The reported rape of Ukrainian women by Russian soldiers appears to be a critical pillar of Vladimir Putin’s invasion strategy. Horrifying stories emerge of teen sisters serially attacked, victims stripped and their bodies set afire, women raped in front of their young children, gang rape.
Rape has always been a male weapon of war — it has been a feature of every war throughout human history on every continent, most recently in Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia and Syria — but there is a specific eeriness to this war crime now.
For Russian soldiers have done this before, en masse, shamelessly, as they advanced into Nazi Germany in 1945.
For eight weeks in 1945 as Nazi Berlin was occupied by a triumphant Red Army, more than 100,000 German women were raped, often repeatedly. As many as 10,000 died, mostly by suicide. In total, two million German women are said to have been raped.
After the war, that fact went largely unspoken. Suddenly, in the same way that there were mysteriously no Nazis to be found, no German rape victims existed.
But in 1959, Marta Hillers, a female journalist who had hidden in a Berlin cellar, anonymously published her diary in Germany. “A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City” describes a situation like Ukraine’s right now: women as sexual spoils, looted like local shops, their lives in torsion forever.
There is absolutely no parallel between Ukraine and Nazi Germany. But there is a commonality in women’s bodies and what is done to them in wartime. The photo of a Vietnamese woman at My Lai crying out at the public stripping of her daughter just before Americans shot them both is Everywoman in wartime.
Ukrainian women have cut their hair to deflect Russian attention, just as Berlin women in 1945 tried to look decades older, dress like men, or claim to have venereal disease. It didn’t help. The Russians may have told themselves they were seeking revenge for appalling Nazi crimes, but rape is a constant of war. Maybe it’s as simple as a primitive desire for and horror of enemy female humans.
Germans decried the book, which was suppressed until the author’s death and the arrival of feminism plus some 1970s clarity about Nazi history. Republished in 2005, it is a remarkable memoir, matter-of-fact, without self-pity.
Then as now, people buried murdered loved ones in shallow graves near the cellar hideout. Then as now, the victim lists her rapists, violent thugs, less violent officers, a group, an unnamed man who pulled her mouth open and dropped a gob of spit in it. Hillers describes a Berlin woman, gang-raped by 20 Russian soldiers, her mouth swollen “like a blue plum, her breasts all bruised and bitten.”
Then as now, Russian soldiers looted liquor, turned bedrooms and living rooms into toilets, and packaged up stolen goods to ship them home. Sex crimes are a sweet reward.
In Kyiv, Antonina Medvedchuk, 31, told the Guardian that when she heard the first sound of bombing as war broke out, she grabbed condoms plus scissors to use for self-defence.
“Every break between curfew and bombing I was looking for emergency contraception instead of a basic first aid kit,” she said. “My mother tried to reassure me: ‘This is not a war like that, they don’t exist anymore, they are from old movies.’ I have been a feminist for eight years, and I cried in silence, because all wars are like this.”
As the historian Dominic Sandbrook relates, “Afterwards, in Russia, there was a widespread sick joke about a Red Army officer who came home after the war, but couldn’t perform in bed. The punchline was that he was only cured after his wife put her clothes on and began to fight back.”
Rape is an echo in history, as are other acts. I see a resemblance between the “Z” daubed throughout Ukraine by Russian soldiers and the Nazi swastika, partly because of Putin’s claim that he is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. As the historian Timothy Snyder explains, to Putin, “a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian.”
Horror lives in the bloodstream. Canadian Ukrainians have always despised communists because of the Holodomor, the 1930s famine that killed at least 3.9 million people. Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide is being repeated.
But why don’t male soldiers change? Does sexual hatred run so deep that an army will always turn on the most vulnerable? Women’s bodies are smaller; without guns or men to help us, our capacity for self-defence is often laughable.
And why are Ukrainian women fleeing the country warned to be wary of offers of shelter in foreign countries? It’s because sex traffickers await a bonanza, an Easter basket of victims. They always do. It is always this way for women and girls.
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