Black Widows and White Tights, Female Combatants and the Modern Martial Culture of Russia

The image of the Soviet female soldier is well-known in popular memory. From Trotsky’s 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, formed in 1917 and pioneering Soviet servicewomen like Lyudmila Pavlichenko (the top female sniper during WWII) and Lydia Litvak (first female ace of WWII), these women were honored by the Soviet Union for their service on the battlefield. To this day Russian women still have the legal right to serve in the military, albeit it is not popular. Russian men are required by law to serve one year as conscripts.  However, in contrast to the honored and equal position given to female fighters by the early Soviet Union, modern portrayals and attitudes towards female combatants in the Russian Federation are anything but. From portrayals in Russian media and in actions taken by the Russian government, it is plain to see that Russian martial culture is very hostile to the idea of women as active combatants. In media, we see ultra-nationalist films rewrite the historical battlefield equality given women and men with new roles defined by gender and subject the bodies of female combatants who break this new norm to sexual mutilation by Russian soldiers as object lesson and moral punishment.

Not only is this idea played out in Russian film, but also in reality. Attempts by the Russian government to identify and preempt the training and deployment of female suicide bombers from Chechnya and the Caucasus regions demonstrate both the cultural hostility of Russians towards female combatants, and also how this hostility inhibits the ability of governmental forces to perceive threats. Russian cultural tropes, the idea of the “Black Widow” or shakhida, the female Chechen suicide bomber and the “White Tights”, or белые колготки, the mythical female Baltic mercenary sniper, enforce and demonstrate the myopia towards women in combat in Russian martial culture.

In contrasting the role and treatment of women in two modern Russian war films, we can understand the Russian suggestion of how and what women are to be treated on the battlefield. Where 2000-era blockbusters like Stalingrad (2013) and Fortress of War (2010) rewrite and ignore the role of the Soviet female partisans and servicewomen, the ultra-conservative grindhouse film Purgatory (1998) portrays the fate of female combatants who, in rejecting and resisting Russian military might, are defiled and destroyed.

Fortress of War (2010) portrays the assault and resistance of the Soviet military garrison at Brest Fortress during Operation Barbarossa. The fortress was one of the first targets of Wehrmacht forces during the initial invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The film itself works to portray these events as accurately as possible, yet injects a small love-story for the sake of filmmaking. In this romance, we are introduced to Sasha Akimov, a 15 year old musician (Sasha is based on real-life accounts from a Pyotr Sergeyevich Kluypa.1) who, during the initial peacetime setting of the film, has affection for the daughter of an officer of the fortress, Anya. In the ensuing assault, Sasha takes up arms to defend the fortress, while Anya is overwhelmed by the violence around her and falls into a catatonic state, changing the peacetime relationship between the two from one of young lovers to that of defender and static objective. The ‘nation’ and women are quickly equated in this modern interpretation of wartime filmmaking, and Fortress of War, with its large budget and commercial success uses this relationship to create emotion within its filmmaking process. The film often uses images of German violence towards Russian women as a tool for characterizing the invading German troops as evil and antithetical to the loving and caring Soviet defenders. These images go from the execution of women by machine-gun fire and bombs to the use of women and children as shields by German soldiers in approaching Soviet defensive positions.

The visual development of the relationship of Sasha and Anya, where in peacetime they are equals, Sasha takes up arms in war to protect the helpless Anya


Another big-budget wartime film from Russia that uses this same idea of ‘nation’ and ‘woman’ is Stalingrad (2013). In fact, where Fortress of War made efforts for historical accuracy in its events, Stalingrad proceeds under a fictional story tailored for maximum entertainment to a modern Russian audience. The idea of women/nation as an objective to be defended has now become a primary story mechanism – the plot of Stalingrad revolves around a 6-man squad of soldiers who become invested in the defense of two women still living within Stalingrad itself. The entirety of the film revolves around the mechanics of realizing this defense, and how, through ingenuity and Russian resolve, 6-men slaughter hundreds of German soldiers for the goal of defending women and nation (this is of course only suggested in the movie itself, but advertising materials for Stalingrad state it explicitly by describing the film as “a battle for the heart of the nation”.)

On the other side of this treatment of women in nationalist films is Purgatory (1998), a low-budget portrayal of Russian soldiers in the Chechen conflict. The film is marked by a grindhouse, gory style that glorifies the violence exerted on the human body in war. Its director, Alexander Nevzorov, is a stated ultra-nationalist and vocal supporter of the first Chechen war. The main characters, Russians, are also subjected to the assault by foreigners on all sides; Chechens and their foreign mercenaries, products of Russian urban myths. In this case, Purgatory portrays a squad of African mercenaries and two ‘White Tights’ – an urban myth of female biathletes from the Baltics who worked as mercenaries, thus nicknamed for their apparel. The two women, shown to be sadistic and cruel in attacking wounded soldiers with their rifles from a ruined hospital, are subjected to violent, graphic deaths specifically tied to their gender. One main characters, Aslan, obtains his own sniper rifle and shoots both of the ‘White Tights’ in their genitals, proceeding to slit their throats as they writhe in agony. The scene is shot to show the gory details of the wounds and emphasize the agony of the two foreign female fighters.2  We can surmise that these graphic wounds are the just results of entering the battlefield and receiving payment for attacking Russian men – that women who enter the battlefield will not just be killed like any soldier but also mutilated because of their gender, a far cry from the glorification given women who remain off the battlefield or on it as objects to be defended.


With this suggestion of contemporary Russian attitudes towards female combatants, we can turn to the idea of the Shakhidа, or Black Widow, the trope of female Chechen suicide bombers. In a chapter of his book Allah’s Angels, Paul Murphy elaborates upon the ineffectual, crude, and wanton measures taken by the FSB and other organs of the Russian security state to combat suicide bombers from the Caucasus regions. To Murphy, the primary methods of the FSB in identifying suicide bombers revolved around this idea of single, educated Chechen women as the best candidates for suicide bombers, and as such maintained a list of women who fit the criteria. As Murphy demonstrates, women on this list were regularly abducted, harassed, assaulted, and killed. These methods had dubious effect on preventing bombings, as both men and women from a much larger background became suicide bombers instead.

What we can connect here, however, is that the memory and stereotype of the Shakhida, the female suicide bomber, could continue to exist because of how it clashes with the contemporary Russian idea of women as virtuous objects to be protected from the horror of violence. Thus, this iconoclastic idea sticks in cultural memory even when reality does not match it, and the actions of the FSB in continuing to seek this memory suggests that this iconoclasm has stuck with them as well.



  1. This is also a reversal of the myth of Chechen female snipers targeting Russian soldiers in the genitals, see:

Source Cited

Chistilishche (Purgatory). Alexander Nevrazov. Obshcestvennoye Rossijskoye Televideniye (ORT). 1998. Video.

Fortress of War. Aleksandr Kott. Belarusfilm, Central Partnership, TRO. 2010. Video.

Stalingrad. Fedor Bondarchuk. Art Pictures Studio, Non-Stop Productions. 2013. DVD.

Allah’s angels: Chechen women in war. Paul J.Murphy. Naval Institute Press. 2010. Print.


Sexual Assault in Concentration Camps

Trigger Warning: Rape, Sexualized Violence

The Holocaust was a dark time in our world’s history, with over 11 million killed including Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, Roma, and many other groups of people. Many horrific stories came out of the Nazi concentration camps, and in this post I will discuss the sexualized violence that occurred against many women during this time period and explore the reasons why this topic is not widely discussed. I will examine the different traumatic events women were forced to endure, and dissect why war often breeds a rape culture.

In order to understand the types of acts taken out against women, I will explain what sexualized violence and what it entails. According to an online article on the Human Research Protection website called Breaking the Silence about Sexual Violence Against Women During the Holocaust, “the term sexualized violence makes it clear that male violence against females is not about sexuality, but is a show of power on the part of the perpetrator, and includes many forms of violence and sexual connotations, (AHPR, Online). This does not mean that sexuality did not play a role in these acts, but it focuses on the power dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim. These sexualized acts can be defined as rape, coerced sexual activities, forced nudity, prostitution, sexual enslavement, sterilization, and many other types of assaults on women’s bodies. (AHPR, Online). These types of violence can be accompanied by torture and mutilation and frequently ended in the victim’s death. All of these acts contributed to this superiority complex of the Nazis, and their assertion of power over others. In a reading called Sexualized Violence Against Women During Nazi Racial Persecution Austrian sociology professor Brigitte Halbmayr discusses these relationships. “Sexualized violence is a manifestation of power and a claim of ownership of men over women, rooted in the centuries old tradition of patriarchal societies. Thus, sexualized violence is supposedly an expression of hatred of women, a way to discipline women and assign them their social standing” (Halbmayr, 32). This lack of respect is evidently dominant, and is shown through the stories of Holocaust survivors who recall their hardships.

There are many different types of sexualized violence that occurred during this time period, and therefore there are many stories told by the women who endured those acts. Initially, when women arrived at concentration camps they were forced to strip down naked, which in itself is a form of sexualized violence. The brutality continued, as one woman described in Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk’s New Arrivals how women “waited for the SS men to visit us. We jumped up from our places and stood naked in front of a large group of SS men who looked us over slowly, with disdain in their eyes” (Normberg, 16). From the moment of arrival, these women were subjected to revealing their naked bodies to the eyes of men who despised them and thought of them as nothing. While naked, women had to “undergo an examination for lice. They told us (women) to stand on a stool, and had to look and see if we had live, even in the hidden places” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 34). This invasion of privacy was furthered by the shaving the women’s heads and body hair, which was considered humiliating and often made women unrecognizable to their friends and family. This initial arrival was something that all women had to endure, and were humiliated for their nudity and the invasion of their bodies. It became as though these women were treated as cattle, merely bodies that were to be judged and shaved in order to maintain some semblance of hygiene.

Not all of the women survived the arrivals in the concentration camps, as some were sent to the gas chambers according to their physical abilities, if they were pregnant, or if the Nazis deemed their race or ethnicity unacceptable to remain within the camps. The women who remained within the camp lived an excruciatingly painful life, with little food or water and an unbearable amount of physical labor that their ailing bodies could not handle. Along with these atrocities, women feared sexual assault, torture, multiplication, prostitution, among various other sexual acts. As Nomberg-Przytyk describes, “forced sexual acts were closely linked to the fight for survival and accentuated hierarchy within the concentration camp system. Through a relationship with an SS man or prisoner of high rank within the hierarchical system, a women prisoner could increased her chances of survival. She might gain greater access to better food, clothing, and items for taking care of herself” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 36). One woman describes such as interaction, “then suddenly one of the criminal Germans came and he had two tins of sardines. And he went to one woman and he had intercourse with her, one of those thin scarecrows…He have her the two tins, she stood up and he did this thing” (Halbmayr, 36). This description shows the desperation women felt within these camps, where enduring sexualized violence became a way of survival. These acts are not to be thought of using sexuality to advance prospects, but it is a survival tactic that some women gambled with.

Most acts of sexualized violence did not stem from a relationship of giving and receiving. Women were senselessly raped and victimized in various different ways. Some women were subjected to forced sterilization, where they underwent surgery without anesthesia–a surgery many died from; other women were forced into prostitution. These women within the camps were subject to many tortures that humiliated and demeaned them. Nomberg-Przytyk tells the story of a survivor who describes her interaction with an older women within the camp, “suddenly I noticed an old lady in the next bed squat and start peeing in a pot from which she would drink coffee in the morning. She looked at me, embarrassed, and put her finger to her lips so that I would not say anything to anybody” (Nomberg-Przytyk, 26). Quick moments such as these capture the humiliation women felt of their situation and their bodies. They were forced into desperation situations of shame, as some women encountered with their sexual relations with SS officers.

These different acts of sexualized violence such as the rape, mutilation, and the sterilization of women within the concentration camps exemplify the the German superiority complex of the Aryan race. “Rape for the Germans played a serious and logical role in the achievement of what they saw as their ultimate objective: the total humiliation and destruction of ‘inferior peoples’ and their establishment of their own master race’ (AHPR, Online). This idea of humiliation and destruction is something that the Nazis used as a way of asserting their superiority. Nazis were, however, specifically forbidden from sexually touching Jewish women because of their race defilement laws called Rassenschande (AHPR, Online). While these sexual assaults were prohibited, it did not stop them from occurring. According to Lauren Wolfe who wrote about Women Under Siege “some scholars have been loath to believe sexualized violence was extensive” (AHPR, Online). This focus on Holocaust scholars appears to be a prevalent reason why some feminists believe sexual violence during this time period is not widely discussed. The AHPR article added, “holocaust historians omitted women from their rendition. If they mentioned woman at all, male scholars referred to motherhood but ignored sexual identity issues entirely” (AHPR, Online). These historians believe that discussing the sexualized part of the holocaust would divert attention from the overall traumas millions incurred and trivialize the holocaust. Some feminists have accused such scholars of erasing women from the history of the holocaust because their plights are not being discussed. Despite these historical drawbacks, there have been actions taken to make sure women are protected from sexual assault and sexual violence during war time. Still, there are many stories which will not be heard of voiced due victims’ shame and humiliation, along with the many women who perished at the concentration camps. These women’s stories are important to remember when discussing the atrocities within the holocaust because they were not isolated to this war, and they are many other victims.


“Breaking the Silence about Sexual Violence against Women during the Holocaust.” AHRP. Alliance for Human Research Protection, 09 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Halbmayr, Brigitte, Project Muse., Rochelle G Saidel, and Sonja M. 1952- Hedgepeth. Sexual Violence against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. Waltham, Mass. : Hanover [N.H.]: Brandeis University Press, 2010.

NOMBERG-PRZYTYK, SARA, and Roslyn Hirsch. Auschwitz: True Tales From a Grotesque Land. Edited by Eli Pfefferkorn and David H. Hirsch, University of North Carolina Press, 1985,