Nadezhda Andreyevna Durova (also known as Alexander Andreyevich Alexandrov) became a celebrated Russian soldier during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) by disguising herself as a man, and she later published a famous memoir chronicling her experiences. Born September 17, 1783, Nadezhda had somewhat of a troubled childhood. While she was close to her father, a major in the Russian army, her mother, who had wanted a boy, was abusive and even threw Nadezhda out of a moving carriage when she was a baby. After this shocking event, Nadezhda had to be removed from her mother and was placed under the custody of one of her father’s soldiers. As a result, Nadezhda was raised in a military atmosphere and grew to love the life of a soldier. She consistently amazed those around her with her talents at shooting, sword fighting, and taming wild animals. She despised activities which were considered “women’s work,” such as sewing and house-keeping, and was deeply frustrated by how women were expected to be subservient.
While she married in 1801 and even had a son, she abandoned them to enlist in the Russian cavalry in 1807. In order to disguise her identity (and the fact that she was a woman), she enrolled under the name of “Alexander Solokov.” She was a fierce fighter and saved the lives of many fellow soldiers. Tales of her impressive feats even reached Tsar Alexander I, who decorated her with the Cross of St. George and gave her a new last name, “Alexandrov,” after himself. Nadezhda eventually retired from the military in 1816 with many honors and the rank of captain-lieutenant.
Even after returning to her everyday life, Nadezhda still preferred to wear male clothing and referred to herself as a man. About 20 years after her retirement, her brother introduced her to Alexander Pushkin, the Shakespeare of Russian literature, who encouraged her to publish her journals of her time in the army. She finally did in a memoir titled, “The Cavalry Maiden.”
She also published many other novels and short stories. At the age of 81, she died on March 21, 1866, and was buried as a military hero. Even now, Nadezhda remains a compelling figure in Russian culture and is celebrated in films, plays, and even operas.