International Women’s Day 2019: Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya

As part of a month long build up to International Women’s Day Celebrations on the 8th of March, the YCL will be publishing daily articles highlighting the exemplary role played by women in the international communist & working class movement. 

Today we commemorate Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, Soviet partisan and Hero of the Soviet Union.

 YCLers are encouraged to host, support and participate in celebrations locally to bring the message of International Women’s Day into our workplaces, colleges and schools, and communities.

Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya (1923-1941) was born in the village of Osin-Gay, near the city of Tambov, south of Moscow. She was born into a family of local priests however her father chose to become a librarian and her mother a school teacher. Her father died when she was ten following surgery. Zoya’s brother, Aleksandr, was also posthumously awarded the Honour of Hero of the Soviet Union after he fell during the battles in Eastern Prussia.

The family moved multiple times during the tumultuous period following the end of the Civil War and the first of the Five Year Plans, finally settling in Moscow. Zoya did very well in school, was especially fond of history and literature and was noted to be extremely bright. Poignantly, with the full benefit of hindsight, she wrote of Shakespeare’s tragedies “the death of a hero is always accompanied by a triumph of a high moral cause”. She dreamed of attending the illustrious Leningrad University.

However, like the Soviet Union itself and so many of its youth, the coming of the Great Patriotic War was to delay or derail so many hopes and aspirations. Kosmodemyanskaya had joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League) in 1938. On 31 October 1941, at the age of 18, Zoya, together with 2,000 young communist volunteers entered a sabotage school, becoming a member of a sabotage and reconnaissance force, partisan unit 9903rd, staff of the Western Front”. Only half would survive the war.

At this time the USSR was approaching the crucial Battle of Moscow. Loss of the capital would be a huge logistical and morale blow for the Soviet People. In actual fact it would turn out to be the first major reversal for the fascist invaders on the Eastern Front. But this was all yet to be decided. Following their training the partisans were assigned to conduct sabotage and wrecking attacks behind the frontline in the Moscow Region.

The attacks were intended to hamper and disrupt the German build up before the final assault on Moscow. Key to this effort was burning settlements where German troops were stationed. Kosmodemyanskaya along with others crossed the frontline at the village of Obukhovo where she was involved in successful operations mining roads and cutting vital communication lines. On November 27, 1941 Zoya received an assignment to burn the village of Petrischevo, where a German cavalry regiment was stationed.

Zoya and two other comrades were successful in setting fire to a number of buildings used by the Nazis to house troops and supplies. After the initial attack they were due to rendezvous at a pre-assigned location however in the confusion, one of her comrades being captured, Zoya found herself alone. She decided to return to Petrishchevo to finish the job.

Kosmodemyanskaya was successful in setting fire to a number of other buildings occupied by the Germans. But, already on alert following the initial attack, the Nazis captured Kosmodemyanskaya.

At the interrogation, Zoya said her name was Tanya and refused to say anything definite. The Germans stripped her naked and lashed her, then marched her outside in the freezing cold. She still refused to provide any intelligence or information on her comrades.

The next morning, Zoya was marched to the gallows wearing a sign enscribed “arsonist”. To the villagers forced to assemble to witness her execution she declared: “Hey, comrades! Why are you looking so sad? Be brave, fight, beat the fascists, burn, trample them! I’m not afraid to die, comrades. It is happiness to die for one’s people!”

To the Germans she remarked “You hang me now, but I’m not alone. There are two hundred million of us. You can’t hang us all. They will avenge me”.

Her final words from the gallows were: “Farewell, comrades! Fight, do not be afraid! Stalin is with us! Stalin will come!” Her body was left to hang for a month before being buried by Soviet troops who liberated the territory in January 1942.

She was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union in 1942 after her story as published in Pravda. She was later reburied in Moscow. Across the USSR, streets, collective farms and Young Pioneer organisation were named in her honour.

The role of partisans in the USSR and across Europe in often neglected in Western accounts of WWII. The will of working people to overcome fascism and the sacrifices they were prepared to make in their millions is a testament to humankind. Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, is a paradigm of this bravery and determination. She was not simply anti-fascist, she was also a young Communist fighting to defend Soviet socialism. She will forever remain an inspiration to communists everywhere. Her sacrifice should also be a sobering lesson when we consider and reflect on the supposed difficulties we face in our own struggles.