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Celebrating the Lives of Soviet Women: Irina Vyacheslavovna Rakobol’skaya (1919-2016)

‘We are a generation not from this universe’


One of the few remaining members of the infamous ‘night witches’, the female pilots who flew in the Soviet front line during World War Two, died on 22 September 2016. Irina Vyacheslavovna Rakobol’skaya was born on 22 December 1919. She enrolled in the physics faculty at Moscow State University in 1938, and in October 1941, without telling her father, she enlisted in the Red Army where she found herself, eventually and unexpectedly, part of a newly-formed women-only air regiment. She became a combat pilot. This was not too daunting an experience for Irina, who had already gone through civil defence training in the 1930s that included parachute jumping and using a machine-gun. After undergoing military training at the Engels military aviation school, in February 1942 she was appointed Chief of Staff of the 588 aviation division – a regiment of night-bombers. Up until the end of the war, she took part in air raids as part of the Soviet war effort.

After demobilisation, Irina returned to the study of physics and became an outstanding academician with a specialist interest in the study of the cosmos. From 1966, she took on the important role of Dean overseeing the training of university teachers, and from 1987 to 1997 she headed up the Union of Moscow State University Women.Alongside many of her outstanding colleagues, she was buried recently in Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.

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