Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya was born into a Ukrainian peasant family on the Crimean Peninsula. She was one of ten children. Before the Great Patriotic War (the Soviets name for the eastern front of Second World War) she worked in a cannery, and also as a telephone operator. In 1925, she married a Soviet army officer. While married to her husband, she began to acquire an interest in military matters. She became involved in the 'Military Wives Council' and was trained as a nurse in the army. She also learned how to use weapons and drive vehicles. She said: "Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer's wife is not only a proud woman, but also responsible title."
When the eastern front of World War II opened (called the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union), Mariya was evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia. While living in Tomsk, she learned that her husband was killed fighting the forces of Nazi Germany near Kiev in August 1941. The news took two years to reach her. The news angered her greatly, and she became determined to fight the Germans in vengeance for her husband's death. She sold all of her possessions to donate a tank for the Red Army. She asked that the tank be named "Fighting Girlfriend" ("Боевая подруга") and that she be allowed to drive it. The State Defense Committee agreed to this, realizing the publicity opportunities. The tank Mariya donated was a T-34 medium tank.
By this time Oktyabrskaya was 38 years old. She took part in a five-month tank training program immediately after the donation. These five months training were unusual for tank crews at the time: usually tank crews were rushed straight to the front line with minimal training. After she completed her training, she was posted to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943 as a driver and mechanic. She named her tank 'Fighting Girlfriend' and emblazoned these words on the turret of the T-34. Many of her fellow tankers saw her as a publicity stunt and a joke, but this attitude changed when Oktyabrskaya began fighting in her first tank battles in Smolensk. Her first tank battle began on 21 October 1943.
Her first battle involved Oktyabrskaya maneuvering her tank in intense fighting; she and her fellow crew members destroyed machine-gun nests and artillery guns. When her tank was hit by gunfire, Oktyabrskaya, disregarding orders, would leap out of her tank and repair the tank, amidst heavy fire. During this action she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
A month later, on 17–18 November, the Soviet forces captured the town of Novoye Selo in the region of Vitebsk during a night battle. During this attack, Oktyabrskaya enlarged her reputation as a skilled tank driver. On the 17th, Oktyabrskaya took part in an assault on the German positions near Noveoye Selo. However, a German artillery shell exploded against her tank's tracks, halting her advance. Oktyabrskaya and a fellow crewman jumped out to repair the track, while other crew members gave covering fire from the tank's turret. Eventually, they fixed the tank track, and her tank rejoined the main unit several days later.
Two months later, on 17 January 1944, Oktyabrskaya fought in another night attack that was her last. The attack took place at the village of Shvedy near Vitebsk. During the battle, she drove T-34 about the German defenses, and destroyed resistance in trenches and machine-gun nests. The tank crew also destroyed a German self-propelled gun. Subsequently the tank was hit by a German anti-tank shell, again in the tracks, and was immobilized. Oktyabrskaya immediately got out of the tank and began to repair the track, amid fierce small arms and artillery fire. She managed to repair the track, but she was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness. After the battle she was transported to a Soviet military field hospital at Fastov, near Kiev, where she remained in a coma for two months, before finally dying on 15 March. The following August, Oktyabrskaya was posthumously made a Hero of the Soviet Union in recognition of her bravery in the battles around Vitebsk.
US National Public Radio featured a cartoon of Mariya to headline a story about "rejected princesses" that Disney and other storytellers had hitherto ignored.