Welcome to #ReadWithMC (opens in new tab)—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In April, we're reading Kate Quinn's The Diamond Eye (opens in new tab), a novel about Mila Pavlichenko, the real-life Ukrainian girl who turned into one of World War II's deadliest snipers. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
“Silence, please.” A human saber of a man with a scar on his brow and two St. George Crosses glittering on his chest came striding into the courtyard before the Osoaviakhim marksmanship school, surveying the double line of students arrayed in our new blue tunics. He allowed the stillness to stretch until a few flecks of snow came down from the steely sky, until we were shifting uneasily in our boots, then spoke again in a voice like a rifle shot.
“I have heard that you all shoot quite well. But a good marksman is still not a sniper.”
For the love of Lenin, I thought, borrowing my father’s frequent exhortation whenever my sister and I plagued him. I wasn’t here to be a sniper, I was here to take the advanced marksmanship course and get my badge. Prove myself worthy of being my son’s father as well as his mother. I glanced down at the schedule requirements I’d been handed when I showed up this morning for my first day: twenty hours of political classes, fourteen hours of parade ground drill, two hundred twenty hours of firearms training, sixty hours of tactics . . . it all looked reassuringly academic, which soothed me. I was a history student—I preferred it when action and violence were strictly confined to the pages of a book.
But now the scarred instructor pacing up and down was talking about snipers.
“Um—” The girl next to me—there were only three females in this class—raised her hand. “I’m not here to be a sniper. I’m here so I can join higher-level competitions, qualify for USSR Master of Sport.”
“In peacetime you will shoot targets in competitions,” the instructor said calmly. “But one day there will be war, and you will trade wooden targets for enemy hearts.”
Another one like my father, always shaking his head and saying, When there is war. Oddly, it relaxed me: I was already very used to men who taught every skill through a lens of how it might be useful in wartime, but the girl who had asked the question looked chastened.
She put her hand down, and the instructor continued speaking, eyes raking the double line of students. “A sniper is more than a marksman. A sniper is a patient hunter—he takes a single shot, and if he misses, he may pay for it with his life.”
That was when I felt myself straightening. Did all these courses and hours of study really boil down to something as simple as Don’t miss?
Well. That I understood.
“I do not waste instruction on idiots or hooligans,” the instructor went on, snow crunching under his boots. “If in one month you have not convinced me that you can acquire the skills and cunning required of a sniper, you will be dismissed from the course.”
I stood up even straighter. Because I knew right then and there that if he sent anyone home, it wouldn’t be me.
Two years of firearms coursework and drilling squeezed in around my university classes: I’d put in two hours at Kiev University’s Basic Archaeology and Ethnography lecture, then struggle into my blue tunic for two hours of Wednesday-night practice assembling and disassembling the Mosin-Nagant army rifle (“Called what, Lyudmila Mikhailovna?” “The Three Line, Comrade Instructor.”). I’d go straight from a Komsomol meeting at which we indignantly discussed the German bombing of Guernica in Spain, then put in three hours on the Emelyanov telescope sight (“Break it down for me, Lyudmila Mikhailovna.” “It’s 274 millimeters with a weight of 598 grams, two regulating drums . . .”). Two years, and all the courses and drilling—the memorization of ballistics tables, the practice hours learning the Simonov model and the Tokarev model versus the Melkashka and the Three Line—all boiled down to one thing.
“That construction site,” our scarred instructor would say, pointing at a three-story building half raised on Vladimir Street. “What positions could you take to neutralize the site foreman running up and down the plank walkways from floor to floor?” I’d list off every doorway, every line of sight, every window, and then feel tears prick my eyes when he pointed out the window aperture, the stairwell, and the third-floor ledge I’d missed. “Be better,” the instructor told me icily.
“Come back here in two days and examine how the site has changed: every new wall in place, every window boarded up, every new internal wall that has appeared. Life has a rapid pace, but not through telescopic sights—something is always receding into the background or coming into the foreground, so you must gain the whole picture through the tiniest of details.”
I jerked a nod. The instructor had spent twice as long on my mistakes as anyone else’s—the other two girls just got a nod!—and I could feel the flush rising out of my dark blue collar. He seemed to sense it, turning his back in scorn. I felt my eyes narrow, and two days later I spent three hours memorizing every single change on that building site, not missing one when I rattled them off in class.
Don’t miss. I had those words stamped on my bones, and there were so many chances to miss in this life—to fail. As a mother I was forever struggling to hit on the perfect way to raise my son: not too indulgent, not too strict. As a student I was forever struggling to hit the balance that would keep me at the top of my class: flawless note taker, prepared exam taker, dedicated researcher. As a woman of the Soviet Union, I was forever struggling to hit the ideals of my age: productive worker, happy joiner, future Party member. So many gray spaces between those tiny moving targets, so many ways to fail . . . But when I stormed into the firing range after my latest university lecture, asking myself angrily how I could have only managed a Good on a history exam rather than an Excellent, I could put it aside knowing that here, at least, hitting the target was simple—a matter of black and white, not murky gray. You hit the bull’s-eye or you missed it.
“A game,” the scarred instructor called. He’d begun taking our class into the countryside on Saturdays for lessons on camouflage—how to hide in tangled brambles or stands of trees, or during the wintertime, in drifts of snow. It was winter again now; we’d had a half hour’s break for lunch under a cluster of ice-hung birches, stamping our boots, the boys passing flasks of something to warm the belly.
Our instructor produced a sack of empty lemonade bottles and was rigging them on their sides in cleft sticks, narrow necks facing toward us as we scrambled upright and got into line with our rifles. “This game’s called bottle base,” he said, rising from his squat and coming to join the line. He set up his own shot methodically, and when he fired, a series of gasps and whistles went up: he had blown out the bottle’s base without touching its neck or sides. “Can anyone match that?” he challenged, eyes glinting under the scar.
I could have sworn his eyes stopped on me, deliberate and taunting, but I stood leaning quietly on my rifle and let the younger boys scramble forward. I analyzed their misses: they were shooting too fast, eager to impress.
“You don’t want to try, Lyudmila Mikhailovna?” The instructor’s voice came at my shoulder, breath puffing white in the frigid air. “Or are you going to hang back posing like a fashion plate?” I had a new winter coat, dark blue with a collar of black fur my mother had painstakingly trimmed from an ancient moth-eaten scarf and restitched to cuddle around my neck like a friendly sable, and the class had been teasing me all morning that I looked too fine and fancy to be toting a weapon.
I ignored the instructor’s dig, nodding at the boys as they blasted away. “I’m not joining in because they’re showing off. That’s not what a rifle is for.”
“That could spring from a good instinct,” he said. “Showing yourself—that’s dangerous for a sniper. You’re only invulnerable as long as you’re unseen.”
“I’m going to be a marksman, not a sniper.”
“So you’re not hanging back out of good instincts, then. You’re not wary of showing off; you’re just . . . afraid you’ll lose. Afraid to miss.”
I gave him a level look and went to kneel at the firing line, sinking back on my right heel, socking the rifle into the hollow of my shoulder. Index finger on the trigger, the comb of the butt against my cheek, rifle supported with the strap under my bent elbow as I rested on my left knee and slid my hand closer to the muzzle to steady even further. I stared through the telescopic sight at the bottle in its cleft stick. Even with fourfold magnification, it looked no bigger than the period at the end of a sentence—a full stop in bold type. But I didn’t stop. I fired, and in the flash of the shot I remembered the way I’d missed the target when Alexei watched me.
But this time when I lowered the rifle, I saw that the base of the bottle had been blown away in a diamond-sparkle of broken glass scattered across the snow . . . and the neck was intact.
“Well done,” my instructor said calmly. “Can you repeat it?”
I felt a grin spreading across my face, barely hearing the applause of my classmates. “Yes.”
That was the first day I heard it: the song a rifle could sing in my hands, its stock hard against my shoulder, my finger curled through the trigger. I’d somehow slipped away from my jockeying classmates and their flashy antics and found myself in a place of silence—an island in that raucous atmosphere of fun and games. I blocked everything out, the whole world, all so I could hear the song the Three Line was singing in my hands.
That afternoon I blew the base out of three bottles in a row, setting up every shot with painstaking care, not chipping a single bottle neck. I waited for my instructor to say something—Scorn that, I dare you—but he came for me with a fond, surprising hug. “Well done, my long-braided beauty,” he said, giving my waist-length plait a tug.
“I knew you’d win.”
I blinked. “You did?”
“From whom much is given, much is demanded,” he quoted. And the day I graduated from his course over a year later, he gave me an autographed copy of his booklet “Instructions for Sharpshooters” inscribed simply: Don’t miss, Lyudmila Pavlichenko.
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