé
· Picaud arranged for Loupian’s daughter to fall in love with, and marry a criminal. Picaud then arranges for this criminal to be jailed. Loupian’s daughter dies of sadness and Picaud follows this up by burning down Loupian’s restaurant leaving him impoverished
· Picaud then frames Loupian’s son for a theft, gets him jailed and then stabs him to death
§ The third plotter is poisoned by Picaud
§ Eventually Picaud is killed by another old ‘friend’ who knew of the plot but wasn’t directly involved
o This all sounds very romantic, chivalrous and honourable but in reality I imagine it was a bit more chavvy
§ “Oi Shazza, why are you gonna marry that Picaud, I love you more than him, I’ll look after you real good”
§ “Shut up Loupian, your such a creep, I love Picaud”
§ “Oi Loupian, are you chatting up my bird mate!?
§ “Leave it Picaud out, he’s not worf it”
§ “Fuck off Loupian, I’m gonna hit you so fucking hard, hold me back Shazza”
There is another very interesting influence on Dumas here, which is his father. His father’s life was also apparently an inspiration for another Dumas book; The Three Muskateers.
Let me introduce you to Thomas-Alexandre Dumas
· Father of Alexander Dumas
· Born 1763, died 1806.
· French general during the Revolutionary Wars
o He actually rose to the rank of general in chief of a French Army, commanding 50,000 men in the Alps
o He was very successful; despite his mother being a slave, he was given the perks of an aristocratic child
o In 1792 his Army of the Alps secured pass through the Alps into the Italian peninsular allowing the French to fight the Austrian forces in Italy.
o In 1798 he joined Napoleon on an expedition to take control of Egypt.
§ The two clashed
§ Dumas was tall, athletic, fearsome to the eye and a renowned fighter
· Napoleon: “General Dumas … has killed with his own hand many enemy cavalrymen. The General had, for many minutes, held a bridge all alone against the enemy cavalry who were trying to cross the river. By doing so, he was able to delay the enemy advance until reinforcements arrived.”
§ Napoleon was short, rotund and had, erm, Napoleon syndrome, named after Napoleon, who was short round and had, erm, Napoleon syndrome…
o In 1799 Dumas left Egypt by boat and runs aground in Italy where was captured and thrown into prison
§ He was eventually release in 1801 when Napoleon’s forces took this area of Italy.
§ For 2 years he had been kept in horrendous conditions and physically he was in a terrible state
§ Napoleon had made no effort to free Dumas any earlier
o In 1806 Dumas died of stomach cancer with his family living in poverty. Dumas seems to have been ignored by the French government and Napoleon who did not give him the usual pension or any other financial support.
§ His son, the famous writer, didn’t even have a secondary school education due to the family’s lack of money
· Can you guess what was unique about Thomas Alexandre Dumas?
o Some clues…
o He shared this trait with another French general called Toussaint Louverture
o In 1975, Chappie James became a 4 star general in the American Army and in doing so, knocked Dumas and Louverture off their top-spot
o They were all of Sub-Saharan descent
§ Dumas was mixed race; his mother was a black slave