One of the Red Army's most brutal commissars during the Russian Civil War. Zemliachka flourished during the Great Terror, and became the highest-ranking woman in Stalin's Soviet Union.

Zemliachka was born Rosalia Zalkind in 1876, into a large family of Jewish merchants. While her father looked after the family business in Kiev and her brothers studied there at the university, Rosalia lived with her mother in Mogilev and was exposed to revolutionary ideas from an early age. In 1881, when members of the People's Will society murdered Tsar Alexander II, she caught her mother hiding illegal pamphlets her siblings had produced.

Moving to Kiev for her own studies, she was introduced to revolutionary literature by her brothers and was first arrested the year after she left school. Initially a Populist, like the assassins of Alexander, she found their programme inadequate against the social ills she saw on a daily basis and had turned to Marxism by 1896; imprisonments afforded her the opportunity for further study.

After a short-lived marriage - her husband died of tuberculosis in 1902 - she became involved with the Social Democrat underground newspaper Iskra, and was recommended to the St. Petersburg party committee by a friend of hers, a certain Leon Trotsky. She first met Lenin in 1903, the year his Bolshevik faction split from the Mensheviks in the party.

Now a member of the Petersburg committee herself, Zemliachka - like many of her comrades, she had adopted an underground codename - was one of Lenin's leading supporters there in 1905, when an abortive revolution took place in Russia. Fleeing to Moscow to avoid arrest, she resumed her position as organisational secretary on her new home town's committee, and fought on the barricades in that December's armed uprising, discovering an aptitude for violence that would last throughout her career.

Bolsheviks of both sexes valued tverdost, or firmness - a cool rationality and diligence easily slipping into ruthlessness if need be. Zemliachka perhaps embodied tverdost more than any other female Bolshevik, both during her period in the underground and when, after several prison spells and consequent poor health, she returned to revolutionary activity in 1917.

Returning as secretary of the Moscow committee after the February Revolution, Zemliachka once again proved herself an enthusiastic supporter of Lenin, and as enthusiastic an organiser of the party militia, the Red Guards. The Bolsheviks frequently railed against the women's battalions being raised in support of Prime Minister Aleksandr Kerensky's war effort; their qualms concerned the women's cause, not their fitness for combat.

Zemliachka, in fact, was in a minority for much of the year in believing that an armed Bolshevik uprising would succeed; she was only vindicated after the takeover in Petersburg (now Petrograd), rather ineffectually resisted by an over-confident Kerensky. She continued on the Moscow committee until late 1918, when she volunteered to serve at the front against the assortment of anti-Bolshevik armies known as the Whites.

Although the Red Army made no effort to recruit women for combat - as opposed to support roles - on a large scale, a number still enlisted, and the female machine gunner became a familiar type in early Soviet life. Prominent Bolshevik women such as Alexandra Kollontai lauded the female war effort as the ultimate in equality, ironically echoing the bourgeois feminists, such as Ariadna Tyrkova, whose flag-waving Kollontai had decried the year before.

However, others, even in the party, had reservations, and predictable rumours circulated about the fighting women who associated with men, cut their hair short and had a penchant for leather coats. If the 'Bolshevik Amazon' confirmed the worst fears of the Bolsheviks' opponents, Zemliachka was a godsend to White propagandists on the lookout for amoral Reds.

After leaving Moscow, Zemliachka was made chief political officer of the Eighth Army in the Ukraine, incongruously adding a pair of pince-nez to her commissar's ensemble. She was relieved of her position in April 1919 when morale in the Eighth dramatically fell, although was reinstated to the Thirteenth Army after explaining that the soldiers had lost heart because the high command had not provided them with any boots.

On assuming her position with the Thirteenth, Zemliachka went straight to the political department's headquarters, gave the highest-ranking officer there an earful and ordered him to clear out the soldiers who had taken to using the rooms as an extra barracks. Only the next morning did she discover that they were in fact her staff.

Her final military engagement was at the end of the war in 1920, clearing the Crimea of defeated Whites after the flight of the last White commander, Piotr Wrangel. Alongside Béla Kun, the Magyar who had led the 138-day Communist revolution in Hungary the year before, Zemliachka presided over the mass executions of political enemies of all hues, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner for her work in 1922.

After the war, Zemliachka was posted to the Urals and, like most Bolshevik women, assigned to the continuing propaganda work, but stayed close to the rising Stalin, whose appetite for confrontation and fears of an enemy within she tended to share. In 1927 she joined the party's Central Control Commission, soon heading the department and thus becoming, as the Stalinist terror loomed, the chief enforcer of party discipline.

Working closely with the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, Zemliachka navigated through the purges of the 1930s, rooting out other Old Bolsheviks with as impeccable a revolutionary pedigree as her own. She received the Soviet Union's highest honour, the Order of Lenin, in 1936, and the next year was appointed to the Supreme Soviet.

She became a People's Commissar - the equivalent of a minister - with responsibility for the economy in 1939, before returning to familiar ground during World War II, helping to organise military supply while remaining in Moscow throughout the German siege. She died in 1947, a faithful servant of Stalin, and her ashes were buried in the Kremlin Wall.

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