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International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution

PART OF THE International Women ISSUE

‘Many young women earned pilot’s certificates in after-school clubs, and even became flight instructors.’

Did you know that the Russian Revolution saw young women earn pilot’s certificates in after-school clubs, with some going on to become flight instructors? Elizabeth Wein delves into this fascinating but lesser-known history and shines a spotlight on the incredible women who flew, fought and died for the Soviet Union as combat pilots in World War II.

Starting a Fire: International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution
By Elizabeth Wein

The rally that set off the Russian Revolution in 1917 was actually organized as a Women’s Day march* by striking workers in the Russian capital city, Petrograd. About 40,000 women carrying banners marched in the name of bread and peace: they were tired of food shortages caused by World War I, and they were tired of the imperial regime of the Romanov Czar Nicholas II. By the end of the day, the crowd had swelled to 100,000 striking workers, both men and women. The rallies continued the next day, and out of them a revolution was born.

When Nicholas II abdicated a month later, three hundred years of Romanov imperial rule came to an end. From the ashes of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union took wing. International Women’s Day on 8 March, the anniversary of the start of the Russian Revolution, became one of the new nation’s most significant holidays. It’s still an important holiday in modern Russia.

One of the things that really impresses me about the Russian Revolution was how deeply it was powered by, and empowered, women. I’m not saying the Bolsheviks and Soviet communism got things right: but they did make a go of gender equivalency. When the Soviet Union was formed, girls and boys were given exactly the same early education and were offered the same exciting co-curricular activities like parachuting and firing rifles. Many young women earned pilot’s certificates in after-school clubs, and even became flight instructors. So they were ready and able to fly for their country when it was invaded by the Nazis in June 1941.

For the past three years, I’ve been up to my neck in research for a non-fiction project about these incredible women who flew, fought and died for the Soviet Union as combat pilots in World War II. But being a fiction writer at heart, my mind is always busy with “what-ifs” – which is how my novella Firebird, forthcoming from Barrington Stoke in August 2018, came to be. The action of Firebird takes place in the air, but at its heart it’s about the bond between the teenage pilot Nastia and her older female flight instructor, who’s known as the Chief. Nastia is the daughter of revolutionaries, and the Chief herself fought in the Russian Revolution.

What I love about writing fiction is being able to bring together “what-ifs” that don’t entirely match up. What if someone close to Czar Nicholas II became a revolutionary and a pilot? Would a person who’d embraced the old imperial regime be able to forge a new life in the new communist state? What if she were a young woman on her own – would the new attitudes toward gender equality allow her to hide her past? Would she be able to take wing, to be reborn like a firebird?

8 March is also an important day for women who fly. On 8 March 1910, a French actress named Raymonde de Laroche became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s license. Although the date may have been a coincidence, Women of Aviation Worldwide Week is now celebrated throughout the world during the week that includes International Women’s Day, to honour the achievements of early female pilots and to encourage women and girls to take to the skies.

Firebird is my own way of celebrating some of these achievements, and I hope it will encourage young readers to take to the skies themselves!

*Because of changes made to the Russian calendar after the revolution, the Petrograd women’s march occurred in February 1917 in the old calendar. It is celebrated annually on 8 March.


Firebird by By Elizabeth Wein will be published on 15 August by Barrington Stoke. You can find out more about the book here.

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