When the Soviet Red Army liberated the Lokot region, near the Russian city of Bryansk, in September 1943 they heard stories recounted by the locals of a Russian female executioner who worked on behalf of the Nazis, and who was responsible for killing hundreds of suspected partisans and their families. No-one knew her real name, but because of her actions the Soviet partisans of the Bryansk region marked her for death, but were unable to locate her. When Lokot was liberated, she was nowhere to be found, and the Soviet NKVD and later the KGB spent years searching for the woman executioner known to the partisans as "Ton'ka pulemetchitsa". In 1976, another collaborator who was arrested had told his interrogators he knew the identity of the woman, she was Antonina Makarova. When the KGB finally learned where she was and went to arrest her, they found she had been living as a Red Army veteran in the Lepel region with her husband and two children, who knew nothing of her past. Charged with the murders of 168 people, but suspected of causing 1500 deaths, Makarova would eventually face a Soviet execution squad for her crimes.
Makarova was born on 1 March 1920, in the Russian village of Malaya Volkovka to a large peasant family headed by her father Makar Parfyonov. Very litte is known of her childhood, but the confusion over her name is well know. On her first day at school, the teacher noted attendance and wrote down the children's names. Antonina knew her first name, but when asked for her last name, the shy little girl either couldn't pronounce it or failed to remember. The other children then shouted together, "Ona zhe Makarova!", ("She is Makar's") and the teacher misunderstanding, wrote the child's name down as "Antonia Makarova". Rather than correct the clerical error, she went by this name for the rest of her life.
The young Makarova enjoyed watching films, and her favourite was the 1934 film Chapayev, an epic about the civil war by the Vasilyev brothers. The movie, which featured Boris Babochkin as the title character, was about the exploits of Commander Vasily Chapaev, a hero of the Russian Civil War who had been immortalised by Soviet propaganda. It proved highly popular in the Soviet Union, and Antonina's favourite character was the heroine "Anka the Machine-Gun Girl", played by Russian actress Varvara Myasnikova. Anka was based on a real-life person, Maria Popova, a nurse who served in Chapaev's cavalry division. In an actual war-time incident, Popova had to leave her nurse's station and temporarily take over for a slain machine-gunner. Although this only happened once, the fictional Anka possessed considerable skills as a professional machine-gunner and she became a role model for the young and impressionable Makarova.
She was by all accounts a good student and did so well at school, that she was sent to Moscow to continue her education. Like most Soviet youth, she joined the Komsomol, the Communist Youth Movement, and she was there in June 1941, when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. She either volunteered or was ordered to the front to fight in the Great Patriotic War against Hitler's Third Reich. 19-year-old Makarova received training in nursing, and like her hero Anka/Popova, in how to operate a machine-gun.
She was assigned to a unit that fought near Vyazma, a small town in Smolensk Oblast, located on the Vyazma River. In October 1941, the Wehrmact launched an attacked against the Red Army forces defending the Southern approaches to Moscow. Hitler had ordered the 2nd Panzer Army commanded by General Heinz Guderian and the 3rd Panzer Army led by General Georg-Hans Reinhardt to secure the flanks of Army Group Centre, under the command of Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock. Troops under Guderian's command broke through the Bryansk Front and encircled two Soviet formations, the 3rd and 13th Armies, whilst a third Soviet formation, the 50th Army had also been encircled by infantry of the German 2nd Army north of Bryansk. In the subsequent Battle of Bryansk, the Germans had managed to kill some 100,000 Soviet soldiers, and capture roughly 600,000 in what was known as the "Vyazma Cauldron".
Amongst those encircled at Vyazma was 21-year-old nurse Antonina Makarova, who managed to escape along with a soldier named Nikolai Fedchuk. They were the only two from their unit who managed to elude German captivity, and together they wandered through the forests, foraging and stealing food in a bid to survive. At this time Fedchuk referred to Makarova as his "field wife", and she made the choice to exchange sex for her own protection. She reasoned it was better to suffer rape at the hands of Fedchuk, than attempt to survive alone in the Russian wilderness. Neither had any intention of re-joining the Red Army, or siding with the Soviet Partisans who had formed a large movement to fight a guerrilla conflict against the German invaders.
In January 1942, the two arrived at the city of Krasny Kolodets "Red Well", and there Fedchuk confessed to Makarova that he had a wife and family, and promptly left her. In order to continue her fight for survival, she attempted the only thing that had worked well so far, she tried to gain favour with several of the local men, offering them sex in return for food and protection, but the women of the village soon drove her away. She continued to wander on her own, finding shelter and accommodation with locals, but always moving on. At one such village, she pondered her next move. She knew that large partisan detachments were active in almost every forest throughout Russia and the Ukraine, but when she eventually arrived at the village of Lokot in the now German-occupied Bryansk region during the Summer of 1942, she saw how well the collaborators lived, and according to Russian historian Oleg Khlobustov, she decided "to seek out a warm place under the new occupying sun."
Lokot had been captured by the Germans on 6 October 1941, and placed under the nominal control of local Ukrainian collaborators. The German military administration had been approached by Bronislav Kaminski and Konstantin Voskoboinik, who proposed establishing a civilian administration and local police force that would assist the occupying forces. Voskoboinik was appointed as Starosta, or Major of Lokot, with Kaminski as his deputy. The collaborators organised a militia of 10,000 locals, with the intention of fighting against the growing partisan force that had organised rapidly behind the German lines. The partisans had proved a huge problem for German communication and supply lines, and they conducted a brutal campaign of raids and reprisals against the Nazis. In response, the SS conducted a reign of terror against the local populations, who were accused of assisting the partisans. Both sides committed horrendous atrocities against one another, and often captured German soldiers, and SS members in particular, were hideously mutilated before death. The Germans were equally as ruthless, executing anyone they suspected of being a partisan.
When Voskoboinik was killed in combat with partisans, Kaminski assumed the role of Mayor and leader of the Militia in what was known as the "Lokot Autonomy". Kaminski was given a certain degree of self-governing authority under the supervision of the Wehrmacht, and expanded the militia, which was re-named the Russian National Liberation Army (RONA), into units which consisted of several thousand soldiers. Kamniski devised his own tax and currency system, courts, jails and newspaper, whilst private enterprise was encouraged and the Soviet system of collective farming abolished. The Lokot Republic was eventually home to half a million inhabitants within its territory. It was here that "Tonya" Makarova found herself, and she was initially detained by the "Politsai", the Russian police collaborators, who suspected she might be a partisan spy. When she finally convinced them she was neither a partisan or a member of the communist underground, she was given protection and ingratiated her with the local administration by becoming a prostitute and attending the drunken parties hosted by the Germans and Politsai.
One evening the Politsai got Tonya drunk and she was taken out into the courtyard and positioned behind a "Maxim" machine-gun. There a group of people were placed in-front of the machine-gun, including men, women, children and the elderly. The Politsai said they were partisans along with their families, and ordered her to shoot them down. Makarova never hesitated, and despite her inebriated state she pulled the trigger, killing the entire group. The next day she was told she had been made an official employee of the Lokot Autonomy, and was given a salary of 30 Reichsmark's and her own accommodation. She was now given the position of "palach/executioner", and discovered the Lokot Republic dealt harshly with anyone considered an enemy. Captured partisans, along with their families, were held in a barn overnight, which could hold roughly 27 people at a time, and this number would be the daily quota of executions Tonya had to perform.
The Germans would often get local and indigenous people to commit executions on their behalf, and Makarova's willingness meant she would serve the Lokot administration well. She saw herself as "Anka the Machine-Gun Girl", although Anka had shot down White Army soldiers during combat, Tonya herself was cold-bloodedly murdering civilians, including women and children. Each morning she would attend the execution site in a ravine near a former stud farm, shooting 27 people condemned to death by the Germans, and then walk amongst the bodies and finish off any survivors with a pistol. She would then disassemble and clean her machine gun, whilst in the evening she enjoyed drinking schnapps and dancing at the German Club. There she would engage in sex with either one of the Germans or a member of the Politsai. For her services, she was allowed to keep clothing and other belongings from the people she shot, and she would often go to the barn and choose clothes she intended to take from the people she executed the next day.
Locals told of how the gates of the prison would open and a group of captives would be marched out followed by a cart carrying a machine-gun and behind it a young woman nonchalantly chewing a piece of straw. During the daily executions, Makarova was known for her precision and lethal skill with a machine-gun, however there were several occasions where a few of the children survived as the bullets flew over their heads. These children often played dead and when the local villagers were brought in to remove the corpses, they buried the dead and turned the children they found alive over to the partisans. Because of her brutal crimes, the Soviet partisans soon learned of "Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl", or "Ton'ka pulemetchitsa", and asked witnesses for any information on this woman. All the locals knew about her was that Tonya was from Moscow, and they believed her last name was Makarova, but they knew nothing about her past or how she came to suddenly appear at Lokot. The partisans of the Bryanks forest, namely the Subarov and Kovpak Brigades, marked her for death, but were unable to launch a successful attack against the German controlled area.
By the Summer of 1943, the German Wehrmact was beginning to lose ground in the East and were being pushed back by the victorious Red Army who surged Westwards. Kaminski's Brigade began to suffer heavy desertions, partly due to the recent Soviet successes and also because of partisan efforts to turn as many of his men to their side as possible. Kaminski was targeted for assassination on numerous occasions, and any captured partisan collaborators were summarily executed. German officers passing through Lokot towards the front-lines reported seeing bodies hanging from gallows outside Kaminski's headquarters. The Germans assigned a liaison staff to Kaminski's Brigade, to provide stability and restructure the unit, but the noose was tightening, and the Red Army expelled the Germans from the Bryanks region and began to encircle the Lokot Republic.
By July 1943, German hopes for the success of Operation Citadel had failed, and Soviet counter-offensives had forced Kaminski's Brigade into retreat. He was ordered to evacuate the Lokot area, and upwards of 30,000 people were transferred by the Germans to the Lepel area of Vitebsk. It was around this time that the Germans discovered that several of the Russian women were infected with a sexually transmitted disease. Makarova was one of the women ordered to attend a German hospital further at the rear to receive treatment for syphilis. This inadvertently saved her from being captured by the Red Army, who liberated the Lokot region on 5 September 1943. When they excavated the area, the Soviets discovered the remains of approximately 1,500 people, who had been executed under German orders. Of these, only around 200 were ever properly identified. Through partisan intelligence, the Soviet NKVD knew these murders had been committed by the mysterious girl known as Antonina Makarova, also known as "Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl". The Secret Police opened up a criminal investigation into the case in an effort to apprehend the wanted murderer.
Kaminski and his Brigade were sent to Belarus in August 1943, where they engaged in heavy combat against the partisans. By June 1944, the unit had been assigned to the Waffen-SS, as the 29th Waffen-Grenadier Division der SS (Russische Nr.1), and Kaminski was given a Waffen-SS rank. His unit participated in suppressing the Warsaw Uprising, and the troops under his command committed the most terrible atrocities against the civilian population. The brigade lost any form of cohesion as a fighting unit and his men began to loot, rape and pillage, whilst Kaminski enriched himself by collecting stolen valuables from civilian homes. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler used this as an excuse to wipe out the leadership of the Brigade because it had become an embarrassment to the SS. He was summoned to Litzmannstadt, and there he and his staff were tried before a court martial and sentenced to death. Kaminski, his brigde chief-of-staff Waffen-Obersturmbannführer Ilya Shavykin, and several others including his driver were executed on 28 August 1944. After his death, the brigade was placed under German control and later absorbed into Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army.
Whilst recuperating at the rear, Makarova met a German Corporal and soon became his mistress. In secretly they decided to go together to Ukraine and then Poland, where the Germans discovered their affair. The Corporal was executed and Makarova was sentenced to a term in a concentration camp in Konigsberg, and there she remained until the camp was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945. In order to conceal her identity and avoid detection, she claimed to the NKVD that she had served as a nurse with the 422nd Sanitary Battalion from 1941 to 1944. She had previously stolen the military ticket of a murdered prisoner, and this enabled her to cover her criminal past and escape punishment. Makarova then served as a nurse at a Soviet mobile hospital.
It was there that she met Sergeant Viktor Ginsberg, who came from a Soviet Jewish family and had fought with distinction in the war, and who was recuperating in the hospital. He soon fell in love with the young nurse and proposed marriage, which she accepted. After the war, and the birth of their daughter, they married in 1947, and she soon gave birth to a second daughter. She settled into a normal job at a garment factory, for which she received awards, whilst her colleagues considered her a valued employee. Her photographs were shown in the local museum as part of the nations war efforts against the invading Germans, and no-one suspected her murderous past. Mrs. Ginsberg was even invited to speak to school children about her experiences as an army nurse during the Great Patriotic War. She had by this time become worried that her identity would be discovered by the NKVD, but because she took her husbands name, it was even more difficult for the police to locate her. Over the next 30 years the NKVD and then the successor organisation, the KGB, pursued the case relentlessly in search of Antonina Makarova.
Over the course of their investigation, the KGB interviewed almost 250 women with the name Antonina Makarova, but none proved to be the elusive murderer. After the war, the Soviet authorities imprisoned several members of the former Lokot Republic, including Stephan Mosin and Yury Frolov, who had served as a Waffen-Sturmbannführer when the Kaminski Brigade was absorbed into the Waffen-SS. They were tried in 1946 before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union and sentenced to death. Anyone who had served the Germans during the war were considered traitors to the Motherland and faced the wrath of Stalin's secret police. Similarly the leaders of the Russian Liberation Army were repatriated back to Russia, where they were brutally tortured and executed for treason, including the organisation's leader General Andrey Vlasov, who had switched to the German side after his own capture.
Sometime in 1976, a former Nazi collaborator by the name of Nikolai Ivanin was interrogated by the KGB about his war-time activities, and confessed to knowing Antonina Makarova. That same year her brother applied for a visa to go abroad. During the Brezhnev era it was Soviet policy that the family of the applicant be vetted, including their names before and after marriage. In his visa application, Parfenov listed all his relatives, including his biological sister, 55-year-old Antoninia Ginsberg, nee Makarova. When his application was inspected, the name raised a red flag within KGB and investigators were sent to follow up this new clue. They had to be careful not least because Antonina Ginsberg was considered a decorated war hero for her work as a nurse, and her husband was a highly respected Red Army veteran. In order to point the finger of suspicion, the secret police would need evidence.
The detectives spent a year keeping watch over the Ginsberg family home, and secretly sent several eye-witnesses into Lepel, including one of Makarova's former Politsai lovers to identify her. They all confirmed with 100% certainty that Mrs. Ginsberg was "Tonya the Machine-Gun Girl". They moved to arrest her, and she was taken to Bryansk where she was placed in a pre-trial detention centre. Other eye-witnesses confirmed she was the murderer of Lokot and the KGB organised a line-up, from which she was picked out by witnesses. During questioning Makarova did not deny who she was. She proceeded to tell her interrogators the whole story of how she came to end up in the Lokot Republic, and how she worked as an executioner for the Kaminski administration. She expressed no remorse and when asked if she suffered nightmares because of her actions, she said no. She said for a long time she had been withdrawn and apprehensive about her past catching up with her, "It is impossible to be afraid constantly. For the first ten years, I waited for a knock at the door, and then calmed down. There are no such sins that the whole life of a person is tormented."
During her June 1978 interrogation she remained calm and answered everything the KGB questioned her about. She said no-one had forced her to do it, "They plied me with vodka, and I carried out my first execution when drunk." She admitted only to committing up to three executions a day, for which she received a reward of 30 Reichsmarks. Afterwards she removed the clothing she wanted to keep from the dead, sometimes lamenting that they were spoiled by bullet holes and blood. According to eyewitnesses, she would often visit the prison and examine the prisoners, looking any clothing which caught her fancy. When asked about her work as an executioner, she explained, "I did not know who I killed, they did not know me. So I was not ashamed before them. The arrested were lined up facing the machine-gun to the execution site. At the command of my superiors, I knelt down and fired until everyone fell dead. Sometimes, you shoot, you come closer, and some people still move. Then I shot again in the head... All those sentenced to death were the same for me. Only their number changed. Usually I was ordered to kill a group of 27 people-so many partisans fit into the room for execution... At the command of the authorities, I knelt and shot at people until they fell to the ground."
The sudden arrest of a war veteran like Antonina Makarova caused widespread public interest, and the information on the case was published in the newspapers. During her detention, Makarova refused to talk about her family and did not want to communicate with her husband. Viktor Ginsberg did not know the reason for his wife's arrest, and repeatedly tried to secure her release. He threatened the KGB investigators that he would complain to Soviet Secretary General Brezhnev, and to the United Nations about her unlawful imprisonment. Because of his persistence, the KGB told Ginsberg the truth about his wife and her war crimes. Viktor Ginsberg reportedly became "gray and aged in one night", and he denounced his wife and immediately left Lepel with their daughters to an unknown destination.
At her trial it was not possible for the prosecution to prove her complicity in the murder all 1,500 killed at Lokot, because most of the bodies found there were never formally identified. And so she was only charged with the deaths of those who's identities were known, and it was established beyond doubt that she had been responsible for the deaths of 168 of the people executed. On 20 November 1978, she pleaded guilty to all charges, but strongly believed she would not be punished harshly for crimes committed over 30 years previously. Makarova was sure she would receive no more than three years imprisonment, and began planning to move away and start a new life upon her release. She was shocked when the judge handed down the death penalty. The following year she applied several times to be pardoned, and had reason to believe clemency would be granted, because the Soviet Union had declared 1979 was to be "The Year of the Woman". However, all her petitions were rejected and the sentence upheld. KGB Officer Peter Golovachev described her behaviour throughout her detention, "No fear, no excitement, no tears. Until the last minute." The death sentence was carried out, and at 6:00am on 11 August 1979, she was executed by a KGB firing squad. Makarova was the last woman executed for war crimes and the last of the major war crimes trials of traitors to the USSR. The files on the criminal case of Antonina Makarova currently remain closed in the KGB archives.
Written by Nucleus