Today I have something completely different for you. This is a purely historical piece from the time of the Great Patriotic War. World War II buffs may enjoy this. But it is a troubling piece too, dealing with horrific crimes against humanity, and bringing into question Human Nature itself. I myself had not been familiar with this particular story; I found it in the magazine “Argumenty i Fakty” (“Arguments and Facts”), which I read occasionally. Here is the link.
The article, by Andrei Sidorchik, is from December, 2015. When I saw this, my first thought was: “That lady looks a lot like Queen Elizabeth II!” The lady in question is Antonina Makarova-Ginsburg, a Soviet citizen; who lived from 1921 to 1979.
Antonina was born in the Smolensk region, in a village called Malaya Volkovka, into a large peasant family headed by a man named Makar Parfenov. On Tonya’s first day of school, the teacher took attendance and wrote down the names of the children. Tonya knew that her first name was “Antonina”, but when asked for her last name, the shy little girl either couldn’t pronounce it, or had forgotten it. The other children in the class prompted in chorus: “Ona zhe Makarova!” — “She is Makar’s [daughter]!” The teacher misheard or misunderstood, and wrote the child’s name down as “Antonina Makarova”. Because it was easier to just stick with that, than to try to correct a clerical error, Tonya remained Antonina Makarova for the rest of her life.
Tonya was a good pupil and did well in school. She also liked to watch movies. Her favorite heroine and role model was “Anka the Machine-Gun Girl”. Anka was a character in the popular film (1934) about the exploits of Commander Vasily Chapaev, a hero of the Russian Civil War. Anka’s character was based on a real person: Maria Popova, a nurse serving in Chapaev’s Cavalry Division. There was an actual wartime incident when Popova had to leave her nurse’s station and take over temporarily for a slain machine-gunner. But that only happened once, whereas the fictional Anka was a professional machine-gunner. During Soviet times, the adventures of Chapaev, Petka, Anka, Commissar Furmanov, and the rest of the gang served as the fodder for many humorous Soviet-era jokes. The jokes worked because everyone had seen the movie, or was familiar with the characters.
Example of a good Chapaev joke: Chapaev attempts once again to enroll in the Frunze Military Academy. Once again he is rejected because he failed the Military History test. “I flunked again, Petka,” he complains to his aide. “They asked me who Caesar was, and I said he’s a stallion from the 7th squadron.”
“Oh, sorry about that, Vasily Ivanovich,” Petka apologizes. “It’s my fault: I just had him transferred to the 6th!”
Chapaev and Petka served as the butt of most of the good-natured jokes. Jokes about Anka often focused on her ignorance and peasant sexuality; while also expressing a grudging respect for her skills as a machine-gunner.
Escape From The Cauldron
Antonina Makarova did so well in school that she was sent to Moscow to continue her education. There she joined the Communist Youth group, the Komsomol. And there the Great Patriotic War found her. Tonya either volunteered, or was volunteered, for the front. Like her hero, Popova/Anka she received training in both nursing and operating a machine-gun.
During her first months of war, 19-year-old Tonya lived and survived the horrors of the Vyazma Cauldron. Vyazma is a town in Smolensk Oblast, located on the Vyazma river. During the war this whole area was occupied by the German army for a couple of years. In 1941 Red Army units found themselves trapped and encircled by the German Third and Fourth Panzer armies. After excruciating battles, only two people in Tonya’s unit were able to escape alive from the cauldron: Tonya herself, and a soldier named Nikolai Fedchuk. The two young people wandered together through the forests, just trying to survive, eating whatever they could find, sometimes stealing food. Fedchuk did not behave gallantly towards Tonya: He called her his “field wife”. Technically, what he did to Tonya was rape. Tonya made a choice at that time to exchange sex in return for a better chance at survival with a man at her side.
In January 1942 the odd pair approached the city of Krasny Kolodets (“Red Well”). Fedchuk confessed to Tonya that he had a real wife and family here; and he left her. Neither Fedchuk nor Tonya had any intention of joining up with the Red Partisan units or working their way back to their own side. Fedchuk just wanted to be back with his family, and Tonya just wanted to survive. She used the only trick that had worked for her so far: She tried to attach herself to several of the local men, offering sex in return for food and protection. The women of the village drove her away.
Tonya continued to wander on her own. Eventually she reached the village of Lokot in the Bryansk region. Here, the Nazis had set up a fake government called the “Lokot Republic”, staffed by Russian collaborators.
Tonya was detained by a police patrol, but she was able to convince them that she was neither a partisan nor a member of the Communist underground. The local group of “Politsai” (Russian police collaborators) took her under their wing as a prostitute.
One day, the Politsai got Tonya stinking drunk, then led her out into the courtyard, and placed her behind a “Maxim” machine-gun. In front of the machine gun stood a group of people: men, women, old people, children. The Politsai ordered Tonya to shoot the people. Tonya didn’t hesitate. And thanks to her previous machine-gun training she was able to cope with the task, even though completely hammered at the time.
The following day Tonya learned that she was now an official employee of the Lokot “government”, with a salary of 30 German Marks, and her own berth. Her job was that of “Executioner” (Russian “palach”).
The Lokot Republic was extremely harsh in dealing with its internal enemies: Partisans, the Underground, Communists, such elements as that, along with the members of their families. Typically the arrested people were held in a barn overnight, and then led out to be shot in the morning. The barn could only hold 27 people at a time, which was around the daily quota of executions.
The Germans themselves didn’t want to dirty their hands with such work; nor did even the Politsai. This is why Tonya appeared out of the blue like a welcome relief to them. She was ready, willing, and able to do the job. She even saw herself in the role of Anka the Machine-Gun Girl. Anka, of course, had gunned down White Army soldiers; whereas Tonya was killing civilians, including women and children. Well, it was war, after all. Tonya’s life settled into a routine: Every morning she would gun down 27 people, then walk out among the corpses and finish them off as needed, with a bullet. Then she would take the time to disasssemble and clean her machine gun. In the evening she enjoyed schnapps and dancing at the German Club, followed by sex with either some cute German guy (preferably), or a Russian Politsai.
The Politsai allowed Tonya to keep the clothes and other belongings of those she had shot. After cleaning and repairing the clothes, Tonya collected quite a wardrobe for herself.
The Legend Of The Machine-Gun Girl
There were some lapses in the brutal machinery of daily executions. Here and there a few children survived. Tonya’s bullets flew over their little heads. The children knew to fall down and play dead. The local villagers carried the children away, along with the corpses. They buried the corpses and turned the children over to the Partisans. In this way, through the many contacts between townspeople and partisans, the legend was spread of “Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl”. The Red Partisans were extremely interested in any information regarding this girl. All the locals could tell them was that (1) Tonya was from Moscow; and (2) they believed her last name was Makarova. Apart from that they knew nothing about this girl, where she had suddenly appeared from, or who her family was.
In the end, it is believed that Tonya was responsible for the murders of around 1500 civilians in the town of Lokot.
Towards the summer of 1943 the Red Army was surging back Westward, steadfastly liberating the Bryansk Region and cleansing it of Nazis. Tonya found herself once again in a closing cauldron. She confessed to her German superiors that she had become infected with syphilis. The Germans evacuated her further to the rear, so that she wouldn’t infect their troops. Tonya was treated in a German hospital, and presumably cured of the syphilis. But still, the Red Army was approaching inexorably, and so rapidly, that the Germans only had time to evacuate their own kind. The Russian collaborators were left to their own devices.
When the Red Army liberated Lokot, they discovered the remains of the approximately 1500 civilians whom Tonya had illegally murdered. Based on previous intelligence and discussions with the locals, Soviet police and intelligence deduced that the crimes had been committed by this mysterious girl, Antonina Makarova, aka Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl. They opened a criminal case.
Meanwhile, Tonya had sneaked out of the German hospital. Somehow this cunning survivor had been able to obtain fake documents “proving” that all this time she had been serving as a nurse in a Soviet hospital. With the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing, the Red Army took her in and put her to work in one of the military hospitals. There, in 1945 she met a young soldier named Viktor Ginsburg. Viktor hailed from a Soviet Jewish family in the town of Lepel, Belorussia. He had fought honorably in the war (on the correct side) and was now recuperating in the hospital. Viktor fell head over heels in love with the “nurse”, Tonya and proposed marriage to her. Tonya accepted. After the wedding, the couple relocated to Viktor’s home town. With her new name and new identity, Tonya acquired even more cover from the KGB investigators who were tirelessly searching for a mysterious murderess named Antonina Makarova.
The 30-Year Hunt
Of the corpses of Tonya’s 1500 victims, only around 200 were ever identified and authenticated. Remember that DNA science did not exist in those times; identifying a corpse with any accuracy was a sometimes hopeless process. The war left millions dead and missing; along with millions of families who never were able to achieve closure in the disappearance of their loved ones.
But Tonya’s pursuers never gave up. With the methodical relentless of a modern Porfiry Petrovich, the KGB continued to hunt Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl for the next 30 years. Meanwhile, Tonya was safe in her new identity. Viktor had no clue who his wife actually was; and he loved her blindly. The investigators were searching for a woman named Antonina Makarova. Not a common name, but also not un-common. The detectives found several women with that name, but none of them fit the profile. Meanwhile, Antonina Ginsburg was leading the life of a normal post-war Soviet woman: She worked at a normal job, she bore two daughters, she was even invited to speak to schoolchildren about her experiences as an army nurse during the Great Patriotic War. One can only wonder what fabrications she came up with.
In the end, it was a random clue that gave her away. Remember the fact that Tonya orginally came from a large peasant family named Parfenov?
It is not known exactly how much contact Tonya had with her birth family. For certain, Tonya’s siblings knew that she had married; and very possibly the two sets of families had met. More than likely, Tonya had baffled the brains of her own brothers and sisters with her fictional exploits as an army nurse. It is highly unlikely that she told any of them the truth about what she had actually done during the war.
Some time around 1975 or so, one of Tonya’s brothers happened to apply for a visa to go abroad. This being the Brezhnev era, people were required to give a full account of all their relatives before being permitted to travel abroad. Parfenov, in his visa application, dutifully listed out all his relatives, including a biological sister, whom he named as Antonina Ginsburg, née Makarova. The name jumped out and apparently set off a red flag in the mind of some KGB functionary processing the visa application. Possibly just because it seemed odd that a man named Parfenov had a sister whose maiden name was Makarova.
The KGB investigators followed the new clue. They pursued the case with extreme attention to detail. A mistaken identity was simply not an option — they had to know for sure. The only real forensic tool in their possession was eye-witness identification; and this after 30 years, when memories are weak and people have changed so much physically.
The investigators kept watch over the Ginsburg home. They secretly sneaked eye-witnesses into Lepel, including one of Tonya’s former Politsai lovers. All the witnesses confirmed: “That’s her!” Only when they were 100% sure that the matronly Mrs. Ginsburg was indeed Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl, did the detectives proceed to arrest her.
Tonya did not deny the charges. She calmly told the investigators her entire story and expressed no remorse. When they asked her if she was not tormented by nightmares, she said no. She expressed no desire to see her husband or her daughters. Viktor Ginsburg was horrified by the arrest of his wife. He ran from place to place, lodging petitions and protests. He appealed to Soviet leader Brezhnev, even threatened to appeal to the United Nations. Eventually the investigators had to break it to him. The whole story. The truth about who his wife really was.
In the course of a single night, Viktor lost his youthful appearance; his hair turned grey. He and his daughters denounced Tonya and fled from the town of Lepel. They were outcasts now. You would not wish upon your worst enemy the mental anguish these people endured when their family and all their illusions were destroyed in a single day.
Crime and Punishment
In the fall of 1978, Antonina was put on trial in Bryansk. In retrospect, this turned out to be the last major trial of war traitors in the USSR. Of all such trials, this was the only one in which the defendant was a female.
Until the very end, Antonina was confident that she would receive a reduced sentence. There were several factors in her favor, the primary one being her gender. Soviet society was traditional-minded. In the criminal justice system there was a bias towards women and an almost-unspoken tabu against executing women. Especially mothers. And especially — this was the kicker — the Soviet Union had declared that 1979 was to be “The Year of the Woman”. Given this, Antonina’s confidence was not misplaced. Gritty survivor that she was, she was already busy planning the next phase of her life. She planned to start a new career and relocate to a new place, where nobody knew her.
To everyone’s surprise, when the court reconvened on 20 November 1978, the judges condemned Tonya to death by firing squad. A highly appropriate punishment, one would think. The court was only able to convict her, with certainty, of 168 murders. They knew there were more, but the other corpses remained unidentified.
In the course of the next few months, Tonya’s attorneys continued to submit appeals, which were all rejected.
On 6:00 AM on the morning of 11 August 1979, the punishment was carried out: Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl was gunned down by a firing squad.