By Henry Sakaida

She is mostly forgotten and her grave is neglected by family members. The only people who come to visit is an old schoolteacher named Vladek, along with his wife Tamara, and son Sergey.

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Vladek and his wife Tamara place fresh flowers on the grave of Mariya Dolina

“Mariya Dolina devoted her youth to fighting Fascists and later to building up the country,” remembered Vladek, a former Soviet submariner. “At every position she did her best. She was very much disappointed when the Soviet Union collapsed and she could hardly stand it. She was a happy person. She died before the war between Ukraine and Russia started; I find it difficult to guess how she would have felt. She would rather want to die than to witness what is happening. There will always be fresh flowers on her grave while I am alive.”

Mariya Dolina was a very remarkable woman. She was born in Siberia in 1922, the eldest of ten children in a poor farm family. Young Mariya decided on an aviation career and became a commercial flyer before the Great Patriotic War (1941- 45). Then suddenly, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. On that very day, she ferried out precious aircraft, then set the airfield’s hangars on fire; it was heartbreaking!

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Mariya Dolina in front of her Pe-2 bomber

Dolina was immediately pressed into service. She joined the 587th Dive Bomber Regiment and flew the  Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber throughout the war. On 2 June 1943, her plane was damaged on a bombing mission over Kuban and attacked by German fighters. She crash-landed on a dry grassy field and their plane burst into flames. The male gunner got out and extracted the two women while surrounded by an inferno. They miraculously survived, but Mariya suffered spinal compression injury which plagued her for the rest of her life.

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Soviet Pe-2 Bombers in flight

Daylight low-level ground attacks against German targets by Soviet pilots bordered on suicide. To encourage them, the government awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union to anyone who survived 40 missions. Only 90 women received the honor throughout the war, and half were posthumous. Guards Capt Mariya Dolina received her nation’s highest decoration on 18 August 1945 after completing 72 missions.

After the war, Dolina served in various political posts and moved to Kiev, Ukraine, then still a part of the Soviet Union. A school and a street were named in her honor. She lived in a luxurious apartment and the government gave her a car. When her first husband died, she was lonely. She reconnected with her old airplane mechanic decades later. He had taken such great care of her Pe-2. “I never knew that he loved me!” she told me. “If only I had known back then! We married and had a great life until he passed away.”

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Official Soviet portrait of Mariya Dolina wearing her Gold Star Hero Medal

The sad plight of former women veterans aggravated Dolina. It was a fact that women veterans suffered discrimination and were marginalized. They had proven themselves in combat. Dolina went to Moscow in 1990 for the 45th Anniversary of the Victory over Germany celebrations. One of the most important events there was the meeting of the Congress of War Veterans. Thousands packed the hall. President Mikhail Gorbachev was there.

Dolina was angry and had something very important to say. All speakers were given a strict 5 minute time limit. With conviction and passion, she aired the grievances of the women veterans; there were many women in attendance. Dolina spoke for over ten minutes and no one dared interrupt her.

Twice during her talk, Dolina turned to Gorbachev and demanded, not asked, for higher pensions. This was unprecedented! In a scene right out of the Hollywood movie Rocky IV, Gorbachev stood up twice in a dignified manner and stiffly clapped his hands in approval. Following their leader, everyone stood up and clapped. The following day, pensions were increased.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country. Like a bad divorce, relations between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated. Heroes of the Soviet Union lost their celebrity status and many privileges. However, Dolina was still treated as a hero, an Ukrainian hero now. In 1995, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma promoted her to the rank of major.

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Maj Mariya Dolina was a tireless crusader for veterans rights. She was often visited by student groups and was always a gracious host despite her infirmity.

Maj Dolina was a fighter to the end. On my visit in April 2009, she was very ill. She was a patient in the best hospital in Ukraine (for high officials, military, and politicians). Accompanied by my hosts and forensic historian Justin Taylan (founder of, we went to see her but were initially denied entry. The staff did not like the idea of two American journalists being there. They were very protective of their living national treasure.

“Maj Dolina is very ill and cannot not be seen!” said the security officer curtly. But we refused to leave. We were left in the lobby for over 45 minutes. He was hoping that we would go away. They were obviously stonewalling. I thought it was very odd that we were not kicked out. I saw a flurry of phone activity and I knew it concerned our visit. The young officer kept looking at us while on the phone; he seemed nervous.

When the security staff heard about our pending visit, they moved Maj Dolina to another room so that they could deny that she was in Room X! Then someone came into her room to tell her that she had visitors cooling their heels downstairs. She went ballistic and started to berate the staff! She was in such delicate health, no one wanted to take the responsibility if something happened to her during her tirade! We were suddenly escorted to her room. Finally!

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Maj Mariya Dolina pours a drink for author Henry Sakaida and Justin Taylan

Maj Dolina had indeed been expecting us. There was a table in the corner of her room, with all sorts of snacks assembled together in very short order! That’s what she told us. This is traditional Russian hospitality. Then she reached under her nightstand and grabbed a bottle of her favorite Cognac! Justin and I just shook our heads in disbelief. “She is in the intensive care ward and look at all this!” I whispered. “Yeah, this could never happen in America!” quipped Justin.

Just then, Dolina’s doctor (woman) came in to say hi. Dolina insisted that she have a drink with us. Without even a second thought, the doctor said cheerfully, “Of course!” So our gracious host poured all of us a drink and gave a toast in memory to all of the women veterans.

Maj Mariya Dolina passed away on 3 March 2010.

For More on Female Pilots of the USSR See:

Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

For Related Articles See:

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