Nadezdha Durova, The Cavalry Maiden
Nadezdha Durova was born in an army camp to a Russian major in 1783. From her very beginnings as an infant Nadezha had a life of hard knocks when she was almost killed by her abusive mother, who threw her out of a moving carriage. During her childhood Nadezdha moved with her father from military base to military base. It was then that she learned military discipline, how march, how to ride, and how to fight. It was said that her favorite two toys were a pistol and a saber.
At the age of 18, Nedezdha was forced into an arranged marriage with an influential judge. Two years later she gave birth two a son. Nadezdha hated her husband and couldn’t stand the life of a housewife. In 1807 at the age of 24, she ran away, disguised herself as a boy, and enlisted in the cavalry under the alias Alexander Sokolov.
Nadezdha had joined the Russian Army just in time, as Europe was embroiled in war as Russia, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain formed a coalition to stop that infamous French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Nadezdha served with incredible distinction and was heavily decorated throughout the campaign. In one incident she rescued a cavalryman who had suffered a concussion. While under heavy fire she lifted the man and carried him off the battlefield. In another she rescued a high ranking officer from certain death by eliminating three French dragoons (cavalrymen) who were in pursuit of him.
In the meantime Nadezdha’s family used their influence to find her. When she was discovered and her gender revealed, rather than being drummed out of the army, she was summoned to the court of Czar Alexander I, who was greatly impressed by her story. He awarded her the Cross of St. George, then the highest award offered by the Russian Empire. She was also promoted from the ranks to Lieutenant. Keep in mind, this was at a time when few enlisted soldiers were “risen from the ranks” to officership. It was rarer still to have a female soldier openly serving in the Czar’s army, or any army for that matter.
In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia, what would become the biggest mistake of his career. Nadezdha fought in the Battles of Smolensk and Borodino. At Borodino, she was seriously wounded by a cannonball, which shattered her leg. She continued her duty regardless until ordered to recuperate by her command. The war ended in 1815, and in 1816 she retired from military service with the rank of captain. She became the most heavily decorated Russian cavalryman (or I should say cavalrywoman) of the Napoleonic Wars.
During her civilian life she became a writer,publishing four novels. Under the encouragement of the famed playwright, poet, and novelist Alexander Pushkin, she wrote and published her memoirs entitled The Cavalry Maiden in 1836. Throughout her life she advocated for women’s rights, becoming an early inspiration for the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
In 1866, Nadezdha Durova passed away at the age of 82. She was buried with full military honors.