Khaya Dragunova was born in 1921 in Kaluga, central Russia, the eldest of seven children. The family, which had moved to Kaluga from Ukraine, observed the Jewish traditions, but spoke Russian. Khaya's father Nahum was a baker, and he baked matzos for Passover at the local synagogue during the 1920s. After finishing school, Khaya worked as a telephone operator at the local railway administration. Her father Nahum died in the late 1930s, whereupon she became the primary breadwinner of her large family.
In June 1941, the Soviet-German War broke out, and on October 13 that year the Wehrmacht entered Kaluga. Khaya's profession thwarted the evacuation of her family as the Germans were closing in on the city: Her mother did not wish to leave without her, while Khaya was not permitted to quit her job. Dragunova's family was forced to move into the ghetto, which had been set up in the so-called Cooperative Settlement. 2.5 months later, on December 30, Kaluga was liberated by the Red Army. Remarkably, after the liberation Dragunova's family was unable to move back into their pre-occupation apartment, which had been turned over to some Russian squatters under the German rule.
In early 1942, Dragunova volunteered to enlist in the Red Army. As an experienced telephone operator, she was attached to the 324th Rifle Division in the same capacity. Her job involved not only maintaining communications in the division, but also locating disconnected wires and fixing the line. On such occasions, she would have to leave the telephone bunker and walk under enemy fire, occasionally for kilometers at a time, to find the break in the line. With this division, Dragunova saw action in the area of Bryansk in western Russia. She was awarded several medals.
In June 1943, Khaya was discharged from the army, whereupon she returned to Kaluga. In 1949, she moved to Bryansk.