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15 November, 2012  ▪  Lesia Onyshko

The Courageous

The peaceful and military roles women played in the UPA
Gallery: Women in UPA (photos: 10)

Wars are not for women. But a number of women joined the ranks of the UPA. Their motives were often quite distant from purely patriotic or romantic considerations. More often than not, their choices were a complicated mix of circumstances that prompted girls to join the ranks of the “forest army”. They did so in order to avoid arrest and persecution and have at least some chance of surviving under repressive totalitarian regimes. Sometimes they followed their relatives or beloved ones and, to avoid becoming easy prey for the enemy, bore all the hardships of everyday living in an insurgent army.


The UPA modelled its own structure, infrastructure (zapillia) and auxiliary services after regular armies. Just like any army, the UPA required great human and material sacrifice. The insurgent propaganda of the time divided women into two groups: active participants in the liberation struggle and supporters. Both categories had to bear the burden of the war and, at the same time, be a support for male insurgents.

The active participants were women who were involved in the UPA’s infrastructure – directly in military units (most often platoons) or in the medical service, intelligence or propaganda departments, or as couriers. Women supporters were responsible for household affairs, such as food, clothing and medical supplies.

In the UPA, women performed peaceful functions traditionally reserved for the fair sex (working as doctors, nurses and orderlies), semi-peaceful jobs (as typists, propaganda activists and couriers) and purely military work (as intelligence agents, members of UPA military units and sometimes commanders of squads, platoons and even companies). The majority of women were involved in the medical service, which best reflected the role of women in the war.

Credit should be given to women orderlies who risked their lives helping the wounded. Their work was further complicated by the fact that UPA units were often on raids, and they had to put up with poor conditions in forests, a lack of medications and insufficiently qualified personnel.

In an underground struggle, nurses often shared the lot of their patients: if needed, they took firearms into their hands and engaged in battle. They were killed when their unit was encircled. Such battles usually lasted until the second to last bullet – with the last saved for soldier himself. In early January 1947, an underground hospital run by the UPA was encircled by MGB troops near Mt. Khreshchata in the Lemko region. The patients and the entire medical personnel put up fierce resistance until they ran out of ammunition. Then they shot themselves. The deceased included two nurses, Pchilka and Kalyna.


Well-educated and talented women worked in the propaganda department, editing and publishing the underground press and literature. For example, Bohdana Svitlyk (Lytvynenko) contributed to the UPA’s main periodical, the Povstanets (Insurgent) magazine, since 1945. She adopted the nom de plume of Maria Dmytrenko and published a collection of short stories entitled Na smert, ne na zhyttia (Unto Death, Not Life) and the short stories “Uchytelka” (The Teacher) and Mykhailyk. Her life tragically ended at age 30, when she was killed in a fight with an MGB unit on 29 December 1948. She was decorated with the UPA Bronze Cross of Merit for her industrious efforts.

Women performed not only creative but also technical work in the propaganda department. They often worked as typists in specially-equipped underground print shops and ran the printing presses. Women educated as linguists worked as editors and prepared informational material. They often had to work below ground. This was not an easy task given the lack of oxygen and light which caused near-constant fatigue and dizziness. Smoking oil lamps stung their eyes hurt and gave them throbbing headaches. Nevertheless, they made every effort to do their work quickly and accurately.

Couriers are also an example of the semi-peaceful roles women played in the underground. Couriers had the important function of establishing contacts between scattered UPA units as they carried letters (hrypsy), oral communications and propaganda material on foot, often covering huge distances. They were like the arteries of the entire insurgent movement, ensuring the rapid circulation of information. A group of women couriers was set up to serve UPA Commander Roman Shukhevych. Until September 1947, this group was headed by Kateryna “Moneta” Zarytska and included Halyna “Anna” Dydyk, Odarka Husiak (“Nusia Chorna”), and later Olha “Roksoliana” Ilkiv. In addition to securing connections between the command centres of the insurgent movement and the underground, these women monitored the way orders from the higher command were fulfilled, received secret post, arranged quartering (khaty) and procured item needed for underground activity.


The gathering of intelligence was an important contribution women made to the insurgent movement. They had more opportunities to watch the actions of the enemy in populated areas. “You are a woman; it is more natural for you to be walking about a village,” they were told. UPA unit commanders often utilized this fact to their advantage. For example, one Serhiy, the leader of an intelligence unit in the UPA-West, organized special training courses for female intelligence agents in Rohatyn Raion, Stanislav Oblast.

Women went on raids as long as several months together with military units. Dressed as peasants, they could quite freely walk around in enemy-occupied settlements, obtaining data about the position of enemy forces and their further actions. During cleanup raids by the enemy, they were nearly the only source of necessary information.

Women often performed several functions at the same time in UPA units: orderlies, couriers, intelligence agents and often fighters. A vivid example is Myroslava “Uliana” Hresko, a nurse in Rizun’s company. For a long while, she cared for patients, pulled the wounded out of battle and set up clandestine hospitals (shpytalyky). But in the summer of 1945, an UPA company fought a battle with NKVD forces and their commander was wounded near the town of Komarno in the Lviv region. Hresko provided first aid to him and led the fighters out of the forest. For her courage and fearlessness in battle she was decorated with the Silver Cross of Military Merit, 2nd grade.

The story of Olha Horoshko is a telling illustration of the military functions women performed in the UPA.  Horoshko led a unit of insurgents after the death of her husband who was a commander. She painstakingly studied the methods used by the enemy and worked out her own tactic of fighting. A unit led by her engaged in a battle with a small Soviet force and surrounded it on two sides. No insurgent in her unit ever doubted her competency.

A close study of recollections shared by women who served in the UPA suggests that apart from purely “professional” roles they also performed auxiliary functions: cleaning up, cooking, laundry, etc. Storage of foodstuffs, setting up bakeries, sewing workshops, laundries, accommodations in settlements were all activities that exposed these women and their families to arrests, imprisonment and exiles. Without their support the insurgent army would not have been able to resist the Soviet regime for so long after the war.

The variety of functions they had was not a burden to these women. On the contrary, they were happy to be a help, viewing additional responsibilities as an extra contribution to the general cause, and a sign of trust. For example, Dydyk was daring enough to arrange for an ill UPA leader to undergo medical treatment in the Lermontovksy health resort in Odesa, on the Black Sea Coast. With bogus IDs in their pockets, they managed to recieve medical treatment there twice, in summer 1948 and 1949, essentially operating in an enemy environment.

Close communication between commanders and their female subordinates often led to romantic relationships which evolved into deep affection. Constant danger and an uncertain future notwithstanding, sincere love was born among them, which was especially tragic in a time of war. But that was the power of life-asserting forces at the time – people loved and dreamt of happiness even when under fire.

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