Early Life in Russia
Wayne was born in 1918 in Crimea, along the northern coast of the Black Sea, during a time of tremendous change. Her father, a pilot during World War I, was shot by a Bolshevik firing squad after the Russian Revolution, when she was seven months old. Her young mother made her way north to Petrograd to live with her own mother. Wayne’s mother—a “beautiful woman and a marvelous pianist”—never remarried, and they all lived in “utter poverty.”
“My whole family was destroyed by the revolution,” she said. “All the men were either shot by firing squads or killed in the civil war that followed the revolution. A few lucky ones were able to escape abroad. But we were stuck. There were no men left in our family to help us get out.”
At eight, Wayne’s singing earned her admittance to the only school in Leningrad for musically gifted children, the Leningrad Academic Capella. She auditioned with about 800 other kids, she said, and only 40 could be admitted. She won and began singing in the children’s group of the Kirov Theater of Opera and Ballet. After graduating, she went to the Institute of Theater Arts. “By then, I was in love with the theater,” she said, and she became an actress. “But then the war came and interrupted everything.”
That she wound up as a sharpshooter in the Red Army was no accident. “All schools had military education, even the ballet school,” she said, and women were part of this education. One hour a week was devoted to marching, learning about guns—including being able to put one together—and competitive shooting. “In my case, I was a good shooter, so little by little I was included in all kinds of competitions.” At 16, she won the city’s top shooting medal, the Voroshilov Sniper.
She was mobilized into the army at the beginning of the Siege of Leningrad. The siege was the Nazis’ effort from 1941 to 1944 to capture the city and is considered one of the longest, most destructive, and most lethal in modern history. Almost one million people died in Leningrad of starvation, including Wayne’s mother and grandmother, who died while she was in the army.
After being wounded twice—“shrapnel in the legs”—she returned to service as a field nurse. Toward the end of the war, she was decorated with three medals. She left for Moscow and joined the Moscow Satire Theater, where she acted and continued to sing classical music in concerts.
“In Russia, being in the theater means not only being in a play, but you were connected to it,” she said. “It was your job. We were all employed and had a repertoire of 10 to 15 plays,” which would rotate daily. “You could live and die working in the same theater. In America, it is different.”
In February 1946, she married an American diplomat in the first church service after the Revolution between a foreigner and a Russian. “All the foreign diplomats attended our wedding, and it was probably the main reason why I was given permission to leave Russia,” she said.
A New Life in the United States