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Nadezhda Andreyevna Durova, the first known female officer and writer

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Nadezhda Andreyevna Durova

Nadezhda Andreyevna Durova, also known as Alexander Durov, Alexander Sokolov and Alexander Andreevich Alexandrov, was a woman who became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. She is famous for writing the war memoirs two volumes of diaries titled "The Cavalry Maiden", which was her army nickname. Her books received critical acclaim and close public attention, but were soon forgotten. However they remain significant document of its era and are important as one of the earliest autobiographies in the Russian language.

Nadezhda Durova was born on September 17, 1783 in an army camp at Kiev. Her father was a cavalry captain and her mother the daughter of a small landowner. Nadezhda's mother desperately wanted to have a son, and giving birth to a daughter was a bitter disappointment

In her memoirs Durova writes that she was one of those ever-screaming babies and once, early in the morning when the troops started a march, her mother was so exasperated with the girl's screams, she simply threw the baby out of the carriage window. The child surprisingly did not suffer and since then was taken care of by the soldiers. As a small child, Durova learned all the standard marching commands and her favorite toy was an unloaded gun.

After her father retired from service and settled in the Vyatka region, the girl did not give up on military games, guns and horse riding. At the age of eighteen her parents married her off. Within a year she gave birth to a son

At the age of twenty-four she disguised herself as a boy, deserted her son and husband and joined the army. Nadezhda said her name was Aleksandr and claimed to be the son of a landowner.

She fought in the major Russian engagements of the 1806-1807 Prussian campaign. During two of those battles, she saved the lives of two fellow Russian soldiers and was awarded the St. George Cross and an officer rank.

During her time in the army, Durova corresponded with her father who was the only man who knew her secret. Soon, however, he wrote to the army chiefs requesting an inquiry into the case of a woman disguised as a soldier. Emperor Alexander I took personal interest in the outstanding woman that showed immense courage and an endless desire to serve her country. He allowed Durova to stay in the army under the name Aleksandr Andreevich Aleksandrov and promoted her to lieutenant in a hussar unit. Soon after, Nadezhda went home to her father and lived with him for about two years before returning to the army on the eve of the Patriotic war of 1812. She fought on the battlefields of Smolensk, Kolotsk Monastery, and Borodino and was wounded in the leg and had to undergo a lengthy period of treatment. When she returned to the troops it was with a new rank of a captain and the position of Kutuzov's orderly. In 1813 military life took Durova to the war in Germany, where she fought in the battles of Hamburg, Harburg and Modlina fortress.

Durova finally retired in 1816, received a state pension and went home. A chance meeting introduced her to Aleksandr Pushkin some twenty years later. When he learned that she had kept a journal during her army service he encouraged her to publish it as a memoir. "The Cavalry Maiden" was published in 1836. Durova also wrote four novels and advocated for women's rights. Durova continued to wear male clothing for the rest of her life and was known for great love and talent for taming animals. She died in Yelabuga and was buried with full military honors.

Durova's descendants seem to have inherited her talent for training animals. Nadezhda's great-grandsons Vladimir and Anatoly Durov were the famous Russian circus animal trainers and founders of the Durov Animal Theater in Moscow. Currently the Theater is run by another descendant of Nadezhda, Natalia Durova.

The story of the first known female officer in the Russian military inspired composers, playwrights and films directors. One of most known to the public romanticized image of Durova is the heroine of Eldar Ryazanov's musical comedy Hussar Ballad.


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