Women's Experience
of Violence and War
Marta Havryshko describes the lives of women in the WWII Ukrainian underground. Not all heroized fighters are what they seem.
WWII, Ukraine. Independence movements fought Soviet power. They also collaborated, at times, with the Nazis. The government in Kiev pushes them as national heroes – challenging this narratives makes you seem like an agent of the Kremlin. Moscow calls them fascist scum. They are, in essence, the poster boys of memory war. But our lecturer today, Marta Havryshko cuts through the rhetoric with a simple question: how did they treat women?

Her focus is on gender-based violence against women by Ukrainian nationalists, both against members of the organization itself and against civilian women. It pokes a major hole in the kinds of narratives coming out of the Ukrainian government at the present that gloss over atrocities committed during the resistance. Which makes it a difficult line of research to pursue. Powerful bodies like Ukraine's Institute of National Remembrance align themselves against this kind of critical assessment.

So doing work like this is a really big deal. Particularly because finding non-partisan ways of challenging problematic government narratives (especially from governments we support) is part of resisting polarization and bringing things back to a nuanced, middle territory. The lecture we had from Felix Ackermann on how Polish and Lithuanian irregular fighters are used for current political purposes is another huge example of how lal this plays out.

The ongoing conflict in East Ukraine only makes things more difficult – the current government draws on the WWII resistance to create an ideological base for resisting Russia today. And if you're going to start asking questions that make the country look bad, then if you want to avoid being seen as a traitor you need to have a strong, undeniably pro-Western foundation. Like feminism for example. It helps you pass the "are you with Putin?" test.

But even with all of these politics in the air we're here for a reason and this reason is more than enough: listen to how Marta helps women of those times find their voices. They may not be around for much longer.

She started with the question of what ideas of women's sexuality & gender roles were present in the nationalist underground, and how were these ideas maintained or regulate. She argues that in a number of ways women weren't only seen as individuals but as symbols – of national purity, for example, or of honour. To defend a woman's purity was to defend the nation's purity. Their roles were often described like those of reproducers (of people and of patriotic culture), with notions of motherhood, modesty, loyalty and virginity being highly valued. A perfect feminine sexuality was a passive one, needing an active man, and they were to bear sons that would fight for the nation and win its freedom.

A woman was only supposed to make herself available to a man who was sympathetic to the underground. Fraternization with the enemy was a transgression, and women who broke these rules could be labeled as traitors of the nation. So, Marta says, women's sexuality became a matter of national interest. And romance was regulated by the community.

The label of 'enemy' wasn't limited to Russians, the Soviets or their supporters – anyone who didn't actively support the underground was considered dangerous.
There were many women joining the underground in the early 40's as nurses, medics, couriers, propaganda producers and such, and they were valuable particularly for the fact that they raised less suspicion than men. She reminds us that though this idea, that a woman is harmless, is at its root a patriarchal one, successful women were able to navigate stereotypes to achieve the goals of the resistance.

But even so they never made it up to high-ranking positions – there was only one woman who reached the highest ranks, and even then she happened to be the wife of a famous member. They were officially banned from serving in the military wing of the underground, unlike in the Soviet Union's Red Army, for reasons like not being seen as physically fit for the job or for 'undermining' brotherhood. Meaning that men end up protecting women on the battlefield instead of fighting.

But this was on the official level – a number of women worked around these limitations, especially when they were living in the forest with other insurgents. Forest life tended to free both women and men them from the regulatory influence of the village. But this also meant that the men accompanying them would be held less accountable for any instances of assault or harassment.

We know stories like that of Liudmyla Foja, a Soviet agent turned double-agent for the underground. She committed suicide when she realized the Soviets were about to capture her. There were also women engaged in military operations organized by the secret service, and we have reports of women perpetrating violence against enemies. Including civilians. In some cases they even committed terrorism. But it has to be said that most women performed work seen as better suited to womanhood.

When it came to sexual morality there were double standards, with women often getting the short end of the stick. They were more rigidly controlled, and the cost of losing one's virginity before marriage could be high. Sometimes the death penalty was applied in cases of promiscuity. Making things worse, there were cases of commanders raping their subordinates and using execution as a way to hide their crimes. We see evidence not only in women's testimony but from officials – Vasyl Kuk, one of the last underground commanders, remarked that the inconsistent implementation of the rules could be used to execute any woman while sparing the men. We don't know how widespread the conversation was, but it was happening.

There were cases of famous partisans like Dmytro Bilinchuk – they were promiscuous but people often turned a blind eye. His wife, Anna Rynzak complained that he took lovers – they argued, and he ended up beating her. She escaped the compound and was captured by the Soviets in her home along with her mother and father. We know of her story from the interrogation files.

Many women used gender stereotypes to their advantage during interrogation, saying they were only wives, just women. Sometimes this was just a sham – and because of that people thought Rynzak was lying about Bilinchuk. But it turned out that everything she said was true. But Bilinchuk rose through the ranks regardless before dying by Soviet bullet in 1943.

We also see examples of sexual and sexualized violence against women by the underground. Think harassment, rape, sexualized torture (the cutting of breasts), execution, the cutting of hair and forced abortions.

Facing pressure from important figures in the movement to have an abortion was quite common – many of the commanders were married and took lovers while in the forest. Many hired their lovers as secretaries or gave them an official rank to cover their affairs, making it more difficult to study the actual military achievements of these women.

In one famous case, one such woman refused to have an abortion, left the forest, had her baby, watched it die at three months and received an invitation from her former lover to come back. She refused, was eventually captured by the Soviets and was executed. For reason of being his mistress.

Gathering evidence and testimony of this kind is a hard thing to do, especially in a city like L'viv. The place is very embedded in narratives of the underground, and at times relatives of interviewees would sit nearby and steer the conversation away from anything hot-button. And the women themselves would often avoid the topic, and so Marta would have to use indirect language: did they ever treat you differently? Did you ever face negative attitudes for being a woman? Many did want to speak, though, because they'd reached an age where it may have been the last chance they'd have to speak about the past.
Forest life tended to free both women and men them from the regulatory influence of the village. But this also meant that the men accompanying them would be held less accountable for any instances of assault or harassment.
One interviewee described her relatives' arrest – she fled to the forest and found shelter in the underground. The commander gave her a weapon and was very decent. But after a few weeks he became sexually aggressive and proposed an affair. She refused and had to leave the shelter. For a year she was running from place to place and it was the hardest period of her life. Worse even than gulag and Soviet arrest.

Some women described rape attempts as if it was something romantic, like an adventure, even when there wasn't consent. It was hard to talk about these things because, back then, if you spread bad information about commanders you could be accused of being a Soviet agent. Even during the interviews they had a hard time speaking about it. Many used euphemisms, like saying they were penetrated by sticks instead of penises. Saying anything that might admit of any capacity for pleasure was a matter of anxiety and suspicion.

And suspicion was very widespread: one woman described a man who raped her during interrogation. He threatened to kill her and her family if she talked about it. Then he proposed being lovers. But she resisted, asked for an investigation and the man was shot. But people still romanticised the commander and went on that the woman was a bad, bad girl.

Then there were issues of STDs – it was a huge problem because there wasn't enough medication or doctors to go around. Many people discovered to have STDs were executed – a quick way for the underground to deal with the problem. One interviewee described a woman who was infected by a Soviet gang rape. When two men from the underground were infected by her by turn she was shot. The men as well, but they were executed for randiness. She was just raped by the wrong person at the wrong time.

That didn't mean that women's sexuality couldn't be used for the cause, though. Women were seen as more cunning than men and, when used for intelligence purposes, could perform miracles. But, when rumours spread of their getting information by sleeping with soldiers, they were labelled village sluts all the same.

Real affairs would also be punished – having a Russian, Polish or Jewish boyfriend could get you into trouble. Even if he was a non-underground-supporting Ukrainian. And for your trouble you could be stigmatized, beaten with sticks or exiled from the village. But cutting hair was a popular punishment.

They would cut the hair of multiple girls at once, often on big feast days for the show it would draw. It was a way of warning potential offenders of what could happen for them. After being cut, some women were so ashamed they'd get wigs or parents would spread rumours of their abduction (so they could stay home).
If you were a woman of the underground, however, the death penalty could very much be applied. Even to your parents and other family members. Wives could sometimes be held accountable for their husband's actions – they were seen as a unit and not as individuals.

But the degree of violence against a particular woman depended on her level of engagement in the underground, the subjective decisions of local leaders and the position of the underground in a given community. Think the circumstances, their priorities, how much support they got from locals.

Violence against women, Marta surmizes, was used as a tool to preserve patriarchal power and traditional gender roles, especially in a time when normal gender roles were disrupted. They were also used to construct power relations with nationalist men (especially through raping the enemy for 'loyalty') or with the enemy (raping/humiliating women associated with them).

There are all sorts of questions about doing this kind of research. Is the time really now? Do we need to drag our heroes through the mud? Does Moscow really need more ammunition against us? Even on a personal level: are we re-traumatizing women by encouraging them to speak?

But, Marta, we can create safe spaces for women to tell their stories. We can make their stories known. We can challenge the silence, which will make things better for women in the future. History has become a powerful weapon in the war and we have the chance to do it right.

She ends on that note, and by saying our next step should be pursuing stories of sexual violence against men. There's no space to talk about this in Ukrainian society yet, but we need to create it all the same.