Alexis Coe’s past essays on women’s history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: A Very Unnatural Crime.
Zinaida Portnova was visiting her grandmother’s farm when she first spotted the uniformed men approaching the barn. It was 1941, and they had come for the family’s cattle. Herbert Black, a German minister, planned to starve Russia in order to feed Germany, and it was starting to work.
If the Nazi soldiers confiscated the livestock, there would be nothing to replace it; there was no money to buy more, and no more to buy. Her elderly grandmother resisted as much as a woman of her age could, but this was not a discussion. With one swift strike of the hand, a German soldier silenced her, and led their greatest chance of survival away.
That was all the provocation 15-year-old Portnova needed. She joined the “Young Avengers,” the underage faction of the Belarusian resistance movement in Obol. At first, she just distributed Soviet propaganda leaflets in occupied Belarus, reporting back on the whereabouts of German soldiers, but she was soon dealing in arms. Soviet troops had strategically hidden guns, and she was tasked with discovering them. She was impressive in the field, and deemed fit to undergo basic weapons and explosives training. Portnova soon put her new skills to work, subverting German occupiers at a local power plant and brick factory.
The large contingent of Nazi soldiers stationed in Odol depended on the local population to serve them, but the Young Avengers had thus far been thwarted in their attempts to place an agent on the inside. Portnova would be the one to secure a position as kitchen aid to the garrison, where she was given unfettered access to their most basic weakness. In August of 1943, soldiers began to fall ill from food poisoning, and a few died.
The kitchen staff was immediately suspect, but Portnova, with her round, girlish face, was willing to prove her innocence; either way, the outcome would be the same. Under the watchful eye of the Nazis, she ate a small plate of the food she had indeed poisoned. Showing no signs of malady, she was released, but her body would soon succumb to the poison. The road to her grandmother’s house was paved with abdominal cramps, fever and chills. She arrived just in time to digest copious amounts of whey, neutralizing the poison.
But she couldn’t go back to the garrison. Her absence would surely serve as confirmation of the German’s suspicions, but perhaps they had already knew the truth. Portnova would be sent back out into the field, where her familiarity with the area could be put to good use sabotaging soldiers.
By January, her outfit needed to establish contact with another in Odol, and Portnova was chosen to go back. The local police, who knew her well, quickly plucked off the street and turned her over to the Germans.
She knew her options. A soldier pushed her towards the interrogation room, every step one closer to death. When he opened the door, she saw a pistol lying on the table. Within seconds, it was in her hand, and she shot him dead. Two more men rushed to the scene, and she had no choice but to shoot at them, too.
By some accounts, she was caught in the courtyard. Others say she fled into the woods, where she was captured alongside a river. Either way, Portnova ended up in Goryany, where she was relentlessly beaten and tortured. It is unclear if she gave them information about the youth resistance, or if there was even anything substantial to give, but by the time the teenager emerged from interrogation, she was blind. They threw her battered body on the back of a truck, and drove her to the forest.
Zinaida Portnova was shot dead on January 15, 1944, just a month shy of her 18th birthday.
To this day, Portnova remains a celebrated figure in Russia. She was the youngest person to be declared a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1958 and received the Order of Lenin, among other honors. There are two monuments to her in Minsk and Obol.
Martin Gilbert, The Routledge Atlas of the Second World War (Indiebound | Amazon)
Henry Sakaida et al., Heroines of the Soviet Union: 1941-45 (Amazon)
Original artwork kindly provided by Sally Klann.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.