It was now time for snacks and the good major beckoned us to the table, which groaned under the weight of
While snacking, Maj Dolina had her son show us videos of special documentaries about her life. In one, there was a rare archival film clip of her when she was 17 years old, sitting in the cockpit of a biplane. With a radiant smile, our gracious host looked like a typically beautiful Ukrainian gal.
The plight of surviving women veterans from the Great Patriotic War was Maj Dolina's biggest concern. As a Hero, her opinions had clout. On May 9, 1990, President Mikhail Gorbachev invited her to speak before the Congress of War Veterans in Moscow. Soviet veterans who came home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan were given many benefits. However, the women veterans who fought from 1941 until victory in 1945, had seen their benefits erode. Dolina was nervous as she began to speak. Gradually, her conviction and passions took over, and she spoke forcefully. Given a strict five minute time limit, she spoke for over ten, and no one interrupted her. Twice, she turned to Gorbachev and asked, and then demanded that the government raise the benefits of women veterans. The audience clapped in approval. And twice, Gorbachev stood up, nodded his head, and applauded her. It was a scene right out of the movie Rocky III. The following day, the pension was increased!
Maj Dolina has continued to work hard for veterans' rights. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, each republic went their separate ways. There was hardly any money in the budget for benefits. "The collapse of our country was a terrible event. We had been united and everything worked. Look at
"How old are you?" I asked. My wife would have chastised me for such a remark! "In my official biography, I was born on 18 December 1920. Actually, I was born on 18 December 1922!" she laughed. I was the best pilot in my flying club and I wanted to enter the flight academy, but I was two years too young. So I pleaded with my superior and he added two years to my age!"
"I'm the Grandmother of Soviet Military Aviation!" Dolina joked. "I trained many young men before the war. There are two retired generals and a famous scientist here in my neighborhood. They were my students!"
Maj Dolina fondly reminisces about her friendship with old comrades, Soviet cosmonauts, American WASPs (Women Air Service Pilots), and veterans of the French "Normandie-Niemen" Regiment, who flew Yak fighters with the Soviets. "On Victory Day, my apartment is always open to any veteran who wishes to drop by and say hello!" she says.
On the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, Mariya Dolina was promoted to the rank of major by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. She was bestowed with the title of "Honored Citizen of Kiev" by the mayor, and a nearby school was named after her.
Maj Dolina asked me what my plans were for the duration of my stay. I told her that I was headed for Krasny Luch in Eastern Ukraine, to visit the statue of Lydia Litvyak, the famous Soviet woman fighter ace. With that, she exclaimed "Lydia! We were best friends! Please lay flowers at the base of the monument for me!" I promised her that I would.
We said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. As we left the apartment building, I kept shaking my head in disbelief. "Hero of the Soviet Union, Maj Mariya Dolina!" I kept saying to myself. "What an incredible lady!"