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.
- This is also a reversal of the myth of Chechen female snipers targeting Russian soldiers in the genitals, see: https://pipss.revues.org/4058
Chistilishche (Purgatory). Alexander Nevrazov. Obshcestvennoye Rossijskoye Televideniye (ORT). 1998. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha9nJubRlrE
Fortress of War. Aleksandr Kott. Belarusfilm, Central Partnership, TRO. 2010. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha9nJubRlrE
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.