Report from the Field: White Stockings: A Poetic Study of Mythical Freedom Fighters

August 30, 2016 | by Lina Ramona Vitkauskas | 0 | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Centuries pass, yet Russia continues to weave its myths. Traditional Russian folklore is simultaneously bleak yet enchantingly surreal—full of stories about hoary, evil forest women with chicken bone legs (Baba Yaga) looking to devour poor souls who enter the deep woods of Siberia, or about nymphs (rusalki) who, like sirens, lure men to their deaths near the sea.

In contemporary society, Russia reinforces its knack for myth in the form of propaganda. In the West, we see Russia’s state-controlled media often telling a “different” story, and that, when anti-Putin journalists and/or activists speak out, they “mysteriously” disappear.[1]

In other words, myths still serve a purpose. In Western society, we have the American Dream. In the Soviet Union, post-WWII, Russian soldiers created a myth surrounding female snipers of Baltic descent called the White Stockings.[2]

The White Stockings were rumored to have been spotted prior to and during the First Chechen War (1994–1996]. As Keith Bush, a Russian military-affairs expert for the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic International Studies puts it:

“Stories about Baltic women—the White Stocking snipers—have been around since the First Chechen War. They’ve become legendary and they’ve put the fear of God in the Russian soldiers. There are reliable reports that these Baltic women snipers have been around for years and were also active on behalf of Soviet forces against the Nazis in World War II. They are said to be the most deadly snipers ever seen in Russia because, according to the myth, women are more patient than men.” [3]

The White Stockings are often described as beautiful tri-athletes, military-trained “with nerves of steel, hearts of ice, and perfect aim.”[4] You know…heroines from a graphic novel. So how did I—a poet living in Chicago—stumble across the myth of the White Stockings?

In late 2013, the Euromaidan protests[5] in Ukraine erupted, and throughout 2014, the Euromaidan revolution was in full force. Ukraine, a former Soviet state—much like the Baltics in the 1990s—was in turmoil. There were violent clashes between protesters and police. The streets of Kyiv became a war zone. Widespread fear of Russia seizing Ukraine was real—a strong possibility. Like most Baltic-Americans, I was alarmed. I kept up with the news from Ukraine. There was a strong sense of déja-vu for many of my peers and older generation émigrés[6], especially after the annexation of Crimea—proof that Putin’s agenda was clearly to recapture a Soviet past long gone.

I did not want to sit idly by. As a Lithuanian-American (raised primarily as a Lithuanian first, and immersed in American culture later) I felt solidarity with my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. My immediate family members told me stories of unspeakable tragedies after Lithuania was seized by the USSR post-WWII. I had not forgotten the things my grandparents, aunts, and uncles told me, including stories about the Baltic resistance movement, the Partisans (Partizanai). These guerilla fighters—called the Forest Brothers—bravely fought for freedom post-WWII. Perhaps it was not a coincidence, then, that in the midst of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, I was invited to attend the Chicago premiere of a documentary about the Partizanai (co-directed by an acquaintance[7] from the Lithuanian-American community).

In March of 2015, I participated in a Chicago-Kyiv sponsored fundraiser[8] to support the families of brave Ukrainians who went off to fight. I also began intensely researching the history of the Ukrainian and Baltic struggles to remain autonomous. It was through this research that I started to uncover tales of the White Stockings. In article[9] after article,[10] they were described as “unconfirmed” or ”elusive myths.” And there were recent reports mentioning their resurgence in Ukraine.[11]

So with a collection of articles, a cliché (“chicks with guns”), and timely subject matter, as a poet I was primed to create something.

Initially, my White Stockings “project” was conceived as a series of cinepoems. Each poem/short film would be dedicated to a fictional sniper and would speak from each one’s perspective. My intention was to go beyond simply criticizing the myth’s sexism. I wanted to tell the story of the White Stockings by highlighting their mythical quality—as they were very much like the Lithuanian pagan goddesses or medieval warriors from familiar folklore. Ultimately the project brought about some questions surrounding gender and worldviews—specifically regarding human nature, global sustainability, and international relations.

While developing my project, I had to quash my own aversion to violence and war. Baltic peoples are peaceful at heart, and, traced back, pagan by inclination. Our people worshipped the natural world; our folklore and myths are based around water sprites, forest faeries, woodland nymphs, and mischievous elves. However, I felt compelled to put myself in the place of each woman—to take on each role—and this was an exercise in accepting the internal and external struggles they faced.

First there was the psyche of a sniper to examine: what metaphors arose, how do they view the world through a small scope, how do they become desensitized—seeing humans as targets, and how, being women, did it affect their self-perception…especially because they must’ve been aware that they had been labeled “non-existent”? I imagined many of these women may have felt reluctant to use force, but they did not want to surrender. Some perhaps resigned themselves to violent means to preserve their culture—with no regrets.

Either way, when the Stockings were forced to look through the narrow scope atop their weapons, I speculated they may have lost a sense of themselves. Outside the scope, perhaps a wider, broader view of the world became clearer.

More questions arose as the project took the form of a book (the correlating cinepoems are still in progress). First, did these lone assassins try to concede to a more compassionate place within? As they contemplated or committed acts against Russian aggressors, did it bring to focus their role by way of a sniper’s scope? That is: did it highlight what is blurred or clearer outside the range of the target?

This led to questions about worldviews: what in this world is narrow-minded, calculating, and fixed, and what is inclusive and tolerant? Further: how do we, as humans, want to live: peacefully, globally, sustainably, or, power-mad, warring, and isolationist? Do we look around us scrupulously and with compassionate, humanitarian intent, or, do we fixate only on acquiring wealth and power, and in the process, destroy our natural resources?

Further inquiries came about, specifically framed around the age-old question, “war, what’s it good for?” For the White Stockings, was it a last resort, adopting a narrow and violent view (killing others) to protect their country’s freedom? Is this what might be traditionally considered a “masculine” tactic? Alternately, was an open, peaceful means of conflict resolution being suppressed somehow (what might be traditionally considered a “feminine” approach)? To restate: was the myth of the White Stockings an example of women adopting a “man’s way” of preserving identity and culture? If so, in the poems, would it show the grim reality of this tactic or the victorious “necessity” of war?

In the here and now, 2016, positions on international relations transcend gender. A powerful woman—known as one of the most hawkish politicians of our time—is likely to become the next US president. Her past foreign relations stance with Russia informs the future direction she will choose in dealing with Putin. Lithuania’s current president has been dealing with Putin[12] for many years; and her cabinet members have cited that powerful women can intimidate Putin. Will gender play a role moving forward in the Ukrainian conflict? With Nadia Savchenko now in Ukrainian parliament,[13] it does not seem so. She is a hero or heroine; she is an everyman and warrior. It does not matter. She is for the people.

Poetry was a means of discovery…but I have no definitive answers. Each White Stocking took on a life of her own—some waited for their next assignment, conflicted and longing to forget about the life of violence they’d been forced to adopt. Some mastered their art of precision with patience, communing with the earth, remembering their pagan roots, empowering their national pride. Some remembered how it felt to intensely belong to tight-knit group of humans, yet also feel so detached from all of her sisters and brothers. Some asked themselves the question of why senseless violence must continue, after all, as in my poem “The Swamps of Every Instant (Yulia)”:

“You kraine

Me kraine

She kraine

He kraine

We all scream”

 

Author’s note: These are all subjects that arose from investigating the White Stockings. I invite people to view a photographic exploration of their perspective as well.

 

[1] Shoichet, Catherine E., and Kinkade, Lynda. “Litvinenko: Not first Putin critic to end up dead—or last”. CNN.com. January 20, 2016.

[2] Moscow Bureau. “Are foreigners fighting there?” The Economist. July 6, 2000.

[3] Lathem, Niles. “Hit or Myth, Lady ‘Snipers’ Terrify Grozny Invaders”. New York Post. January 17, 2000.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bilash II, Borislaw. “A Timeline of the Euromaidan Revolution”. Euromaidan Press. February 19, 2016.

[6] Mediakeep – YouTube channel. Footage from documentary, Krustcels by Juris Podnieks.

[7] Mawhood, Will. “Envisioning the Invisible Front”. The Baltic Times. May 7, 2015.

[8] Chicago Sister Cities International – Kyiv. “Concert for Ukraine”. Events page. March 28, 2015.

[9] Hodge, Nathan. “The Return of ‘White Tights’: Mythical Female Snipers Stalk Russians”. Wired. November 25, 2008.

[10] Seddon, Max. “No, The White Widow Was Not Just Killed in Ukraine, Despite What The British Papers Say”. BuzzFeed. November 13, 2014.

[11] Wikipedia. White Tights. From LifeNews (life.ru.). May 2, 2014. (Author’s note: LIfeNews is a pro-Kremlin news outlet.)

“On May 2, 2014, Sergey Golyandin, a correspondent of the Russian news-outlet, LifeNews reported unconfirmed information about Baltic women snipers in action against pro-Russian forces during the Siege of Sloviansk:

‘One minute ago APCs arrived and cannon fired at the BZS checkpoint, situated between Kharkiv and Rostov. Self-defense forces had to be moved out of there. The commander of the checkpoint arrived and said that besides the APCs firing they were also shot by snipers and from what he heard the snipers were women who spoke in some Baltic language. Currently the information has not been verified, these are only words of the BZS checkpoint commander.’ “

 

[12] BBC World News. Her Story: Leadership – Dalia Grybauskaite.

[13] Miller, Christopher. “The Many Faces of Nadia Savchenko”. RadioFreeEurope. July 2016.

~~~

unnamedLina Ramona Vitkauskas (Lithuanian-American-Canadian) is the author of White Stockings (White Hole Press, 2016); SPINY RETINAS (Mutable Sound, 2014); A Neon Tryst (Shearsman Books, 2013); HONEY IS A SHE (Plastique Press, 2012); THE RANGE OF YOUR AMAZING NOTHING (Ravenna Press, 2010); and Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star (dancing girl press, 2006). In 2013, Eleni Sikelianos selected her for the Henry Miller Memorial Library Ping Pong Journal Award, and in 2009, Brenda Hillman selected her for The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Juried Reading Award. Her website is linaramona.com.

 

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