Politics

How Women Forced Ukraine to Welcome Them Into the Military

Russian attacks in 2014 prompted civilians to fight alongside soldiers—and push for equal opportunities among their ranks.

Women march with men in two orderly lines
Soldiers in the Ukrainian military march to celebrate a return from fighting in eastern Ukraine in December. Serhii Hudak/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

From the very beginning of the Russian invasion, scenes of Ukrainian resistance have captivated international audiences. Photos and videos of civilians digging trenches, patching uniforms, and taking up arms have come to define the conflict, and showcase the Ukrainian people’s fighting spirit.

Nothing has proved quite as arresting as images of Ukrainian women, bitterly angry in their defiance. On social media, a video circulated of an older woman confronting Russian soldiers, handing them sunflower seeds so that flowers would bloom on the land “when you die here.” On CNN, a grandmother in a suburb of Kyiv showed off the Molotov cocktails she was making with instructions she found on Google. “Let these Russian shits come here,” the woman said. “We are ready to greet them.”

Advertisement

But Ukrainian women’s resistance isn’t limited to the civilian realm.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Women make up around 10 percent of the Ukrainian armed forces, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Those who are serving in combat positions won that right, officially, only in 2016.

Two years earlier, when Russian-backed separatists launched a terrorist campaign, women took up arms and scrambled to the fight. They worked as snipers and combat medics and soldiers to defend their homes in a time of crisis. But because the military did not officially employ women in those positions, they were never listed in military records as snipers and combat medics and soldiers.

Instead, records referred to them as seamstresses, or cooks, or cleaners. When these women left the military, they had fought the same fight as the men and carried the same emotional scars—but received no recognition, no commensurate support.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s a situation that was depicted—and, in part, corrected by—a documentary from a group of sociologists and activists who called themselves Invisible Battalion. The documentary, which came out in 2017 and is also called Invisible Battalion, profiled six female soldiers and veterans who fought in the Ukrainian military and had yet to be officially recognized for it.

It shows some of the women in the trenches in Donbas, in southeastern Ukraine, and some preparing other soldiers for combat or waiting anxiously for their next deployment. Other women in the film are shown grappling with lingering trauma in their lives after service. Many of those followed by the documentary feel a powerful kinship with the men they fought alongside; they want access to military careers and benefits and to argue for their rightful place in history.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The documentary begins with the almost cartoonishly tough Yulia Paievska, a chain-smoking, heavily tattooed paramedic. In one early scene, she sits grim-faced in a chair in a blown-out building, cigarette in hand. She asks another female soldier to shave her head, leaving one blonde streak at the top. “Some women were born to be on the front line,” she says. “In the units, they don’t have to prove anything, since it’s immediately clear what they’re worth.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

We also meet 38-year-old Yulia Matvienko, a sniper who hides her dyed-red hair in a camo balaclava, who in another life was an economist with two children. Who says, with bitterness, that she cannot afford to cry for the men who died. Who was listed on paperwork as a medical assistant.

Advertisement
Advertisement

There’s 38-year-old Olena Bilozerska, another sniper, who posts on Facebook about the third anniversary of her first combat operation. Who in her previous life was a poet and journalist, who was also never officially enlisted.

Also, 46-year-old Oksana Yakubova, cut off from her family by her PTSD, seen anxiously braving the crowds in the metro as she heads to her job as the chief economist at the Finance Ministry of Ukraine.

Advertisement
Advertisement

And finally, 29-year-old Andriana Susak, a combatant who liberated a number of occupied towns in her year of active duty, who left the war only after becoming five months pregnant, and who was listed in official documents as the head of the sewing and fixing team for military equipment.

Advertisement

Over the course of the documentary, the women exhibit many different strains of courage. The snipers Yulia Matvienko and Olena Bilozerska both stay cool during military operations. Bilozerska, a hardened combatant who, with her husband, saved up for two years to buy a rifle, at one point calls a loved one and casually asks about Eurovision, while bullets fly just beyond her shelter. But some of the less physically imposing women display a different kind of steely toughness, paired with a sense of loss.

Dariia Zubenko, a cheerful 30-year-old “creative goofball” and self-described nonconformist who worked as a fire dancer and musician, recalls giving up her artist life to join the war at her door. “We were challenging pop music and the same tired tunes that were all over the place,” she says. “My priorities have changed, I don’t know. After 2014 to 2015, I lost interest in almost any kind of activity that wasn’t connected to current events.” She adds, “After all these events, I stopped being creative and inspired.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Several of the women in the documentary started in the military as volunteers, bound by nothing but determination. In an article for the Christian Science Monitor from Feb. 23, Bilozerska credited the volunteer forces with allowing her and other women to find a place in the military culture. “In the volunteer battalions, every fighter is free,” Bilozerska said. “Every commander knew, that if he has a female fighter who wants to fight on the front line and he doesn’t allow it, he will lose a very motivated fighter, and she will go to another unit. If a girl or a woman wants to fight, she will fight.”

The 2014 war in Donbas forced the Ukrainian military to confront a reality it has to face again today: It cannot afford to discriminate.

Advertisement

The difference is that this time, women have a formal path to serving in a combat role in the military. In 2015, the Invisible Battalion activist unit displayed portraits of female combatants at the Ukrainian parliament and ministry of defense. Two years later, it released the documentary and took it on tour around Ukraine and to film festivals around the world. That year, the Ukrainian armed forces opened 62 combat positions up to women, finally registering them as official soldiers and granting them the appropriate protections and benefits for their work. (According to the Invisible Battalion group, there are still many positions off limits to women.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

The documentary wasn’t just about activism within Ukraine; it was a vehicle for exposing Russian propaganda. “With this documentary we want to remind the world that it is not a civil war in Ukraine,” Maria Berlinska, the film’s producer, said at a showing of the documentary in 2017. “It is the Russian occupation. It is much better and easier to show this on the example of women because the world is already accustomed to the boys in military gear.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The documentary ends with the story of the petite and serious-faced Susak, a 29-year-old veteran, as she heads to Kyiv’s military museum, where her wartime possessions had been put on display. Perhaps more than the other stories, Susak’s shows the toll of war on family life in some Ukrainian communities. A former shock trooper, Susak speaks about how her grandmother was deported to Siberia for having a brother in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. “When I realized I was pregnant, that was one of the most difficult moments, because I still had war, explosions, and shock attacks on my mind,” she said. “I was on the front line until the fifth month of pregnancy.”

As she plays with her young child and makes pierogies with her grandmother, she laments the idea that one day, her son will be taught about the war’s casualty numbers in a cold, impersonal way. She then shows the filmmaker a video from her hard drive, of her setting out to fight along with a unit of men. Hours later, she says, the entire unit was wiped out.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But as the documentary heads to the credits, the camera lingers on a bus stop, where a banner adorned with Susak’s face declares her a hero of Ukraine—part of a publicity campaign launched after a tentative cease-fire in Donbas in 2015. Today, Susak is referenced in newspaper articles by her military rank.

Susak is now the leader of the Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement, a group that spun off from Invisible Battalion in 2017. The group, made of female veterans, also advocated for both support and recognition of female veterans and soldiers. The next year, in 2018, a law passed in Ukraine ensuring them “equal rights” in the military.

It was, as the documentary showed, a victory tempered by a deeper sadness: These women won recognition for the horrors they experienced in a war that will not, it seems, be behind them anytime soon.

Advertisement