Women play an important role in urban folklore, particularly at a time of social instability. Feminist researchers have emphasized that the different life contexts of men and women create differences between the genders with regard to moral and political ideas, and also behavioral norms. This especially holds true with respect to spheres that involve interaction between people.
Under stable social circumstances male dominance persists, along with female subordination. It's only when the social framework begins to unravel that women are able to break through existing patterns and act.
In our modern world, women also act in circumstances of social or political upheaval. For example, the struggle between the Russians and the Chechens has generated legends connected to women.
I first learned of the urban legend of the courageous women sharpshooters from Estonia in Moscow, where I served as Israel's ambassador, in 1995. "A", a Russian, who served both as a driver and also as a fascinating source of information, told me the following story:
A group of highly trained women sharpshooters, called the "White Socks," was operating in Chechnya, and causing mass casualties among soldiers in the Russian army. These women, trained in marksmanship, were known as being tall, blond, blue-eyed and extremely lethal. They were of Estonian origin and hired by the Chechens due to their sharpshooting expertise. Their work was considered as one of the key factors explaining the high casualty rate among Russian soldiers. These "White Sock" sharpshooters were paid according to the number of Russian soldiers they killed.
I later heard a different version, holding that the women sharpshooters would behead the soldiers they killed and then mutilate them as proof that they carried out their missions, and were owed payment. Such acts of mutilation were an accepted custom in the ancient world. "Documentation" would be furnished in the form of mutilated body parts. Castration marked the end of the enemy's reproductive functions, and its future extinction. Of course, it also conveys acute humiliation, since the enemy completely loses its masculinity, and the victors display their superiority and control. All this is particularly true when such mutilation is carried out by women. Can there be any greater form of humiliation?
The Russian media published accounts of the female marksmen. And so this legend took on wider dimensions. his story either first circulated by word of mouth, and then subsequently found written expression in newspapers in a way that expanded its circulation, or alternatively, perhaps journalistic reporting came first and was then expanded by oral storytelling.
In order to understand the story it helps to learn a bit about the Russian-Chechen conflict. Since the 18th century the Chechens have been waging wars against the Russians. The Caucasian general, General Yermolov, wrote to Czar Alexander I that "these independent-spirited mountain people [the Chechens] are liable to inspire rebelliousness and love of freedom among the most loyal subjects of the empire."
The Chechens refused to surrender after Chechnya and Dagestan were left in ruins by the Caucasian War of 1859. Nor did they surrender when Stalin exiled many of them to the Siberian or Kazakhstan wastelands, on charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Solzhenitsyn wrote that the Chechens were "the only group in the Soviet Union that refused to accept the psychology of submission."
Soviet authorities feared that the Chechens, as Muslims, would ignite religious rebellion in the Caucasus. Their mosques were destroyed; after 1919, they were forbidden from building any new mosque.
In two wars, which were really one extended war, the Russian regime tussled with one and a half million Chechens who sought independence; the regime sought to subordinate these rebels.
In December 1994 Russian forces invaded Chechnya on the stated assumption that they would defeat the rebels within two weeks. After two years of fighting, the rebels captured the city of Grozny, and managed to conduct negotiations with Russian authorities that were mediated by Alexander Lebed.
The talks culminated in an agreement that within five years, Chechnya's status would be decided in a referendum.
Russia apparently had no intention of honoring this agreement, and after a series of bombings of domiciles in Moscow in 1999 (attacks attributed to the Chechens), the Russian army once again invaded Chechnya. Grozny was captured amidst horrendous destruction. The Russian conquest was brutal – innocent civilians were executed, women were raped, and there was widespread pillage and looting.
Russia cannot agree to Chechen independence for strategic-economic reasons. Unfortunately, Chechnya happens to be located on the route of the planned oil pipeline between the Caspian Sea and Russia. Meanwhile in Chechnya, a country where social-tribal dynamics are sovereign, the rebellious forces will not agree to live under Russian rule, and under leaders chosen by Moscow for them. For his part, President Vladimir Putin typically spoke of the Chechens as a nation of terror; he characterized the war in Chechnya as a war against terror.
The Russian media designated female Chechens who carry out various attacks in Moscow as "Black Widows" – that is, they are women who are prepared to kill and be killed to avenge the death of fathers, husbands, brothers or son who were killed by Russian troops.
As it turns out, suicide attacks perpetrated by women hits an acutely raw nerve among Russian authorities. Among other things, Chechen women are able to move about more freely than male Chechens, who are harassed continually by the army and by Russian security agents.
Official Russian media outlets claim that Chechens use hallucinatory drugs to subdue these women, and then rape them and film it. Following such abuse, young women in a traditional Muslim society have not a chance of leading normal lives in Chechnya. They have just one choice: to blow themselves up, causing damage to Russian life and property.
Tales of the Black Widows began to circulate by word of mouth. The actual number cannot be ascertained but continued to inflate.
In contrast to the case of the Chechen Black Widows, the women sharpshooters from Estonia operate, in the stories, out of free volition. They act out of free will, and financial motivation.
Female sharpshooters actually operated during World War II. During the first months of the war, innumerable male soldiers were killed, and this enabled women to volunteer for fighting, and receive marksmanship training. Published historical accounts refer to one such Russian woman sharpshooter who was responsible for killing 309 German soldiers.
The notion that women can be skilled marksmen dates also from the Soviet Union's war against Finland in 1939, and during the Russian civil war in 1918-1920. These female marksmen reportedly came from Latvia, and their special talents sparked considerable discussion.
It was believed that these women fighters were crueler than their male counterparts, and had greater powers of endurance. They were able to wait patiently before killing their victims in cold blood. As women, it was easier for them to penetrate into enemy territory – movements made by their male counterparts caused a higher degree of suspicion.
In addition to gender stereotypes, the White Socks women were also the source of urban legends told orally and in the media. They were exploited by propaganda outlets of the Russian media, and they served as expressions of ethnic stereotyping.
In war, a society needs a clearly defined enemy, an object that serves as a source of hatred; and the legend of the Estonian sharpshooting women conveys two images of evil, one being the image of the bewitched woman, an important symbol in Russian culture.
Analogous to the case of the White Socks women, the witch-woman can appear in Russian culture as an apparition of satanic beauty: as being a stunning blond, blue-eyed beauty. This is an image of supernatural evil whose assault on the human world, which is represented by men, is dangerous for the male gender. The activity of these beautiful, seductive women witches also has an erotic quality, one familiar from the legend of Lilith in Jewish culture.
In one stereotypical version of evil, the witch acts at the behest of dark-skinned Muslims. The conflict between the white East Orthodox Christians and the dark Muslims worsens over time, in these legends.
It would appear that in a process of demonizing the enemy, the Chechen rebels, including the Black Widows, and the Estonian female sharpshooters, embody the right expressive mix of hatred and fear.
The "blood vengeance" ritual remains widespread among Chechens and other peoples in the region; terror strikes are carried out to avenge the killing of family members by the Russians. When it turns out that no male is available in a family to exact revenge, a woman (despite the patriarchal norms of Chechen society) can be called upon to carry out the act of vengeance.
Acts of blood vengeance can be perpetrated by the wives, sisters or mothers of slain Chechens. These women, the Black Widows, inspire dread.
Sometimes the women are sent to carry out attacks in retribution for what is considered an act of sacrilege against their society. Local clerics promise these poorly educated women that they will be rewarded in heaven, that they will wed the man of their choice in the hereafter. Such emotional bribery might exert influence, but were it not for courage, despair and malice, the women would not be amenable to such exhortation.
Without doubt, sending such women to perpetrate terror strikes represents low-cost warfare that requires little training. Women roam about more easily, and it is easier for them to conceal explosives under their clothes.
Equality is not to be found among the male and female terrorists. The women are required to heed orders given by men.
On the eve of the Winter Olympics, Putin's worst nightmare is the suicide attacks that have been carried out recently, mainly by women, under the sponsorship of radical Islamic elements of the Caucasus region.
In its effort to prevent additional attacks, Russia is racing against time. Swirling about in Moscow is a storm of rumors about cells of female suicide bombers that are waiting to be deployed; fear and anxiety are on the rise.