Academic journal article New Formations

Zoya Kosmodemianskaya between Sacrifice and Extermination

Academic journal article New Formations

Zoya Kosmodemianskaya between Sacrifice and Extermination

Article excerpt

It is a photograph that begins the work of mourning: Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, a young Soviet partisan who was captured, tortured, and executed by German forces during the offensive on Moscow in 1941 (fig.1). The picture, taken by Sergei Strunnikov, first appeared on page three of Pravda on 27 January 1942 and was subsequently reprinted numerous times. The striking beauty of the executed woman, along with the uncomfortable eroticism of the harrowing image, made it one of the most memorable of the war. How should one read it? The erotic content suggests itself immediately--especially considering Stalinist culture's notorious prudishness--but it appears in a decidedly ambivalent way. This beautiful young girl has been savagely laid waste; her body appears horribly exposed, both to bestial violence and to the cold out of doors. At the same time, the bared breasts and thrown-back head suggest another kind of exposure as well--to consuming passion. The ambivalent conflict of these two readings is eerily reflected in the terrible binary of Kosmodemianskaya's right breast--inviting to a desirous gaze--and the left one, which has been 'lost', leaving a much more corporeal bareness, blocking erotic fantasy. The right breast beckons but can never be touched, establishing Kosmodemianskaya as a lost erotic object; the left breast marks the obscene enjoyment of her Nazi captors (as confirmed in a later poster based on the photograph--fig.2). Statues of Kosmodemianskaya often restore the left breast and clothe the right one, as if 'borrowing' the breast of fantasy to screen the wound (fig.3). But, again, such interpretations are only half the story. The missing left breast might also mark the trace of Kosmodemianskaya's own suffering passion, a jouissance of pain beyond pleasure.

In this essay I will first consider each of these two possible attitudes to Kosmodemianskaya's death, exploring the contexts that support them. Next, I will examine the ambivalence that allowed both attitudes to circulate in her myth, at times combining in striking ways. Stalinist culture has traditionally been interpreted in terms of a decline in revolutionary militancy, and the 'retreat' to more normative gender attitudes is typically seen as a central part of this tendency. However, the story and representation of Kosmodemianskaya suggest a more complex attitude. Through a reading of the anthropological models behind these images (informed in part by Lacanian psychoanalysis and its feminist elaborations), I hope to show how militant fidelity persisted through the post-revolutionary transformations of the 1930s such that it could be summoned up again, with renewed intensity, for the fight with fascism. The war, and not Stalinist Thermidor, was the final nail in the coffin of October, and Kosmodemianskaya can in many ways be called the last Soviet militant.

SACRIFICED FEMININITY

The most natural reaction to the Kosmodemianskaya myth is to read it as a story of female victimisation designed to motivate male soldiers. Such a message is clearly intended by 'Tania', the article by Petr Lidov that originally accompanied Strunnikov's photograph. Lidov enumerates Kosmodemianskaya's torments at the hands of the Nazis at great length--beatings with a belt, lips burned with a kerosene lamp, a saw drawn across her back, forced marches through the snow undressed and barefoot, and finally hanging followed by the desecration of her corpse. Amid all this, Lidov devotes almost no attention to the partisan girl's activities as a combatant. When photographs of Kosmodemianskaya's execution were found among the effects of a killed German soldier, the filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko wrote commentary for them, lingering on Kosmodemianskaya's suffering, feminine frailty (although she 'resembles' a male-gendered fighter):

   Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the frost and the beatings,
   are clenched into fists like a fighter's [[phrase omitted]]; her
   bare feet, only in stockings, have turned black from the frost
   during the terrible night. … 
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