Cover image of "The Diamond Eye," a novel about a famous Soviet female sniper

Yes, there was, indeed, a Soviet female sniper who gained fame in World War II. You may have come across mentions of her if you’ve read a lot about the war. She was Ukrainian, a fourth-year history student at Kiev University, and her name was Lyudmila Mikhailovich Pavlichenko (1916-74). She killed hundreds of Axis soldiers, a great many of them from long distances. And, like the woman of the same name in Kate Quinn’s novel The Diamond Eye, Pavlichenko was wounded after fighting for more than a year on the southern front. Following treatment for her injuries, she continued to serve the Red Army by training other snipers—and touring the US, Canada, and the UK late in 1942 to bolster support for the Soviet Union’s war effort.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Pavlichenko did, in fact, visit President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, as does the novel’s protagonist. Later, she gained headlines across the United States on a repeatedly extended goodwill tour. But Quinn’s novel is not her story alone. A second, American sniper enters the tale in the United States. And therein lies the drama of The Diamond Eye.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn (2022) 448 pages ★★★★★

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Soviet female sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko in one of many meetings described in this novel
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Image: Library of Congress via Smithsonian Magazine

Both a great war novel and a love story

Pavlichenko is the mother of a five-year-old boy when Operation Barbarossa unleashes terror across the western Soviet border. Her husband had left her once the boy was on the way, since having a child would hamper his surgical career. Though she is a fourth-year history student and is already working on her dissertation, she enlists in the Red Army as a patriotic duty. For months on end, as she transfers from one unit to another, she fails to persuade any officer that she is a skillful sharpshooter. They won’t even examine the documents she carries or test her skills. Then, at last, she encounters a unit commander who doesn’t reject her solely because she’s a woman. And thus begins her storied career as a sniper.

Killing hundreds of Axis soldiers on the Southern Front

A Ukrainian, Pavlichenko joins the Southern Front as the Nazi juggernaut plows ever further into the Soviet Union. Her unit first defends Odessa (now Odesa) but falls back in the face of an unstoppable Axis force. She and the others on her sniper team have killed hundreds of Romanian and German soldiers, but to no avail.

They then shift to Sevastopol in the Crimea. But the same takes place there even as Pavlichenko’s official tally mounts into the hundreds. And as her division begins the move toward a last stand at Stalingrad, medical personnel evacuate Pavlichenko from the front after shrapnel punctures her lung. Flown to Moscow, she learns that “Comrade Stalin” has a mission for her. He sends her to the United States as part of a delegation to attend a conference organized by Eleanor Roosevelt. So begins a new phase in her eventful life.

A starring role in the United States

In the United States, Pavlichenko becomes the star of the Soviet delegation. A shy woman who has never before spoken in public, she soon finds her footing at the microphone and begins grabbing headlines. She delivers inspirational speeches designed to shame the United States into opening a second front in Western Europe to relieve the pressure on the USSR. On a stay in the White House, she becomes friendly with the First Lady.

All the while these events are unfolding, Pavlichenko falls in love—not once, but twice. Quinn rapidly shifts the perspective from Pavlichenko at war to Pavlichenko in love, and from the Soviet Union to the USA. And there the story eventually comes to a shattering end as she meets her match—that second sniper.

About the author

Photo of Kate Quinn, author of this novel about a Soviet female sniper
Kate Quinn. Image: History From a Woman’s Perspective

Kate Quinn describes herself as follows on her author website: “Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with The Alice Network, The Huntress, The Rose Code, and The Diamond Eye. All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with three rescue dogs.”

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