Female Badasses in History: Manshuk Mametova (1922-1943)
Manshuk Mametova was a distinguished Soviet soldier in the Second World War. Originally only assigned clerk duty, she managed to be assigned to combat duty rather quickly and played a very crucial part (if not the crucial part) in deciding the battle for Nevel, a strategically important town in Western Russia. For her role during this fight she was awarded the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military honor in the USSR, and effectively became the first woman from the Asian parts of the Soviet Union to be awarded this order.
Manshuk Mametova was born on October 23, 1922 in the Zhaskus settlement in the Ural region of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, today Kazakhstan. From age 5 on she was an orphan who was brought up by relatives of her father. While twenty years earlier in Tsarist Russia, being an orphan would have meant that she would have had no chance of securing any kind of career, the Soviet systems allowed for her to first go to High School (a school named after her today) and later enter medical school. While still at medical school Manshuk, a dedicated socialist, began working for the Kazakh SSR Secretariat of the Republican Enforcement Authority, which was less menacing than it sounds since it was mainly tasked with cultural and propaganda programs designed to combine Kazakh culture and nationalism with the values of Soviet socialism (odd it may sound but it worked for the most parts).
When Nazi-Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941 Manshuk was 18-years-old and was one of the first people to volunteer at her local recruitment office. The Red Army distinguished itself from all other Allied (and for that matter Axis) armies – except irregular ones like the partisan armies in Yugoslavia, China, Korea, Vietnam and so forth – by admitting women into its ranks partly due to socialist ideology that took pride in emancipation as understood at the time, partly due to basic necessity for soldiers. Soviet sources often say that Manshuk was motivated to sign up by patriotism and believe in the Soviet system – which seems true at least to a certain extent – but some source also point out that Kazakhstan has a whole host of folklore and mythology based in historical reality that glorifies female warriors – something very common in this region of the world from the Iron Age all throughout the Kazakh Khanate and up until the 18th century. This might also have been a motivational factor for her.
In the Red Army Manshuk was assigned clerical duty for the 100th Rifle Company, mostly composed of Kazakh troops. Manshuk was one of two women who served in this specific company. While carrying out her clerical duties, she used her free time to study the design of Soviet machine guns and learn to shoot them. Because of her apparent talent, her superiors decided to make her one of the machine gunners of the company. They left for the front in October of 1942 and served with distinction.
A year after going to the front to fight the Germans, the company was assigned to take part in the battle for Nevel in Western Russia. The fight was very difficult since the Germans had the advantage of being above the Soviet troops and stopped their advance while inflicting heavy casualties on the Soviet troops. At some point in the battle Manshuk and her fellow machine gun operator went off alone and snuck around German positions and up a hill on their flank. Manshuk killed the Germans on this position with her pistol and knife and took over the German machine gun nest. From there she and her fellow gunner started shooting on the Germans effectively breaking their counter-offensive and giving Soviet troops the time and space to attack. After an hour of non-stop assaulting German troops a hand grenade hit their position immediately killing her fellow gunner and mortally wounding Manshuk. Still she carried on fighting the German army and her continued one-woman assault on the Germans turned the tide of the battle. She died the same day but because of her actions Nevel could be won by Soviet troops and she was awarded the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.
Without Manshuk probably many thousands of Allied soldiers more would have died in the fight for Nevel. Manshuk is buried in Nevel and can be remembered not only as a hero of the Second World War but also as another woman in the long line of Kazakh female warriors who fought with bravery.