In Ukraine, women militants are taking up weapons on both sides of the barricades.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award.
The folk dance reached its culminating moment. Young women with bright red boots and flower wreaths around their heads spun and jumped, dazzling an audience of passing art lovers. A year later, I still have a vivid picture of the opening of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the renowned, biannual contemporary art and film exposition in Venice, Italy. Whatever feelings you might have about the hopak, the traditional Ukrainian folk dance, it was hard to resist the lure of the colorful ribbons running down from the dancer’s wreaths, or the warm lipstick smiles with which the pretty Ukrainian dancers wooed their viewers.
Westerners aren’t the only ones vulnerable to the charm of Ukraine’s female folk traditions. Many generations of little Soviet girls grew up admiring every detail of happy Ukrainian national costumes, ironed their own ribbons, and danced to folk songs filled with romantic lyrics. Even now, Ukrainian families still value their heirloom shawls, thick cotton towels, and shirts embroidered with graceful flowers: all the handmade heirlooms passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters, to be pulled out of chests or closets on wedding days or other big occasions.
These days you won’t see many Ukrainian women performing happy dances. Traumatized by the slow slide into civil war, and with Russian military forces maneuvering on the border, Ukraine is looking ahead to a presidential election that many fear will accelerate the country’s fragmentation. The current split between pro-unity and pro-Russian groups is deepening, exacerbated by the casualties from fighting in the East — and the process of polarization also includes women. The day after the horrific May 2nd fire in Odessa that took the lives of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators, photographs of young women with ponytails pouring gasoline into bottles for Molotov cocktails appeared on the door of the incinerated building. "They burned Odessans," the sign said.
Millions of Ukrainian women on both sides of the conflict have been caught up in intense emotions. First there was the violence of the February uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, leaving dozens dead. Then there was Russia’s surprise takeover of Crimea, which meant exile and loss for many families forced to leave the peninsula, and a source of "patriotic" exaltation for many others. And now there are the victims of war in Eastern Ukraine. For all these reasons, the traditional image of the happy, flower-wreathed Ukrainian maiden is giving way to another: that of the woman warrior, a figure increasingly common on both sides of the political dividing line.
Women build barricades, pour gas for Molotov cocktails, or throw bricks at policemen — sometimes with more passion and anger than the men. On the Maidan, some of them joined Unit 39, a largely female group within the demonstrators’ Self-Defense Forces, where their tasks included persuading members of Berkut, the paramilitary police, to defect. Last month, activist Irma Krat, one of the leaders of the Maidan’s female militia forces, was detained by rebels in Sloviansk. The interrogators have accused her of torturing anti-Maidan activists and killing a Berkut officer.
But the pro-Ukrainian contingent certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on women militants. Since late April, leaders of the separatist movement have been calling on both men and women to mobilize and prepare for a real war against Kiev. Last weekend, a pro-Russian website issued a video that showed four masked women warriors from Lugansk declaring "a war against the junta," as pro-Russian forces refer to the interim government in Kiev. In the video, women dressed in camouflage with Kalashnikov rifles slung across their chests introduce themselves as female fighters in the Russian Orthodox Army: "We took up weapons because we’re fed up," one of the women says. Apparently addressing officials from the Kiev government, she continues: "Leave. You have 24 hours." A taller woman standing next to her adds that she wants to send a "special hello" to the Maidan’s Unit 39, which she accuses of killing boys from the region: "Girls, you’ve got a chance: Stop what you’re doing or die."
So why are women preparing to risk their lives — or to take the lives of their compatriots? During my recent visit to Lugansk, I posed the question to a group of blond, blue-eyed women sitting on a bench outside a wooden church at the back of the main camp of the pro-Russian militia. Their answer was simple: The Ukrainian authorities had sent tanks against their husbands and sons fighting for the separatist cause in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, so the women had no choice but join the militia troops, too, and fight on the side of their loved ones.
But even at moments when there haven’t been obvious threats, women in eastern Ukraine have followed the call of male rebel leaders by joining violent battles against government officials. In Donetsk, women dressed up for a peaceful demonstration began throwing bricks at government representatives. Some of them were still holding balloons or children’s hands when the police started firing stun grenades and gas into the crowd. The women were undeterred: they were too angry at the government. Women of all ages continued the battle until the building was seized by the militia of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk. (The photo above shows the Republic’s female supporters marching during a recent demonstration in the city.) Many in the crowd demanded the public punishment of captured officials, but the rebel militia used shields to protect their captives from the bloodthirsty crowd, which included many women.
Yet such images don’t come as a complete surprise. Local contemporary artists, sensitive to any changes in the social environment, starting painting images of lost or violent women months ago. Valery Tsagolov was painting images of ballerinas in suicide bomber belts long before the conflict caught fire between pro-Russian militia and Ukrainian security forces caught. In early March, soon after one hundred people tragically died in street clashes in the heart of Kiev, the M 17 Gallery presented a painting of a young woman in a traditional Ukrainian costume with long curly hair, a machine gun over her shoulder and a grenade in her hand. Igor Pereklita, the artist, created the painting months before thousands of women joined the protests on the Maidan, as part of a show called "The Fire of Love," devoted to the idea of revolution. "Death to the occupiers from Moscow&q
uot; was scrawled at the woman’s feet.
The recent works of Maria Shubina, a Kiev painter famous for her solemn self-portraits, feature a girl guerilla armed with a revolver and receipts for Molotov cocktails. Shubina display the paintings next to grenades and guns made of chocolate (no reference, she says, to Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate king currently campaigning to be Ukraine’s next president). She told me that the installation is supposed to serve as a pacifist protest. It will fall to Ukrainian women, she said, to heal the wounds caused by the conflict and bring together the fractured country.
Meanwhile, Natalya Zabolotna, a Kiev museum director, is worried about the lives of her friends, the artists Pavel Yurov and Denis Grishuk, who have been held hostage in a rebel prison in Sloviansk for over a month. She reached out to the Moscow Orthodox Church. "The priests told me they couldn’t help, because the violence and anger of war have flooded people’s mind and souls," Zabolotna said. "Something is seriously wrong. The world has let the genie out of the bottle. Even women have taken weapons and formed militia troops in despair and fear." I can’t help thinking, though, that most women in Ukraine are waiting for the guns to melt like chocolate so that they can once again open up those chests filled with family heirlooms and dance the hopak.