Air University Review, January-February 1982

Women and the Soviet Military

Mary Louise O'Brien
Lt. Col. Chris Jefferies, USAF

Examination of Soviet military manpower utilization leads to the conclusion that there is little information available about the role, status, and employment of women in the Soviet armed forces. This conclusion raises important questions, however. Is information about women in the Soviet military lacking because it is closely controlled by the Soviets, or does it reflect the general lack of participation by women in their armed forces?

Evidence suggests that the scarcity of information stems more from the latter reason. Women are not in the mainstream of the Soviet military. This is an important contrast to the role of women in Soviet society where they provide more than 50 percent of the labor force and almost 75 percent of the professional positions.1 With increasing global interest in the women’s movements and indications that women play only a minor role in the armed forces of the Soviet Union, it seems appropriate to try to determine the reasons for such low participation.

Women in the
Soviet Armed Forces

The common historical perception of the woman in the Soviet Army is that of a heroic, highly motivated, well-disciplined, tenacious soldier fighting in defense of the Motherland. Growing out of the Soviet experience of World War II, in which more than 8 percent of the Soviet Union’s mobilized troops were women,2 the image may reflect more the propaganda efforts of the Soviets than reality.3 Nevertheless, the Soviet Union is one of the first contemporary societies to employ women extensively in its armed forces. Women served as “women soldiers” in World War I,4 fought in the Revolution, and even provided combat units during World War II, when three women’s air regiments flew combat aircraft and 23 of their fliers were named Heroes of the Soviet Union.5


Women also served with ground combat units as snipers, machine gunners, and tank crew members.6 While 40 percent of the medical officers at the front were women, the greatest percentage of women served in rear areas to release men for combat duty.7

From the wartime strength of approximately one million women in uniform, the number of women in the Soviet armed forces of today has fallen to an estimated strength of 10,000 to 20,000, or less than one-third of one percent.8 Women are included in the Soviet draft law, but they are to be drafted only in time of war. In peacetime, however, women who have medical or other specialized training are listed on military rosters and occasionally called to active duty for training and indoctrination.9 To attract the required numbers of women to fill their active force quotas, the Soviets rely on unmarried, childless volunteers from the ages of 19 through 25 years.10


In the active force, women serve in traditional, well-defined and controlled occupations carefully separated from operational activities. They generally work in clerical positions, the communications field, in administration, as repair technicians, and particularly in the health and medical services. Indeed, these occupations mirror those usually filled by women in the civilian sector where they are actively recruited.11

While theoretically women can hold any rank in the armed forces, the limited number and types of positions available to them restrict their advancement into higher ranks since the position itself, not the individual’s rank, determines the rank the occupant will hold. Thus, with fewer numbers of positions available for women, fewer opportunities exist for promotion.12


Women rarely achieve officer rank in the Soviet military since they are not allowed to attend the military colleges, the source of regular commissioning in the Soviet Union. Women do participate in mandatory reserve officer training programs while attending educational institutions of higher learning, but few are called to active duty.13


The greatest value of women to the Soviet military, however, seems to be their potential for large-scale wartime mobilization. Indeed, the Universal Military Duty Law of 1967 specifies the drafting of women in wartime, and the Soviets have established several programs and procedures to prepare women for mobilization. These include mandatory participation in military-oriented youth programs, draft-board registration of women with special skills, participation of discharged servicewomen in reserve status until age 40, and reservist status for all women who complete mandatory reserve officer training at university level.14 In summary, the present utilization of women in the active Soviet military, beyond their potential as a large reservoir of manpower in time of war, is restricted to carefully and deliberately controlled positions.


Of greater interest and relevance than the fact of low-participation rates by women in the Soviet military, however, may be the issue of “why.” With Marxist-Leninist ideology stressing the equality of the sexes, and with a tradition of high participation by women in Soviet society generally, it appears paradoxical that so few women serve in their armed forces. Indeed, in an interesting analysis of women in combat, an American scholar argues that women are most likely to be employed extensively in the military by societies in which manpower is considered insufficient to meet a perceived military threat — as in Israel — or in societies where “social consciousness” is prevalent — as in the United States with its concern for equal opportunity.15 One can argue that the Soviet Union fits into both categories: in a world perceived as “threatening,” labor shortages claiming military-aged youth are chronic and increasingly critical; and since the Revolution, women have been encouraged ideologically and even required to participate generally beyond their domestic roles in society. Nevertheless, the fact of very low participation by women in the Soviet military yet remains. A brief review of the experience of women in the broader Soviet society helps to explain these apparent paradoxes.

Women and Soviet Society

The Soviet Union offers an impressive record of providing job opportunities for women. Fifty percent of the labor force is now female, compared with only 41 percent in the United States.16 One of the main tenets of the Bolshevik Revolution was the liberation of women from economic bondage resulting from the “yokes of capitalism and the patriarchal system.”17 The idea of equality for women originated in demands made by the nineteenth-century radical Russian intelligentsia.18 But it was with the social and economic upheaval of the Revolution and the subsequent restructuring of the nation that women’s liberation was codified into the revolutionary system. The revolutionaries rejected the patriarchal notion that required females to be economically dependent on the male “provider-exploiter.”19 It was therefore vital that women find employment outside the home. The bonds of traditional family structure would thus be weakened, leading society to a new level in Marxian history in which all mankind would have the potential for achieving true freedom.20 That was to be the plan. One should also note the pragmatism of the early Bolsheviks who projected the beneficial effect of such an influx of manpower on the preindustrialized, war-torn economy of the 1920s.

Marxist-Leninists quickly established in their constitution a legal basis for female equality. Article 35 states that

Women and men have equal rights in the USSR. Exercise of these rights is ensured by according women equal access with men to education and vocational and professional training, equal opportunities in employment, remuneration, and promotion, and in social and political and cultural activity, and by special labor and health protective measures for women, by providing conditions enabling mothers to work.…21

Subsequently, various labor regulations were enacted that were intended to prevent discrimination and exploitation in employment; they were rules designed to prohibit excessively heavy labor and dangerous work (although in practice not always enforced) and reflected a traditionally chauvinist perception.


However, the ideologically inspired and pragmatically applied concept of women’s equality in the work force has not been without costs. As a result of a contradiction in Soviet policy that urges women to be both productive workers and housewives, a “double burden” has been created by emancipation — raising children and managing a household on one hand and holding full-time, often technical jobs in industry on the other.

This double burden has been largely responsible for a significant trend that is causing alarm to Soviet sociologists and demographers: the decision of the overburdened working mother, particularly in urban, ethnic Russian families, to limit family size to one or at most two children. As a result, ethnic white Russian birthrates are declining, while the Asiatic Russian minority birthrates are rising. Their concern is not ill-founded. Statistics indicate that between 1959 and 1970, the percentage of ethnic Russians in the U.S.S.R. dropped from 55 to 53 percent of the total population.22


Soviet economists and planners are also concerned with the declining ethnic Russian birthrate because it is producing manpower shortages exacerbating the already serious loss of much of the male population during the Second World War. This loss now produces a numerically smaller generation in twenty-year cycles, a decline which can be illustrated by a statistical snapshot comparison of the number of persons reaching the age of sixteen in representative years between 1955 and 1965:23


Year Number of Youth
1955 4,803,000
1960 1,537,00
1965 4,028,000

The pattern that the three data points suggest gives a picture of the overall population trend. By the mid-1960s, the generation that had been sixteen in 1960 had reached adulthood and was entering the labor force and rearing families. Significantly, because their numbers were fewer, they likewise produced a smaller generation of children, perpetuating the twenty-year cycle of sharp decline in the population. As the work force of the mid-1980s, the lower number of children from the generation of the 1960s, coupled with overall declining birthrates among ethnic Russians, is creating manpower shortages during the 1980 decade.

During periods of similar manpower shortages, the traditional solution has been to expand the labor force by using women. If that solution is used again, however, birthrates may be reduced even more, exacerbating again an already acute labor shortage.

Just as in other societies, the theory of nondiscrimination has not measured up to the practice, even though in the Soviet Union the theory has its origins in Marxist-Leninist ideology. Women are concentrated in the lower-status, less-remunerative work, principally the health professions, education, and retail trade. Although the Soviet traditional professions include far more women than is the case in the United States (75 percent are physicians and 38 percent are lawyers, compared to 11 percent and 13 percent respectively in the U.S.),24 it is significant that these professions are accorded less status in Soviet society than in any other. Doctors are poorly paid and expected to work, as one woman physician states, “for the love of the profession and mankind.”25 Furthermore, opportunities for entering the more prestigious professions (military, agriculture, industry) in the Soviet Union are limited by discriminatory admissions policies in the higher schools of learning. A Soviet study concluded that even with equal entrance scores, women had more difficulty in gaining admittance to advanced schools.26 Nor are women admitted to the military academies. Another study found far fewer females in industrial/agricultural institutes than men, even though females greatly outnumber males in the secondary schools.27

Finally, just as there does not seem to be complete freedom in career selection for women in the Soviet Union, neither does there seem to be a sharing of authority in the work force. In the medical profession, for example, men represent only 15 percent of the number of physicians, yet at the same time comprise 50 percent of the chief physicians and executives of the medical institutions.28 Thirty-nine percent of those in scientific occupations are women, yet these women hold only 10 percent of all professorships and memberships in the prestigious U.S.S.R. Academy of Science.29 In industry, women constitute half of the labor force but are supervisors and shift chiefs one-sixth to one-seventh less often than their male coworkers.30 Of the politically sensitive positions, women represent only 12.3 percent of Soviet writers, and for every 573 radio, press, and TASS commentators, only 8 are female.31 Exact figures are unavailable for the number of women in the officer corps of the armed forces, but estimates are generally quite low. The total strength of women is estimated to be no more than 30,000 in a total military force of four million.32

It is within the political power structure that women are most underrepresented in the Soviet Union. In the Communist Party, fewer than one-quarter are women. More important, only 3.3 percent of the Central Committee are women.33 In addition, only one woman, Ekaterina Furtseva, has served in the Politburo, the highest policymaking body in the U.S.S.R.34 Within the lower levels of government, however, women won one-half the seats in the local 1975 elections.35 Yet the roles women play in these local bodies are limited to traditional feminine concerns. Additionally, an analysis of the debates occurring in the Supreme Soviet from 1966 to 1973 demonstrated that female deputies addressed themselves mainly to issues of health policy, marriage and family law, labor legislation, and education. Their role in the power politics of foreign, defense, and budgetary policy was nearly nonexistent.36

The foregoing survey of the current status of women in the U.S.S.R. illustrates that despite ideology and law, true equality between the sexes is still an elusive goal. To provide clues to this apparent failure of the Soviet system and to provide the basis for our analysis of women in the military, we suggest four interrelated factors that reinforce conventional and traditional Soviet sex-role attitudes within Soviet society.

First, efforts to remedy the woman question following the Revolution were focused on restructuring the female’s role in the economy. The psychosociological origins of why women were historically subordinated to men went unrecognized.37 Although women had been given the same rights as men to participate in the labor force, little was done to modify traditional attitudes toward male and female sex roles. Thus, the Bolshevik Revolution brought a new but partial consciousness-raising to the society, yet it did not profoundly alter the overall perception of the woman’s place in it. This fact is of major significance in the role women play in the military.

Second, the ideological legacy of the “New Soviet Person” — the example of the model citizen — reinforces conventional and, again, traditional sex-role attitudes. This “New Soviet Person” for the most part exhibits traits culturally approved as masculine: he is a “soldier of the Revolution” who sublimates personal needs to those of country; “he” is a flexible, highly mobile party activist who will go where the party feels there is need.38 Notably absent is any traditionally defined female characteristic such as nurturance and domesticity.

Third, of the institutions that have most hampered women’s progress, the political system has provided the greatest hurdle. Since women’s influence has been limited both by inadequate numbers in official party and elected positions and by their traditionally confined interests, women have not been able to broaden the ideological base of equality established by the Revolution. Statistics illustrate that the degree of party participation for men is four to five times as great as for women.39 As a consequence of their professional and occupational backgrounds, the specialized political concerns of men and women alluded to earlier determine the roles they play in the political power structure; defense and foreign matters take precedence over health and education, the “appropriate” women issues.

Fourth, no outside pressure group, such as the women’s movement in the United States, exists to demand change. Indeed, in the political sphere, the problem has long been considered resolved by ideological and legal measures; hence it no longer really exists. Additionally, and perhaps largely because of the absence of a women’s movement, there are few role models for women to imitate. Little girls see that women are chiefly doctors, teachers, and mothers; eventually, they enter the same fields and in so doing perpetuate those roles in society.

In summary, then, there are several major factors in the broader Soviet society which affect the role of women in the Soviet military service: the declining ethnic Russian birthrates; a projected, severe labor shortage in the mid-l980s; the double burden of home and work; and the pattern of discrimination and under-representation caused by reinforced, traditional views of the role of women.

Women and the Military

Given the traditional perception of the role of women in the broader society, there is justification for assuming that service in the armed forces, beyond certain limited and specified occupations, is but another profession generally considered unsuitable or inappropriate for women. Indeed, the harshness, deprivation, isolation, and generally demoralizing existence attendant to the profession are not well thought of by many of the male youth facing the prospects of being drafted into military service.40 While Soviet military training and service conditions are somewhat ameliorated for the women who do serve,41 society still perceives military service as being harsh and difficult. The rigors, which are deliberately introduced into military service to harden the soldier, are usually those from which Soviet women in civilian occupations are traditionally excluded: that is, hard manual labor, long hours, isolation from social amenities, and strict regimentation.

There are other reasons for excluding women from the military, evident in the following characteristics of Soviet society: ethnic Russians may soon be a ruling minority (if they are not so already) due to decreasing birthrates among ethnic Russians and dramatically increasing birthrates among the Russian Asian minorities; the Soviets are experiencing chronic labor shortages that will peak in the mid-1980s when the number of 16- to 20-year-old males will again reach a significant low.42 These characteristics are of great concern to Soviet leaders and are thus likely to limit the utilization of women in their armed forces in greater numbers for the following reasons.

First, fertility rates among ethnic Russian women are highest in the age group of 20 to 29 years.43 Recruiting efforts to attract the numbers of women needed to fill the quotas of specialized skills identified for women are directed toward this very group: women from ages 19 through 25, single, without children, and physically fit.44 Service in the Soviet military br these women thus essentially prevents their having children since pregnant women soldiers are discharged.45 More extensive use of women in the armed forces would therefore conflict directly with societal efforts to increase birthrates among ethnic Russians.

Second, if the Soviets hope to maintain an armed force at its present size through the 1980s, when declining birthrates will result in a major shortage of 16-to-20-year-old males, the labor and military sectors will be competing for the same male youths.46 Among alternatives available to the Soviets to compensate for this shortage is, of course, greater use of women in the military — the pattern typical of other societies facing manpower shortages and perceiving a military threat.47 Doing so, however, will present a serious dilemma to Soviet planners. Recruiting more women to serve in the military to compensate for manpower shortages, as already noted, will run the risk in the long run of further reducing birthrates. Equally important, it will run the risk in the short run of creating a shortage of women in the professional and technical skills of the civilian industrial sector which, by tradition, are provided by women:48 greater recruitment of women for the military limits their utilization in the civilian labor force; greater use in the civilian labor force limits their use in the military.49 Further, while there appear to be links between the number of women employed in industry and declining birthrates — working women seem to have fewer children — there are unquestioned links to military service by women and declining birthrates. Of the two alternatives for employing women, greater numbers in the military appears to be less desirable. Indeed, the Soviets are more likely to turn to more traditional solutions to compensate for the shortage in the 1980s of draft-age males, such as returning the service obligation to three years and eliminating or reducing the numbers of construction and support workers under direct military control.50 A major change in the use of women in the armed forces is thus unlikely.

Third, a greater military use of women is likely to have an adverse effect on the already serious ethnic problems within the Soviet Union.51 If women were to be used more extensively in the military, preference would likely be toward ethnic Russian women rather than women of any of the growing ethnic minority groups.52 Ethnic Russians are more likely to have the needed technical and educational background and are also more likely to be considered more reliable — that is, patriotic and loyal. Yet recruiting women from only one ethnic group is also more likely to have both political and ethnic liabilities for Soviet officials. Present Soviet emphasis on “Russian” nationalism (as opposed to “Soviet”) in general appears to intensify the historic frictions between ethnic Russians and other nationalities. Excluding large numbers of women minority groups from serving in the military would thus not only emphasize the ethnic distinction between Russians and the minorities but would also contrast significantly with political efforts, consistent with Marxist-Leninist ideology, to minimize minority nationalism. And again, greater use of ethnic Russian women by the military would aggravate the growing ethnic imbalance in favor of the non-Russian groups by further reducing births. Parenthetically, greater use of nonethnic Russian minority women could become a means of curtailing their increasing birthrates; mandatory military service for these women might be an effective birth control measure.

This article has attempted to summarize the limited information available about women in the Soviet armed forces and to analyze their minimal participation. It appears that low utilization of women in the military, in contrast to the popular image of the Soviet female soldier of World War II, is a direct reflection of sociological and demographic factors of Soviet society. Whereas other societies perceiving external military threats typically turn to greater use of women in periods of manpower shortages, doing so does not appear a likely course of action by the Soviets.

Norfolk, Virginia
Brussels, Belgium


1. Donald D. Barry and Carol Barner-Barry, Contemporary Soviet Politics: An Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1978), pp. 180-81.

2. Jim Rogers, “Soviet Women,” Soldiers, March 1978, p. 13.

3. Edd D. Wheeler, “Women in Combat: A Demurrer,” Air University Review, November-December 1978, p. 66. The author describes their combat role as “an exercise in public relations, designed to impress the outside world with the underdog position of [Russia].”

4. The combat role of women in the Revolution is addressed by Vera Broido, Apostles into Terrorists: Women and the Revolutionary Movement in the Russia of Alexander II (New York, 1977). Their combat role in World War I is addressed in “Russia’s Women Soldiers,” Literary Digest, 25 August 1917.

5. Ray Wagner, editor, The Soviet Air Force in World War II (New York, 1973), p. l36N.

6. Rogers, p. 13.

7. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces (Washington: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, 1976), p. 1.

8. A precise figure is yet to be substantiated. The range of figures comes from several sources: Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, p. iv; Wheeler, op. cit.; Rogers, op. cit.

9. The information comes from Chapter II, Article 16, USSR Bill on Universal Military Duty, 12 October 1967, translated by U.S. Air Force, Directorate of Soviet Affairs, Soviet Awareness Division.

10. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, pp. 6-7.

11. For example, 75 percent of the civilian physicians and 85 percent of the workers in other health-related fields are women. Murray Feshback and Stephen Rapawy, “Soviet Population and Manpower Trends and Policies,” Soviet Economy in a New Perspective (Compendium of Papers Submitted to the Joint Economic Committee, Congress of the United States, October 14, 1976), p. 145. Specific descriptions of the positions filled are generally unavailable. Indeed, much of the information on the positions they do fill is derived from Soviet propaganda photographs.

12. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, p. 8.

13. Handbook on the Soviet Armed Forces (Washington: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, 1978), pp. 5-7. Seealso Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtika, February 1977, pp. 26-27, translated by U.S. Air Force Directorate of Soviet Affairs, Soviet Awareness Division; and Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, p. 11.

14. Ibid., pp. 10-11. See also Robert D. Heinl, “The Soviet Military Machine,” Sea Power, May 1976, pp. 31-34.

15. Wheeler, op. cit.

16. Department of Labor Statistics, 1979.

17. C. D. Kernig, Marxism, Communism, and Western Society, vol. 8 (New York, 1973), p. 343.

18. Dorothy Atkinson, Alexander Dallin, and Gail Warshofsky, editors, Women in Russia (Stanford, California, 1977), p. 118.

19. Mark G. Field, “Workers (and Mothers): Soviet Women Today,” in Women in the Soviet Union (New York, 1968), p. 10.

20. Ibid.

21. Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, Constitution, Article 35.

22. Barry and Barner-Barry, pp. 180, 181, and 239.

23. Field, p. 29.

24. Department of Labor Statistics, 1979.

25. Robert G. Kaiser, Russia: The People and the Power (New York, 1976), p. 52.

26. Lotta Lennon, “Woman in the USSR,” Problems of Communism, July-August 1971, p. 52.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., p. 50.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p.51.

31. Ibid., p. 50.

32. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, p. 5.

33. Barry and Barner-Barry, p. 105.

34. Ibid., p. 122.

35. Pravda, 21 June 1975, p. 3.

36. Gail W. Lapidus, “Political Mobilization, Participation and Leadership: Women in Soviet Politics,” Comparative Politics, October 1976, p. 99.

37. Ibid., p. 115.

38. Lennon, p. 48,

39. Lapidus, p. 104.

40. David M. Gist, “The Militarization of Soviet Youth,” Naval War College Review, Summer 1977, p. 127; and Leon Goure, The Military Indoctrination of Soviet Youth (New York: National Strategy Information Center, 1973), p. 73.

41. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, pp. 7-10.

42. Field, pp. 13-29. The dramatic drop in births during and after World War II (due to heavy male combat losses) appears to be cyclic, repeating every 15 to 20 years. The second generation shortage of 16- to 20-year olds occurred in 1960-62; the next will occur in the early-to-mid-1980s.

43. Nadezhda Tatarinova, Women in the USSR (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1968), p. 11.

44. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, pp. 6-7.

45. Ibid., p. 10.

46. David R. Jones, editor, Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual, vol. 2 (Gulf Breeze, Florida, 1978), pp. 40-41.

47. Feshback and Rapawy, pp. 149-51.

48. Norton T. Dodge, Women in the Soviet Economy: Their Role in Economic, Scientific, and Technical Development (Westport, Connecticut, 1966), p. 199.

49. Robert S. Buemer, “The Soviet Draft: Cornerstone of USSR Nuclear Strategy,” Military Intelligence, October/December 1979.

50. Women in the Soviet Armed Forces, p. 149.

51. Many sources (such as Barry and Barner-Barry) address ethnic problems in Soviet society, and several address the problem in the military. The most useful is Herbert Goldhamer’s The Soviet Soldier: Soviet Military Management at the Troop Level (New York, 1975), p. 187.

52. For a listing of the largest and most rapidly growing ethnic groups in the Soviet Union and their growth rates, see Barry and Barner-Barry, pp. 237-42.



Mary Louise O’Brien (A.B., Hood College; M.L.S., Catholic University of America) is a reference librarian at the Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia.  She also worked as an acquisition librarian.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris L. Jefferies (B.A., Brigham Young University; M.P.A., University of Pittsburgh) is Special Assistant to the Defense Advisor, U.S. Mission to NATO, Belgium. His previous assignments include teaching political science, USAF Academy; as navigator in the T-43, C-141, C-130, and the Royal Air Force Belfast transport. Colonel Jefferies is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School, and a graduate of Air Command and Staff College, Armed Forces Staff College, and the RAF School of Administration. He has published in several professional journals including the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor