/14 Portraits

Agnieszka Rayss

I Reminesce and Cry for Life

This project was inspired by Svetlana Alekseyevich’s book War’s Unwomanly Face (1985). All these women all different nationalities were fighting in World War II for their homeland (the Soviet Union). The war was difficult for them. They were very young when the war had started (16-18) and they had to learn plenty of things necessart during the war. They were nurses, truck drivers, work in communications, they were partisans (mostly those who lived in the countryside). Most of them went to army as volunteers because to defend their homeland. They had to fight and to share difficult living conditions with men soldiers.

They experienced hard time also when the was finished. They had to rebuilt their lives in the country ruined by the war. They aften did not come back to their countries of birth, they stayed in Belarus where they happen to be when the war was finished.

They were not treated better than ordinary citizens. They were often treated as freaks or prostitutes because they were in the army with men. Most of them wanted to marry someone and to have children – to behave as “normal women”.

However, soviet and post-soviet propaganda didn’t forget about them.” They were given medals and prizes and stated “Heroes of the Nation”. The were taking part in the parades, invited to schools to tell pupils about heroic time of war. They looked strange surrounded by men heroes but there was a equality of men and women in the USSR so no-one could forbid them to be heroes.

It didn’t change after the fall of the Soviet Union. All Belarusian history and identity is about war. “We won. Partisans and Red Army fought against fascists. 50% of streets’ names in Minsk are related to The Second World War (here it is called the Great Patriotic War). 30% are the names of heroes. Armed Forces parade takes place in Minsk every year despite the economic crisis and asphalt damages in the city caused by the tanks.

Now the old ladies I met are at the end of their lives. Belarus is their second home. They don’t find it dictatorship. They are often flagship of Lukashenka’s propaganda and they are proud of the pas is honest. Most of them miss Soviet Union. They don’t understand why the empire collapsed.

No-one asks questions about the war. There is no public discussion about it. The veterans are heroes and they have good lives with good pension. Every year in May their faces are on propaganda posters in Minsk, Brest, Grodno and other cities. They are used by Lukashenko’s propaganda services as much as possible. No-one realizes that not everybody was happy of freedom brought by Soviet Army. No-one asks questions about the war.

Meeting with these old women made me aware how difficult experience the war can be for a woman (as I am woman myself) and for every human being. It was also a good lesson of using history and human individual stories for propaganda.