The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Dedicated to Anna Yegorova and my beloved авиатриссы, on the 70th anniversary of Russia’s Victory Day 

Anna’s blazing Ilyushin attack plane spun toward the earth, and she burned and tumbled with it. Her next memory: searing pain, as she awoke with a soldier’s boot on her chest. After that, the inside of a cell.

Lieutenant Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova shouldn’t have survived the churning aerial battle over Warsaw, being shot down, her burns and broken spine, or her brutal internment. But those things didn’t leave the most lasting scars. Six decades later, on a sunny September day in 2005, her eyes are clear as she pages through yellowed photographs of Soviet warbirds and long-dead comrades-in-arms and shares her war stories—and a canteen of home-brewed vodka. “Just like my combat rations,” she grins.

Me, Anna Yegorova, and Margarita at dinner
Me, Anna Yegorova, and Margarita in 2005

Anna points to a photo of a hand-woven straw purse decorated with an embroidered wing insignia and the Cyrillic initials “A.E.” “They made it for me in secret,” she explains, her eyes shining. Among the Allied prisoners at the Nazi POW camp where she spent five months in 1944, the young lieutenant was a sensation: A female pilot had been captured! At great risk, her fellow POWs conspired to send her kindnesses—concealing her documents, weaving her a Soviet Air Force purse, and launching an insurrection to demand that the camp allow another prisoner, a Russian doctor, to treat her wounds.

Her eyes are darkening now, her voice growing quieter. This is the part Anna still cannot bear to tell. Bronzed autumn sunlight slants into the tiny Moscow apartment, two drab rooms made cheerful by shelves of china, books, and photographs. But Anna’s cheer has drained away. “They called me a ‘traitor,’ a ‘Fascist bitch,’” she tells me, the tears coming, her rage undiminished after sixty years.

“They called me a ‘traitor,’ a ‘Fascist bitch,’” she tells me, the tears coming, her rage undiminished after sixty years.

After Soviet troops liberated the camp, Yegorova was interrogated for ten days by a branch of the USSR’s wartime secret police called “SMERSH”—an acronym meaning “Death to Spies”—for the “crime” of being captured. Stalin’s policy was that there were no Soviet POWs, only turncoats.

The Soviets took away her combat medals. Then they erased her from history, along with thousands of other female Soviet citizens who helped win the war as snipers, partisans, and front-line pilots.

Anna never healed from the psychic wounds of her nation’s monstrous betrayal of her. She’d been a patriot, born the year the revolution began. She helped build the Moscow metro and then volunteered for the Air Force when Germany invaded. Her great tragedy was to give so much for a place that too often devours its true believers, a land that gives and takes away, and not always in equal measure.

I’d learned my own painful lessons about things taken away in 1991, in the turbulent final months of the USSR’s existence. I found myself riding a bipolar wave of anxiety and exultation as I watched an empire falling and a new Something being born. But for me, the Soviet Union’s final days will always intertwine with the memory of being assaulted and held captive for the ten longest, darkest hours of my life.

But on that fall afternoon in 2005, I share four of the loveliest hours of that same life—back in Moscow for the first time in fourteen years—listening to a Russian grandmother’s war stories. In the interim, I’d learned to fly airplanes, become a flight instructor and writer, resurrected my disused Russian skills, and yearned for Moscow.

I had long worried that I wouldn’t be able to face the place again, that it had defeated me, and that there was no going back. But hearing Anna’s tales of epic feats and serial calamities, I suddenly realize that my own far smaller calamity was never about defeat. It was about survival.

No matter how we try to impose meaning after the fact, no post-hoc rewriting of a human life can really make sense of things. I didn’t become a Russian-speaking writer-aviatrix in preparation for the moment when I’d sip vodka from a canteen and promise an 89-year-old war hero that I would co-translate and edit her memoir for publication in America. It wasn’t part of some grand plan to help us both heal. It all just happened; one thing led to another, as they say.

What those things led to: The moment when, a half-year before she died, Anna held in her hands an American copy of Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front. She looked at it and smiled, her eyes bright and clear.

In 2009, Anna gets copies of Red Sky, a handmade quilt, and fan letters from women pilots


Diary of a Soviet Airwoman at War: Narrow Escape

Diary of Anna Yegorova, a young pilot in the Soviet Air Force during WWII. In this entry, the young lieutenant convinces a terrified soldier to help her save her Po-2 (aka U-2) biplane from being destroyed by enemy fire.

He seized my hand and pulled me, sometimes crawling, sometimes running, up the hill. The shells had already made a ruin of the windmill, its broken wings hanging down listlessly. The airplane, too, was riddled with bullet holes. 

As I climbed onto the wing, my terror finally caught up with me. Shock waves from the explosions had torn out the front seat and flung it into the instrument panel in the rear cabin. A thought flashed  through my mind: what if the plane was too damaged to fly? I jumped into the cockpit and made a cursory inspection. The damage didn’t seem too serious.

“Take hold of the prop!” I cried, but the driver had already done it without my invitation. “Pull it through a few rotations. Then pull down on the blade as hard as you can and jump out of the way.” 

“And-a-one!” he cried, yanking hard, and the propeller roared to life. The young driver vanished, as if whisked away on the propeller slipstream…

The Germans peppered the U-2 even more feverishly with bullets. I climbed out of the cabin to turn the aircraft so it pointed in the right direction. I don’t know where I found the strength to muscle the tail around. Fear probably played a large role…

I took off right under the Fascists’ noses and headed eastward. The sun had set, and twilight enveloped the land. I had no working instruments, but the engine was purring contentedly, and I was alive. But how would I land in the dark?

This is part 6 in a series of excerpts from Red Sky, Black Death, A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front, by Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova

Diary of a Soviet Airwoman at War: The Front Catches Up

Diary of a young Soviet airwoman, posted 70 years after WWII. In this entry (from late summer of 1941), Anna goes to insane lengths to prevent her U-2 biplane from being destroyed on the ground as a village is overrun by Germans.

The next shell exploded right next to the plane, splintering planks on the fuselage and wings. I shot into the cockpit and tried to start the engine. Nothing. I needed someone to hand-prop the plane. I spotted a military truck tearing at top speed down the road, rattling along with three good tires and a bare rim. I sprinted down the hill, trying to wave him down. The teen-aged driver tried to swerve around me, so without thinking, I whipped out my revolver and furiously riddled the remaining tires with bullets. He stopped, cursing me, and pulled out his rifle.

“Drop it,” I suggested, nodding toward his weapon. “You’d better help me start my plane.

The driver gaped at me. I don’t think he was expecting to hear a female voice. 

“Can’t you see the Fascists are here?” he said frantically. “They’ve broken through the front line. I’ve got to catch up to the others!”

“You’ll catch up,” I told him. “But I’ve got to get the plane started, and I need your help.”

“To hell with your plane! Get in the truck. Let’s get out of here before it’s too late.”

I glanced desperately at the U-2 as another blast shook her, shredding the little airplane’s fabric skin. The plane seemed to shiver with cold. 

“They’re going to destroy it!” I screamed, and yanked open the truck door. “Get out! I’ll only need you for a minute!”

“You’re out of your mind!” the boy said, obeying me at last. “Where’s the plane?”

I pointed up the hill, toward the windmill. “You’ve gone mad!” he shouted. “Look, they’re shooting the plane to pieces! Your bird is about to go up in flames…”


This is part 5 in a series of excerpts from a book I co-translated and edited in 2009: Red Sky, Black Death, A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front, by Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova

See Anna’s last entry                      See Anna’s next entry

First Mission: Late Summer 1941

This is Part 3 of an occasional series of recollections, excerpted from Yegorova’s memoir, posted 70 years after the events in question. In this excerpt, the young pilot flies her first liaison mission at the front in a U2 biplane:

It was a gorgeous late summer day…I was less than pleased. In a crisp, clear sky, the “kukuruznik” would be defenseless against the Fascist hawks…plywood “armor” doesn’t stop bullets. Our only defense was to dive down toward the ground and spread our wings low over the withered fields, flying so close to the earth you could hear the landing gear cutting the feather grass on the steppe.

At “tree-shaving” altitude…the earth scrolled by, dangerously close, mere feet beneath my wings…Just then, I saw two distant points in the sky, rapidly approaching. Messerschmitts, I guessed. Suddenly, they were upon me, roaring over my head, brazenly flaunting their spidery swastikas. Machine-gun fire spat at me from above…they covered me with their black shadows, but with all their speed, they couldn’t manage to shoot down the docile little U-2. They flew off, and I released my breath with relief…

– Anna Timofeyeva-YegorovaRed Sky, Black Death, A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front

First Weeks of War, Remembered

This is Part Two of an occasional series of recollections, excerpted from Yegorova’s memoir, posted 70 years after the events in question. In this excerpt, young flight instructor Yegorova takes the train to Moscow after she learns of the Nazi invasion:

Camouflage shrouded the buildings on Three Station Square like a theatrical set…People in soldier’s blouses stepped briskly through the great station halls, and the booming sound of barked orders ricocheted off the stone walls…Massive anti-aircraft guns stood like long-legged storks on the roofs of multi-storied apartment buildings.

Moscow was beginning to look like a front city. With each passing day, the city grew gloomier and grimmer. Levitan’s daily broadcasts delivered increasingly alarming reports: “After stubborn and fierce battle…” The…reports followed us everywhere. We could scarcely believe them.

I remember sitting on the bus, my face pressed against the window, wondering why we were moving so slowly. I noticed with surprise a girl in a military uniform energetically waving a small red flag to clear the way for a huge column of Red Army soldiers. Such things would soon seem terribly ordinary…

 – Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, Red Sky, Black Death, A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front

Bad@$$ of the Week

“Balls-out displays like this are hard to overlook, and after a couple more demonstrations of her titanium ovaries, the Soviets decided to train Yegorova as a combat pilot.” – Amazing Ben, on his poular “Bad@$$ of the Week site

Thanks, Amazing Ben for the shoutout to Anna Alexandrovna on your fun website. She was, indeed, a tough broad of the highest order. Check out Amazing Ben’s witty and irreverent pop-history site, and his  post describing Yegorova’s bad@$$itude.

*One caveat, in Ben’s words: You should probably be aware that this site features an unnecessarily copious amount of profanity, so if you’re easily offended by that sort of thing then this would be a good time for you to turn off your computer and go join a convent.” -Amazing Ben

BBC Documentary features Yegorova

header_blocksAn excellent BBC documentary called “Night Witches” by veteran radio producer Lucy Ash aired today on BBC Radio 4. Ash interviewed several veterans of the three Soviet women’s aviation regiments, including Galina Brok-Beltsova of the 125th Dive Bomber Regiment (whom I met in Nashville at a 2002 conference and with whom I made many toasts at Mirror Restaurant one night) and, of course, Anna Yegorova (who served in a men’s regiment).

“Red Sky…” co-translator (and my good friend) Margarita Ponomaryova does much of the translating for the documentary (listen for the lovely lilting voice), and Amy Strebe, author of “Flying for Her Country” and of the forward to “Red Sky…”, is also interviewed for the story.

In the documentary, Ash visits Anna Yegorova’s apartment during her 91st birthday celebration (a few weeks ago, on September 23) and talks with her about her experience as a POW and her subsequent harrowing interrogations by the SMERSH counterespionage units. (Her interview plays between 15:20 and 19:20 in the piece.)

As it happens, the documentary airs on the same day as Yegorova’s funeral, with full military honors, which my (and Yegorova’s) dear friend Lydia Yakovlevna described in a phone call earlier today. 

To hear the BBC documentary, and to view an audio slideshow–a wonderful tribute to Yegorova and to her female comrades-in-arms–please visit the BBC archive.


Farewell and Eternal Blue Skies to Anna Yegorova

Anna in uniform,front


A fond farewell to Anna Alexandrovna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, hero to me and many, decorated WWII attack pilot and intrepid 91-year-old survivor of the great and terrible events of last century.


I wish her eternal blue skies and tailwinds, ceiling and visibility unlimited; or as Russian pilots say, миллион на миллион…


Anna Alexandrovna died on October 29, after prolonged illness.