Україна Модерна

Kerstin Bischl. Заготовка

Опубліковано 16.03.2012

// Kerstin Bischl

WomenRedArmyWhen on the 15th November 2002 the exhibition “Nina + Mascha + Katjuscha. Women in the Red Army 1941-1945” opened its doors at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst, nobody expected it to be such a success. Whereas the museum is usually not crowded with visitors or acknowledged with media attention, “Nina + Masha + Katjuscha” could attract both. As a consequence, the museum extended the duration of the exhibition for another two weeks and afterwards made a loan exhibition out of it. It is on a tour of Germany and Europe until today. By presenting mainly Ego-Documents, that is letters and interview-fragments, copies of official documents and pictures,[1] the exhibition tells us the story of approximately 800.000 Soviet women. These served as nurses, cooks, secretaries and radio-operators in the Red Army or fought there as pilots, snipers, or medical orderlies in front positions against the German war of annihilation.[2]

As a matter of fact, the exhibition is therefore worthwhile writing a comment on it. Maybe today, ten years later, it is an even better time to do so, because today, we can acknowledge the exhibition being ahead of scientific research in full perspective, its efforts by contextualizing the information it gathered. Today, we can also locate the ways it sometimes happens to fall into old traps of women’s history as we can analyze the reasons for its success.

To do so, I will start this comment on the exhibition with a summary of its contents. In a second step, I will draw attention to the state of historical art concerning World War II, women, gender-relationships and everyday-life in fighting armies, especially the Red Army. Only by that, there will be an accurate light on the research the exhibition accomplished and the questions it raised. And as the last step, I will accentuate the exhibition as something, which it is definitely and avowedly: women’s history. Even when such a perspective is legitimate as every other perspective – it also bears problems and shortcomings as every other perspective does. These points shall be discussed in an attempt to focus on questions the exhibition raises but does not answer.

The exhibition starts with a reflection on contemporary Nazi-German prejudices and stereotypes concerning fighting women in Russian or Soviet armies. These were discriminated as bloodthirsty and sexually fascinating “Flintenweiber.”[3] This cliché was especially prominent in the literature of the 1930s, written by Germans who had served for the White forces of the Russian Civil War, and was exploited by Nazi propaganda agencies. Especially during the war, the Red Army women were presented as degenerated human beings, which should symbolize Soviet perverseness. In wartime practices, this discourse meant they were not treated as prisoners of war, but oftentimes shot on the spot or deported into concentration camps.


The edition of Army Squad “With Our Army in Russia”, Paris, August 1941. The album is devoted to German advancing in 1941. Text and images illustrate the treatment of female POWs. All photos of this material are published with kind permission of the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst, Berlin, Germany

Unfortunately, the exhibition fails to trace this image also in the minds of former Wehrmacht soldiers after the war or the post-war literature in Germany. There, the image of the “Flintenweib” as a symbol for Soviet-Asiatic brutality and as a sexualized object was still present and - probably - influential.[4] This circumstance is at least mentioned in the exhibition accompanying texts, but not further analyzed.[5]

The next chapter deals with a highly different perspective, the heroic image of fighting women in the post-war Soviet Union. The first officially declared female “Heroes of the Soviet Union” - mostly partisans and medical orderlies - were presented already towards the end of the war, which is in the late 1940s and 1950s. But a major state sponsored effort on presenting women as part of the heroic Red Army was just done since the 1960s.[6] It also focused only on pilots, snipers and, again, medical orderlies.

The roots for the assignment of women into the Red Army were laid, as we learn from the next three chapters, already in the Russian Civil War. At that time several ten thousands of women were fighting especially for the Bolsheviks.[7] In Soviet times prior to World War II women were militarily trained in the Komsomol and the OSOAVIAKhIM.[8] Most women of these organizations volunteered for the front or were mobilized in quotas since 1942, after the frightening advance of the German Wehrmacht and huge Soviet losses. Actually, the mobilized and volunteering women were supposed to serve in non-fighting positions that is as news-assistants, nurses, cooks and so on, for which they were prepared in a few months time. But due to the women’s pressure to fight, military schools for female snipers and pilots were established, too.[9] A general conscription of women never happened, because symbolizing the ‘civilian world’ they were on first sight seen as a replacement for conscripted men in the workforce of the so-called home-front or in non-fighting positions. They just happened to be at the front by chance.


Military doctor and nurses of some Divisional medical post. No place indicated, 1943. During the war, the number of female surgeons had been constantly increasing.

Aspects of the different fields of service are described and furthermost pictured in the next five chapters: Prominent are medical service, systems of communication, supply and administration, air raid defenses and air force, as well as combat troops, mostly snipers. The most female soldiers were mobilized into medical and communication assignments as in other armies of World War II. But the Soviet women’s ‘auxiliary’ tasks and positions differed to a high degree from that of women’s assignments in the Axis or Allied troops.[10] As medical orderlies, front-line doctors, or radio operators Soviet women served in front-line positions, directly exposed to warfare. They were armed themselves and legally declared combatants. In their everyday-life of warfare they were surrounded by male comrades and had to deal with the hard work and deprivations of a total war front-life. It was Soviet female snipers who could happen to serve in female units. And three all-female regiments were established for female pilots in the Red Army air force.


Female students on military training. Moscow, 1941. The usage of brooms in training indicates the lack of weapon

In the next chapter different things are convened and through quotations described under the headline “womanhood”: the (lack of) fitting uniforms and medical treatment for female soldiers as the military was considered to be a male institution and not prepared for women; the women’s eagerness to practice a woman-like behavior at the front (make-up and body-accentuating uniforms for instance); love, sexual harassment, and the need to be protected by a high-ranked so-called field husband; the discrimination for being too easy with men, which was applied also after the war; and last, but not least: honor.


Female officers of the 6th Guard Army, no place indicated, March 8, 1944. While supplying Red Army with new military uniforms, the procurement of female personnel had been improved as well

The next chapter “memory” presents mostly pictures of female veterans.

Women in other armies, which fought also in World War II, are presented – mostly in pictures – in the next two chapters. About 500.000 women were serving in the Wehrmacht and the British forces, in the U.S. Army were 250.000 of them. As auxiliary corps they served as nurses, in the communication systems, or in the air raid defenses. All these women were unarmed and not exposed to direct warfare.

As a last chapter, different life lines of female Soviet soldiers, their personal and official pictures and quotations are presented. Here we find very different statements about the war and accompanying feelings. Why some of them are presented in this chapter and not in the others becomes sometimes unclear.

By wandering through the exhibition it becomes clear, that it is not just displaying a part of the Soviet Great Patriotic War. As the women of the Red Army were part of World War II and highly commentated by Nazi propaganda agencies as well as remembered by Wehrmacht soldiers they belong to German history also. And they are part of a general women’s history, which seeks to highlight the women’s place in a male world. Maybe the big success of the exhibition is not only related to this combining of different well remembered histories; but also to the fact, that it shows striking pictures, documents and personal statements, and presents them with empathy, but without becoming uncritical. Both features are very seldom, when it comes to talk about the Red Army in Germany, which is oftentimes just seen as a brute and uncivilized force. The exhibition also contextualizes the knowledge it gathered and captures the accompanying prejudices and clichés. And it was a big step ahead of the historical research on its topic. Some of these achievements become obvious when we take a closer look on the state of historical art at that time and today.

Let us focus only on the Great Patriotic War. For a long time we, lacked sustainable research on it, especially on the everyday features of war. That is the daily routine of average soldiers, their encounters with each other, and their perceptions of what is happening. Instead, the historiography in Soviet Union and Russia was eager to present ‘their’ war in terms of detailed heroism[11] as their Western colleagues were keen on operational history, diplomacy, orders and numbers of soldiers, victims, and dead.[12]

The first author to talk about non-military-history topics in wartime was the Russian historian Elena Senyavskaya in the 1990s. By examining psychological aspects of warfare, she also talks about the Red Army soldiers’ everyday-life and their perceptions, citing a lot of them.[13] Unfortunately, these topoi as well as women and gender relationships are not the main focus of her analysis, and she is sometimes preoccupied with tracing patriotism among the soldiers. Also the book (like the exhibition 10 years later) lacks a constructivist perspective.

The first (Western) book willingly to address the everyday-life in the Red Army is a very detailed book by the British Historian Catherine Merridale.[14] Merridale describes how the Red Army was not prepared for the men’s engagement in war at the time of the sudden German attack, even when it was considered to be a male institution. With recurrence to a broad base of narratives, Merridale tells us how the Red Army (male) soldiers had to deal with the lack of food and supply and to get along with each other in the meat-grinder. But her book was published just in 2005 and its title already states how blind she is when it comes to women’s experience of war. “Ivan’s war” seems to be a men’s war. When she addresses the female soldiers, Merridale presents them as young and inexperienced girls who got chocolate instead of vodka and slept with officers.[15]

But the female Red Army soldiers were not silenced in historiography altogether. There are several single issue researches and publications, which focus only on them and can be traced back to the 1970s. The first ones, written by the Soviet historian Vera Murmantseva and the Polish-U.S. American Historian Kazimiera Cottam, present us a heroic woman in an uncritical approach, who among men carried the burden of the Great Patriotic War with all its sacrifices and comradeship.[16]


Marching junior nurses of Infantry Company. Leningrad front, 1944

These things are also mentioned by women, who were interviewed by the Belorussian journalist Svetlana Alexijevich in the 1980s. But in her compilation of these interviews, which was to a high degree exploited in the exhibition, the women tell us more. They speak about their eagerness to fight, about grief, love, deprivations, and of discrimination while they were part of the army as well as afterwards. And they mention sexual harassment by their comrades and commanders. For them, the war was oftentimes too much a place where women’s existence and womanly behavior was impossible, even when their beauty, their life-loving attitude, their loving, and moral support was also part of the women’s commitment to the Soviet victory.[17] But even after this collection of sources and another statistical account on the Red Army women from 2002,[18] it took a long time until the first real historical analysis of women in the Red Army was born.

Seven years after the exhibition a book was published on “Soviet women in Combat” by the Russian – U.S. American historian Anna Krylova.[19] As the exhibition, it argues that in pre-war times the Soviet image of women was somehow more complex as it is sometimes perceived.[20] Even when the constitution from 1936 and the public imagery called out for the woman-mother, there was a female role-model propagated, which combined maternity with handling weapons. The photo Otomsti (Soviet poster “Pay it back!” by D. Shmarinov, 1941) was the image which inspired the later women-soldiers to take up arms, when their homeland was endangered. Unfortunately, in contrast to the exhibition, Krylova fails to address her sources critically, as she relies mainly on accounts on the female soldier heroes, which date back to the 1960s and 1970s and were published by Soviet state institutions. The intended heroic impact of these publications and its exclusive focus on exemplary pilots, snipers, and medical orderlies might also have been traced and therefore discussed in Krylova’s work.


A military female traffic-controller, Lithuania, 1945. Female traffic-controllers controlled the Army communications, regulated the traffic, inspected transport and looked after transport camouflage. Their posts were also located near bridges and on the routes under construction

The exhibition on “Nina + Mascha + Katjuscha” does not turn a blind eye on such problems as it refers to the myths which are connected with its focus and provides the context remaining critical when addressing its texts, documents and photos. Nevertheless, worth is another aspect of the exhibition to mention in a sophisticated way: and that is it’s exclusively focus on women. Definitely, of course, there was a lack of sustainable analysis on women in the Red Army – about whom was spoken a lot of in other ways – and definitely, of course, it is legitimate to choose women’s history. But there was (and still is) a comparable (but different lack of analysis on men in the Red Army. By focusing only on women while telling about sexuality, love, bodily-related issues and medical treatment, and by talking about it under the headline of “womanhood” the exhibition runs the risk of treating only women as gendered beings. Such a perception tends to pin all the mentioned issues only to the female body as they are usually skipped when talking about men. Willy-nilly by that, a perception of women as the different sex is just another time established as it was (and still is) done so often.

When talking about women (in a men’s world as the Red Army was), we have to ask how their position was (re-)structured. In the Red Army, surrounding men were of a big influence, as well as their bodily perceived needs, their expectations and images of women as of themselves; all together their practices of masculinity. Unfortunately, none research has been ever done on the Red Army men and masculinities. Thanks to the exhibition a huge step concerning the gender-relationship in the Red Army is already done. It is now time to take the next one.

[1] Part of the stationary exhibition included also borrowed items, like female military uniforms or medical instruments for field treatment. These are not part of the loan exhibition, where texts and photos are printed on large posters.

[2] For exact figures see Vera Murmantseva, Sovetskie zhenshchiny v Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voyne [Soviet women in the Great Patriotic War] (Moscow: Izd. Mysl, 1974); Yuliya Ivanova, Khrabreyshie iz prekrasnikh: Zhenshchiny v Rossiy v Voynakh [Beautiful becomes brave: Russian women in wars] (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2002); and Anna Krylova, Soviet women in combat. A history of violence at the Eastern Front (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] “Flintenweib” is a discriminating German term for “Woman with gun.”

[4] Maybe a widely prominent example: Heinz Konsalik, Frauenbattalion [Women’s battalion]. (Bayreuth: Hestia Verlag, 1981), which is still reprinted nowadays.

[5] Peter Jahn, Vorwort [Preface], in Mascha + Nina + Katjuscha. Frauen in der Roten Armee 1941-1945 [Mascha + Nina + Katjuscha. Women in the Red Army 1941-1945], ed. Peter Jahn (Berlin: Ch. Links Verlag, 2002), 9.

[6] In general, in the 1960s in official discourse the victory upon Nazi-Germany was taken away from the Generalissimus Joseph Stalin and given to the ordinary people. Joachim Hösler, „Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit – Der grosse Vaterländische Krieg in der Historiographie der UdSSR und Russlands,“ [“Coming to terms with the past – The great Patriotic War in the historiography of the USSR and Russia”] Osteuropa 55, no. 4-6 (2005), passim.

[7] As we know from later research several thousand women fought already in the Russian army in World War I as well as on both sides of the Civil War afterwards. For figures and stories see Laurie S. Stoff, They fought for the Motherland. Russia's women soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006).

[8] The OSOAVIAKhIM, the Union of Societies of Assistance to Defence and Aviation-Chemical Construction was a paramilitary organization for the patriotic upbringing of Soviet youth.

[9] For the ambivalence in the actions of the state see Anna Krylova, Soviet women.

[10] For women’s service in the Allies and German Army see below.

[11] Hösler, Aufarbeitung.

[12] A very good example is Richard Overy, Russia’s War (New York, Penguin, 1998). It has all the mentioned shortcomings, but is still one of the best introductions into the Soviet War.

[13] Elena Senyavskaya, Frontovoe pokolenie. Istoriko-psikhologicheskoe issledovanie [The Front Generation. A pscycho-historical analysis] (Moscow: Department for Russian history RAN, 1995).

[14] This women- and gender-blindness is nothing specific for talking about the Red Army. The research on the Wehrmacht also lacks to address the female ‘helping hands’ , who were part of the Wehrmacht. For a good and young analysis see Franka Maubach, Die Stellung halten. Kriegserfahrungen und Lebensgeschichten von Wehrmachthelferinnen [Holding the line. War-time experience and life-stories of female auxiliaries in the Wehrmacht] (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 2009). It also has to be reminded at this point, that the research on the Wehrmacht was and is preoccupied with stating the Wehrmacht’s share of the crimes committed by Nazi-Germany in total. For a study of masculinity performed by its soldiers: Thomas Kühne, Kameradschaft. Die Soldaten des nationalsozialistischen Krieges und das 20. Jahrhundert [Comradeship. The soldiers of the national socialistic war and the 20th century] (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006).

[15] Catherine Merridale, Ivan's war. Life and death in the Red Army, 1939 – 1945 (New York: Picador, 2006), 165-167.

[16] Murmantseva, Sovetskie zhenshchiny.

[17] Swetlana Alexijewitsch, Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht, trans. Ganna-Maria Braungardt [War’s Unwomanly Face] (Berlin: Berliner Taschenbuchverlag, 2004). The book was actually written in the 1980s but could be published at that time only with concessions to state censorship.

[18] Ivanova, Khrabreyshie. The book was published at the same time when the exhibition opened its doors, but lacks the cultural-historic approach.

[19] Krylova, Soviet women.

[20] The one-dimensional perception of the Soviet gender-relationships states that while the 1920s had been a time of women’s emancipation, of official approved equal rights, and a liberal moral on sexuality, the 1930s were dominated by a conservative backlash as women were now furthermost perceived as mothers, so that the state again banned abortion and divorce. For a summary and critic of this interpretation, see Carmen Scheide, Kinder, Küche, Kommunismus. Das Wechselverhältnis zwischen sowjeti­schem Frauenalltag und Frauenpolitik von 1921 bis 1930 am Beispiel Moskauer Arbeiterinnen [Children, kitchen and communismus. Dynamics of Soviet female everydaylife and women’s politics from 1921 until 1930. A focus on Muscovite working women] (Zue­rich: Pano-Verl., 2002).








Книжкова полиця

Антропологія простору. Т. 1. Культурний ландшафт Києва та околиць / За науковою редакцією Марини Гримич. - Київ: Видавництво Дуліби, 2017. - 316 с. Антропологія простору. Т. 1. Культурний ландшафт Києва та околиць / За науковою редакцією Марини Гримич. - Київ: Видавництво Дуліби, 2017. - 316 с.

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