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Aliya and Manshuk: Heroinse of USSR

Two young Kazakh women, killed in action during World War II and each awarded posthumously the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, became greatly popular figures of the Soviet ideological machine. Their popularity has survived the breakup of the Soviet Union and continues into post-independence Kazakhstan, its focus now changed to emphasise their Kazakh identities.

Aliya Moldagulova became one of the most successful examples of a remarkable band of some 2,000 Soviet women, trained as female snipers. The Soviet authorities found that women often made particularly successful snipers: the Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlichenko was credited with the deaths of more than 300 German soldiers. Only around one in four of the female snipers of the Soviet Union survived the war.

Aliya was born on 15 June 1925 in the village of Bulak, in Aktobe Region. Her mother was shot dead in 1931 in the years of famine by a guard patrolling potato fields, and her father, Nurmukhambet Sarkulov, was a victim of Stalinist repression. She went to live with her uncle, Aubakir Moldagulov, and took her mother's surname, Moldagulova. Aubakir was a railwayman, and Aliya moved with him, heading to Moscow in 1935 when Aubakir was accepted into the Moscow Military Transportation Academy. This was then relocated to Leningrad. The family's apartment there was small, and Aliya ended up in a children's home. Following the outbreak of war, the academy was moved to Tashkent, but Aliya opted to remain in the Leningrad children's home. She served as a rooftop lookout during the blockade and, according to the Soviet version of her life, shared her meagre food rations with a weak girl from the home named Katya.

Seeking to become a pilot, Aliya was enrolled into the Aviation Technical School in Rybinsk in 1942, but was then switched to the Women's Sniper Training School near Moscow in December of that year, after having repeatedly volunteered for active duty. A good pupil, but weakened physically by the effects of the blockade, she was given the chance to stay at the school as an instructor but refused, wanting to serve on the front lines. She arrived on the northwestern front in August 1943, notching her first two 'kills' on her second day. Her eventual tally was to reach 91 German soldiers killed. In January 1944, with the Red Army now on the offensive, her unit was ordered to capture a section of railway near the station of Nasva and the nearby village of Kazachika. During the fighting she reportedly put a machine gun out of action with a hand grenade, and rallied the troops around her with her cries of 'forward for the motherland!' She died in battle on 14 January 1944.

Manshuk Mametova was from West Kazakhstan Region. A student at the Medical Institute in Almaty, she became not a sniper but a machine gunner, another position for which women were frequently put into action. Serving with the 21 st Rifle Division, she died on 15 October 1943 in the fighting for the town of Nevel in Pskov Region in the present-day Russian Federation. She remained with her machine gun to allow the members of her detachment to retreat. She became the first Soviet Asian woman to receive the award of Hero of the Soviet Union. The graves of both Aliya and Manshuk lie in Pskov Region.

The stories of Aliya and Manshuk are still told with pride and reverence, but the museums devoted to their lives now offer, in post-independence Kazakhstan, a slight change of emphasis in retelling their life stories. Aliya, we are told, liked to read the poetry of Zhambyl and to sing Kazakh songs. And her cry of 'forward for the motherland!' was made, emphasises the museum guide, in the Kazakh language.