Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya – the execution of a teenage heroine

On 29 November 1941, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, aged 18, was executed by the Nazis.

Zoya KosmodemyanskayaThe Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and by late November had surrounded and laid siege to Leningrad and were bearing down on Moscow. The Soviet authorities were recruiting volunteers to break through the German lines and operate as partisan fighters in German-occupied areas. Their task, generally, was to cause as much disruption to the German advance. It was a dangerous assignment but one which 18-year-old Zoya readily volunteered for.

Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was born 13 September 1923 in the district of Tambov, about 300 miles southeast of Moscow. She was well-cultured and devoured the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin and loved the music of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, and was a member of the Soviet youth komsomol organisation. (Pictured below is Zoya’s komsomol membership card).


Having been accepted as a partisan, despite her tender age, Zoya was given the name ‘Tanya’. Handed a revolver and trained how to use it, she was assigned to a small group of partisans and given instructions. Their first task was to lay mines on the Volokolamsk highway, just behind German lines, about 80 miles west of Moscow. Excited and nervous, Zoya declared, ‘If we fall, let’s fall like heroes’. Another task involved laying spikes in the road but the more dangerous jobs were reserved for the young men. Zoya pleaded her case, stating, ‘Difficulties ought to be shared equally.’ Her commander, a man who went by the name of Boris, acquiesced.

Thus, on 27 November, Zoya was sent into Petrischevo, a village occupied and brimming with Germans. She went alone while Boris and his team waited anxiously for her return. After a few hours, Zoya emerged from the woods, triumphant at having burnt down a house and a stable. However, unbeknownst to Zoya, a village collaborator had spotted her and told the Germans.

The following day, Zoya returned to the village. This time, she didn’t return. After three days, Boris knew that she was dead.

What happened to Zoya is based on a report written by a Soviet journalist, Pyotr Lidov, pieced together from various eyewitness statements and published in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda (‘Truth’), on 27 January 1942. Lidov returned to Petrischevo shortly after its recapture by the Soviets and spoke to various villagers about what had happened during the brief spell of German occupation.

‘You can’t hang us all’

The story that emerged was how, courtesy of the information provided by the collaborator, a young girl was caught red-handed setting light to a stable. The Germans dragged her off and interrogated her at length while beating her with their belts, punching her, burning her with lighters, and cutting the skin on her back with a handsaw. One overheard exchange went as follows:

‘Who are you?’  ‘I won’t tell you.’  ‘Was it you who set fire to the stables?’  ‘Yes it was.’  ‘Why did you do it?’  ‘To destroy you.’

A German sergeant, later taken prison-of-war, described the scene:

‘The young Russian heroine remained tight-lipped. She would not betray her friends. She turned blue with the cold, blood flowed from her wounds, but still she said nothing… Her lips were bloody and swollen. She’d evidently bitten them when her captors had tried to wring a confession from her.’

During the night, they forced her outside, barefoot, in subzero temperatures.

Zoya was hung on the morning of 29 November 1941. The Germans placed a sign round her neck, saying, ‘Incendiary’. The Germans gathered around, some with cameras at the ready, and ordered the villagers to witness the scene. Perched on a box, with the rope around her neck, she called out to the villagers, ‘Comrades! Why are you so gloomy? I am not afraid to die! I am happy to die for my people!’ Then, as a final act of defiance, she cried, ‘You’ll hang me now, but I am not alone. There are two hundred million of us. You can’t hang us all.’ The box was then kicked away from beneath her.

The Germans took photographs of Zoya’s body, her breasts mutilated, as she lay dead on the ground. When the photos were later taken off captured Germans and published with Lidov’s article, it caused a national sensation within the Soviet Union.

Her body was left to hang for many weeks, the villagers forbidden to remove it. A new unit of Germans, passing through on New Year’s Eve, subjected Zoya’s corpse to more indignities. Finally, in New Year 1942, she was buried.

‘The people’s heroine’

On reading Lidov’s article in Pravda, Stalin reputably remarked. ‘Here is the people’s heroine’. She was bestowed the award, ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and immediately eulogised throughout the country. Poems, plays, novels and films were made of her life, streets and buildings named after her. To this day, the name Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya is known throughout Russia.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the myth of the teenage heroine began to be questioned – were there ever German troops stationed in Petrischevo; was Zoya killed by Germans or by Soviets resentful at her burning their buildings and dwellings? Was it even Zoya’s body or that of another missing partisan?

More recently, the doubters have been silenced and the memory and legacy of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya endures to this day.

Rupert Colley

See also articles on Tanya Savicheva and Anne Frank.

For more about the war, see World War Two: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.