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The Combatants (and the Myths) of the War in Donbas

Jennifer Carroll
October 24, 2015

Amandine Regamey and Anna Colin Lebedev kicked off the final afternoon of the Danyliw Seminar with a discussion of combatants in the war in Donbas: who they are and who they are believed to be.

Regamey began by showing a video taken by Russian-backed troops of the arrest of Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko. In the video, Savchenko is interrogated by arresting solders and repeatedly accused of being a Ukrainian sniper—a charge, which she vehemently denies. Regamey drew a clear distinction between propaganda and legend, and discussed reasons why this ‘legend’ of the female sniper proliferates among soldiers—despite the fact that female snipers, according to all available data—do not exist.

First, some manifestations hark back to images in earlier wars of Baltic soldiers fighting Soviet forces by moving through the woods on skis and shooting at opponents from hidden positions. It was said that these ghostly fighters were trained biathletes. This very same narrative reappeared in Donbas when a well-known Ukrainian female biathlete was accused of being a sniper. Other well-known figures in Donbas have spoken publically about their confidence that Lithuanian women are working with the Ukrainian army in the eastern regions

Another explanation offered by Regamey for the proliferation of this legend is the fact that this story highlights the involvement of women in the armed forces. Both sides of the conflict in Donbas insist that they have women fighting among them to show that they are part of a genuine peoples’ movement.

Third, female snipers did exist in the Soviet army in WWII. Special schools existed for their training, and one particularly lethal shooter, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, has held hero status in Eastern Europe for many decades.

Finally, the legend of female snipers dovetails with the contemporary construction of the dangerous Ukrainian woman—a sexualized, militarized, demasculinizing ‘banderivka,’ which is being employed by male soldiers to negotiate matters like gender roles and the performance of masculinity on the battlefield. These gendered narratives have even manifested as stories of female snipers who aim for men’s genitals, seeking not simply to kill them but to castrate them.

Lebedev discussed the role of Afghan veterans in Maidan and the war in Donbas, arguing that these men experienced the reactivation of their youth and their military identities through their involvement in these events.

Prior to Maidan, Afghan war veterans’ groups were active but served largely as memorial groups, providing collective opportunities for nostalgia, commemoration, community, and brotherhood among veterans across the former Soviet states.

During the Maidan revolution, many Afghan veterans experienced a re-activation of their youth. Some claimed to feel like they were 25 years old again, jumping around with energy, losing weight, building muscles. Others found their sensory experiences of war replicated on the Maidan. The spoke especially of the visceral and evocative smells emerging from with in the barricades, which they had associated with armed conflict in the past.

Lebedev reported that the transition from working on the Maidan to fighting in military combat in the east felt invisible to the Afghan veterans; it was perceived a logical continuation of their efforts. Most of the Afghan veterans she interviewed ended up in the Aidar battalion.

There, the veterans demonstrated what Lebedev called a “fluidity of involvement.” Some were regular soldiers, some were occasional soldiers, some financial donors, others logistical volunteers. She showed a photograph of a man moving supplies of bottled water to the front lines while armed with a rifle to demonstrate that, across the spectrum of involvement, these Afghan veterans understood themselves to be acting in their capacity as experienced soldiers.

In discussion, Mayhill Fowler prompted Regamey to elaborate on what differentiates the legend of the female sniper in Eastern Europe from similar myths of dangerous women elsewhere. Regamey observed that soldiers’ fears take different forms in different circumstances. Often their fear in hostile situations is directed at civilians. These fears took the form of the myth of the franc-tireure in the Franco-Prussian war. There were legends about Vietnamese prostitutes who put broken bottles in their vaginas to castrate American soldiers. Behind these legends, Regamey argues, what is at stake is always a question of masculinity. There is something universal about it, but there are different forms that emerge in different contexts.

Laura Dean prompted Regamey to take this analysis further, asking what soldiers and governments have to gain from circulating such dehumanizing images of women. Regamey answered that she felt the individual cases in which these myths are articulated are motivated by rather simple goals. Perhaps a soldier wants to show that he can make arrests. Perhaps it is simply a semantic acknowledgement that beauty can also be a weapon. However, she observed, that does not stop the after-effects of these utterances from being a significant problem, in a sociological sense, once they are out in the world.

Iulia Shukan asked Lebedev for her thoughts on why Afghan veterans’ level of involvement varied so greatly. Lebedev observed that the conflict in Donbas is deeply intertwined with civic life. As such, the social status of each individual matters in determining their level activity. Different Afghan veterans have different financial, social, and opportunistic resources, and these differences are what fuel the diversity in verterans’ activities on the battlefield.

Jessica Zychowicz posed a methodological question about the use of photography in documenting these trends. Both presentations made heavy use of visual imagery and photographs of soldiers and volunteers stationed around the conflict zone. How, Zychowicz asked, did the act of photographing these moments alter what was captured, and how does this alter the ethics of fieldwork?

Both speakers emphasized the performative aspect of the images they used. Regamey noted that all of the visual images she has used in her analysis are publically available through social media sites. The subjects of these images, she argued, were seeking to gain social capital by staging themselves with guns and circulating those images. Lebedev noted that Afghan veterans took great joy out of being able to once again take photos of themselves, together, in a military setting. They are, therefore, eager to consent to filming (in fact many of the photos were taken by the veterans themselves), as they understand this to be an act of self-presentation. They desire the opportunity to present themselves not only as veterans but as soldiers.