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On this day: Russia in a click

Nadezhda Durova Nadezhda Durova

29 September

On September 29, 1806, a young man presented himself to a Cossack cavalry unit and asked to join the regiment. His only answer to the captain’s questions about his past was that he was a Russian nobleman who had run away from home to join the military. The volunteer, who called himself Aleksandr Sokolov, was enlisted into the Russian army. Nobody suspected that this man was in fact a young woman named Nadezhda Durova.

A wife and a mother, Durova left her home to “escape the sphere predetermined for me by nature,” as she described in her memoirs. She would go on to serve ten years with distinction as an officer, whilst maintaining the secret of her gender.

Her identity was briefly revealed in 1808 to Russian Tsar Alexander I, when her father wrote a letter to the Tsar. Upon meeting her, Alexander I was astonished by her courage and selfless desire to serve her country in the military field. He allowed Durova to stay in the army under the name Aleksandr Aleksandrov and never disclosed her true identity.

Durova served in the Russian cavalry regiments during the Napoleonic Wars and saw action against the French in East Prussia in 1807, during the invasion of Russia in 1812 and in the European campaign of 1813-1814. As a soldier, according to her superiors, her performance was beyond reproach. She successfully lived up to the demands of military life and was awarded the Cross of St. George, Russia’s highest military honor, for heroism in battle.

In 1816, Nadezhda assented to her father's requests and resigned from the army with the rank of captain of cavalry. She maintained a male guise and got angry when people addressed her as a woman. Durova spent the rest of her life living with her pets in a small house in Yelabuga. In 1836, she published her diary in a book titled “The Cavalry Maiden”, based on her years experience serving in the Russian army.

In her memoirs, Durova told the story of her unique refusal to adhere to gender norms in the 19th Century and never discussed her role as a wife and a mother. Durova was well ahead of her time. In one passage, she addressed young woman, saying “You, who must account for every step, can comprehend the joyous sensation I feel at the sign of vast forests, fields, and streams and at the thought that I can roam them with no fear of prohibition.”

She died in 1886 at age 83, and was buried in a man's attire and with full military honors.

Decades later, Aleksandr Gladkov wrote a play about Nadezhda Durova called “A Long Time Ago”, and then Eldar Ryazanov made his famous “Hussar Ballad” film about that very same lady.

Not only was she a war hero and an outstanding writer, Nadezhda Durova also originated Russia's most famous dynasty, the best known of the which are Vladimir Durov - who founded The Moscow Animal Theater, better known today as Durov's Corner - and Tereza Durova, who directs the most successful children’s theater in the capital, “The Moscow Theatre of Clown Art”.