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Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States - Articles (5)

A Good Soldier and a Good Mother: New Conditions and New Roles in the Nagorno-Karabakh War

Nona Shahnazarian


This article dedicated to the study of women’s behaviour in times of war is based on several interviews with “Satenik”, a woman who served as a senior lieutenant and head of a medical battalion during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The article explores the social trajectory and the reasons that led her to go to the front; it reflects on the difficulties faced by a woman at the front, the relations to her fellow soldiers and the consequences of her confrontation to violence; it shows somehow paradoxically that it was easier for here to find her place at the front, when social norms were temporarily lifted, than after the war. The articles concludes with a reflection on gender and national identity through the experience of those rare women who deviated from generally accepted gender roles.

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Full text is grateful to Shaun Long who translated this article


  • 1 This text is a revised version of from Nona Shahnazarian’s Gender i voina v prizme metoda issledova (...)
  • 2 As a consequence of this dispute some 160,000 Azeris and Kurdish Muslims were driven out of Armenia (...)

1The declaration of democratic freedoms and values in 1988 spawned a series of ethnic conflicts across the territory of the USSR. The first link in this chain was the dispute over the jurisdiction of Nagorno-Karabakh, which snowballed uncontrollably, developing by 1990 into a full-blown war, with all of the attendant consequences2. For the inhabitants of Karabakh, this was their very own patriotic war, and here the choice between fighting or not fighting, simply was not an option. The whole of society, including children and teenagers, contributed as best as they could to standing up for their own values and way of life.

  • 3 M. Oganian, A. Mkhitarian, “Zhenshchina i vooruzhennyi konflikt. Voina v Karabakhe”, Gendernyie iss (...)

2Women, who found themselves thrust into a wartime situation in the most varied of roles, also made an invaluable contribution, sometimes mixing traditional and new roles (serving as a nurse and a soldier at the same time). As a consequence of these events, one of the life strategies adopted by Karabakh women at the time was to take up a career in the military. According to Oganian and Mkhitarian 100 women took part in the Karabakh War, of whom 17 perished and 16 received first and second category disabilities3. To a certain degree, the war and the events connected with it changed the social structure of the community and its system of hierarchical priorities. Against the backdrop of the growing status of the military, those occupying such positions could extract a range of privileges: cultural, social and financial. But how was it that these women came to choose a military path?

  • 4 The myth of “female passivity” is shattered upon becoming acquainted with the accounts of the Russi (...)
  • 5 F. D’Amico, “Feminist Perspectives on Women Warriors”, Peace Review. A Transnational Quarterly, 199 (...)

3This article is dedicated to the study of women’s behaviour in times of war, employing a case study which may be regarded, in certain respects, as typical. The number of women who deviate from generally accepted gender roles is not large4, but allows for the destruction of female role stereotypes (the ideas of “female passivity” and “conformity”) – which is at the core of this research. It suggests that sexual roles in society arise more from cultural and social particularities than from “the natural order of things”. The problem posed is how to understand the formation of women’s national-patriotic identity, and under what conditions this identity manifests itself? What are its forms of expression, both verbal and behavioural? What factors are at play in the choice of a military strategy for women? What kind of reaction does the “non-stereotypical” behaviour of women elicit in society, especially among men? The answers to these questions can be found through an analysis of one of the most typical cases – a narrative of the war provided by an “authentic voice”5.

4Satenik (a pseudonym) – the “heroine” of the research – was born in 1961; she received a secondary-school education. At the time of the research, she had two grown-up daughters, and the same number of grandchildren. She was serving as a senior lieutenant, heading a medical battalion in the Army of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. She had been a participant in the Karabakh War from 1992, and had fought in the assault battalion L., playing an active part as a nurse in the majority of its military operations.

  • 6 In writing a first version of his article in Russian, I encountered the difficulties associated wit (...)

5I got to know Satenik in May-June 2001 in one of the towns of Nagorno-Karabakh. Our communication took a number of forms: a) we met in a formal setting at a school matinee in honour of Karabakh War veterans, where we agreed to a second meeting that very same day; b) an interview at her home, during which she answered a set of standardised interview questions; c) our next interview had been scheduled for her day off, and with Satenik’s permission, this was recorded on videocassette; d) thereafter, we saw each other a number of times to hand over copies of videos, to clarify certain points in the interview, and to say farewell. Owing to her regiment’s strict military timetable, we were not able to meet more frequently. Her record has thus been compiled from a range of source materials: video interviews conducted during the school matinee and in her home; biographical interviews with her in her home; answers to standardised interview questions; the author’s field notes; conversations with Satenik’s acquaintances; the fieldwork being rounded off through correspondence and telephone conversations with Satenik (2009, 2010). A new meeting took place with Satenik in August 2003 after the first version of the article had been written6.

Going to war : socialization and social trajectory

6The very fact that Satenik was able to provide us with an answer to what, in her pre-war life, had motivated her to go and fight, has stirred great interest. Satenik herself has stated that she was spurred by patriotic, nationalist ideas, although in fact it would not seem to be so simple.

7From the answers to the interview questions, one may draw the conclusion that Satenik’s character was formed in conditions that strictly regulated the entire life of the individual, in line with a traditional, patriarchal society. Notwithstanding her hidden protest directed against this machine, blind to human sensibilities (having in mind the rigid rules of patriarchal society), she had all the same accepted (in words, at any rate) many of its values: respect for elders, a view of the family as possessing the greatest importance in life, and the “purity” of morals. In answer to the question as to what is most important in life she replied without pausing for thought: “family happiness is real wealth, the sweetness of life.”

8Nonetheless, judging by the interview, her socialisation in her native Artashat community had not proceeded completely smoothly. Despite the fact that Satenik had absorbed the fundamental ideas and priorities of a traditional society in which the family and children are considered to be the primary value in life, her own family relations had not taken such a turn: the circumstances surrounding the breakup of her marriage remain murky (she avoided discussion of this theme). Parts of the interview provide us only with the precise dates of her wedding and divorce, which by a mystical coincidence, so it seemed to Satenik, fell on one and the same day of the month and day of the week. Local people had spoken as if she had lost her parental rights in her own small town, and had been compelled to reconcile herself with leaving her daughters in the care of her husband’s family; that her status had been seriously lowered here in Karabakh, despite her outstanding military service. Therefore, “the one thing left to her was to go to war.” She herself, in her interview, had hesitantly provided verification: “In 1992 I left the children (then in the third and fourth class) with my father- and mother-in-law. They brought them up, and gave them away in marriage whilst I fought in Karabakh.” In such a way, by 1992 Satenik found herself discredited and in some sense “excluded” from her own community. According to the canon of traditional Armenian society, for a woman to find herself in such a situation signified social death, and the loss of all symbolic capital acquired throughout the course of her life up to that point.

  • 7 I had conversations with many women who would have gone “to help the Fatherland” if they had not be (...)

9It is interesting that she had valued both family and love for the fatherland on an equal footing. She put this idea into words in reply to my question of what it meant to be wealthy: “My wealth consists of my family, my children, my love for the fatherland, and my loyalty and devotion to its interests. For me, love of the homeland stands in first place, after my love for my children.” It was precisely in an ambiguous situation, when she had comprehended the loss of her own significance in life, that she was asked to display loyalty to her homeland. She had acted so that she would be able to restore, or compensate for, her lost reputation. In this way, she had taken the very shortest and, perhaps even, most natural route to her own rehabilitation as an Armenian patriot, a citizen, and in the final reckoning, a mother. That is to say that her feats of arms were sufficient to excuse her failure as a mother and a wife. So, the “hard times” in her personal history coincided with the “difficult times” in the history of her people and fatherland7.

10But why was it that she had headed off to war? More exactly, why did specifically patriotic identities come to prevail within Satenik? Under what circumstances had these identities been acquired? Here, it is important to recall the conditions of Satenik’s childhood socialisation. It is possible that no small part in creating this atmosphere was played by her grandfather’s recollection of continual Armenian-Turkish confrontation, of a troubled Armenia, surrounded by a hostile Muslim environment and fending off blows throughout the course of its bloody history. Satenik’s grandfather’s national ideas (as with those of many other grandfathers and grandmothers), evidently grew out of his hard personal experience of the world, where national identities resulted in greater than usual dangers and suffering. The historical memory of economic oppression, deportations and harsh punishments, appears unerringly as an important determining factor (possibly, the fundamental determinant) in this woman’s struggle. From the notes of my fieldwork notebook: “According to Satenik’s own words, her grandfather exerted a great influence on the formation of her character. He told her about the horrors of slaughter (kotoratz) and of the tragic history of the Armenians.”

11An excerpt from the interview reinforces this idea: “I don’t know who I am exactly, but I am the kind of person who would not hide myself behind [a soldier’s] back. As my grandfather raised me, so I behave.” This was supplemented, one may conjecture, by her school’s patriotic education in history and literature, the cultivation of an annual national commemorative procession up Mount Tsitsernakaberd on 24 April (the conventional date of the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire), newspapers, television broadcasts, and family upbringing. This was no overnight process. The national idea began to take shape in Satenik from the time of her childhood, and a patriotic identity was awakened within her as soon as the conditions for this arose.

12However, in Armenian tradition it is not unusual for a grandfather or grandmother to recount tales of the genocide to children in place of a fairy tale. These tales can not be considered as the only determinants of Satenik’s patriotic ideas; such stories are heard by many children in Armenian families. This means that other factors existed which incubated these ideas within her, and led to her decision to play a direct part in the war. Evidently, she was in the climactic stage of a deep personal crisis, of an open conflict of personality and milieu, and finally, total economic disorientation, which together comprised the underlying causes which precipitated Satenik’s decision to go to war.

Being a woman at the front

13Thus, in 1992 at the very height of military action, Satenik found herself at the Karabakh Front in the thick of events. It is hard to describe the state of people in a wartime situation, who understand only too well their own dismal prospects, and sense themselves akin to hunted animals a few steps from death. Nothing other than entrusting their hope to a miracle that did not come would have been capable of changing anything and saving them from the bloody meat grinder in which they found themselves. Satenik describes herself as a nurse, although she is no such thing by profession. At a celebration at the end of the war, she remarked, “I didn’t study nursing, but now I feel as if I have graduated in medicine from university. Practice decides everything.”

14Her appearance at the front elicited the most varied feelings amongst the soldiers. The situation was intensified still further by the fact that they did not know where she had come from. At first, they identified Satenik as nothing other than a woman. “I climbed into the cab where several men were sitting. It was crystal clear that they were stung – a woman! I quickly sobered them up with my harsh stare.” Correspondingly, they displayed an attitude of disdainful indulgence towards her, as towards a child who is a hindrance and gets under their feet, as towards someone who has become mixed up in someone else’s business. Evidently, therefore, in spite of her entreaties to take her to settlement “X”, she was brushed off; they would not take her in the lorry with the soldiers, which was taking the route she needed. Satenik was put out, “isn’t there even a single place?” Reflecting on this she said: “I think that they probably looked upon me in such a way because I was a woman.” One of the soldiers, finally, granted her request, joking and egging her on, expressing doubt in her bravery and ability to fight.

15“Seeing that I was in military uniform, the soldiers started to ask where I was from and where I had fought; what had I done. I said that I was from A., that I was fighting for my homeland to help it as best I could, and where [in which place] – this wasn’t important. What I will say is that you have to see it to believe it, and if you will not believe, then there’s nothing to be said. So, I said nothing. But one of them struck a pose – “well, if you’re such an ‘amazon’ (kyrvoghaxchikes, literally ‘military girl’), would you come with us to M. [a place where intense fighting was taking place]. Well? We’ll see how you fight.” And I answered – “I’ll go to where it’s hot, and without any of your prompting. Even so, I would rather wish that there had been no war and that this was the last, that we had come to this spot now and were told that the war was over”.”

16Field Commander M., who would come to change his mind about her in a few days said: “Well, if you really want to fight, come with us, and we will see how well you cope.” Yet once again, there was this ironic condescension and an attempt to provoke competition. However, time and joint combat experience would show not only that she “knew how to fight”, but that she knew how to do so with gusto. “The car broke down en route. But I really could not remain calm, sitting there with my arms folded and heart madly pounding, as somewhere out there a fight might be going on, and I was here, not there where I was needed. What was to be done?” In addition, first and foremost, she was disciplined and responsible. “I was stuck here with them in the night. I tried to get dispatched to U. post-haste. You see, I had promised my commander I would return as quickly as possible; I was anxious and wanted to keep my word”.

17According to many of my sources (commanders and high-rank military colonels of the Karabakh war), the presence of women on the battlefield was extremely important in bolstering combatant’s morale. They claim that women played no small part in the outcome of military operations, as well as in the recruitment of volunteers to take part in the most reckless and dangerous schemes dreamt up by military command. This seems to be condoned by Satenik when she remembers that

18“’N’ operation had come to an end and we returned to “X”. There we were told that all of those who wished, volunteers only, could set off for S. to take part in the fighting. I was one of the first to express the desire to go. When I stepped forward, the men felt uncomfortable that I, a woman (lit. kinarmat – a female being), was not afraid, and they couldn’t stay here . . . The men took a step forward”.

  • 8 For example, the name of deceased Karabakh hero Monte Melkoniana (Avo). From an interview with Sate (...)

19Maintaining soldiers’ morale is one of the key challenges in waging a war. To this end, generals and commanders resorted to varied measures, juggling patriotic slogans and national authorities8 with, finally, the physical presence of women. How many times did commanders call for the help of a woman in the most hopeless situations: “the general summoned his subordinates and gave the order – “Quickly, take Satenik up to the front. She is fearless and will hold her ground. All the same, she is a woman, and ultimately her presence will shame the men. Men [soldiers] behave themselves differently when women are present”. Moreover, Satenik herself recognised this (“One of my appearances caused a miracle of resistance”) and performed her role perfectly. “As a woman, as a mother, as a sister – I was all of these for them [the soldiers], I was always at my best with them . . . so that they felt that they had alongside them their wives, their mothers, their children, their everything [lit. Irents amen inchy].” Here, as in many other remarks, her gender identity as a woman, mother and sister, was clearly outlined. It was for these things that each of them had taken up arms. This was a living symbol of “our women”, who was here with them in the most critical situation, on the boundary of life and death. She was here to bolster their spirit, to give them strength and their own cause for care. “I considered it my duty to be alongside them, our lads, so that they would draw strength from me. So that they knew, that a woman was alongside them. Indeed, a woman disciplines (zgastatsnum e) a man by her presence alone”.

20Here is yet another example from the interview. It took place during the actions near Adgam, from which, over the preceding months, concentrated fire had been directed at the neighbouring villages and district centre populated by Armenians.

21“A terrible artillery barrage had opened up . . . And just picture to yourself, we were playing Azeri music loud in the car and we defeated them to this music. And I heard the words of this song so clearly “Aghdama galin, Aghdama galin” [mispronouncing the Azeri words]. I asked the lads what they were singing, and they translated for me: “Come and visit us in Aghdam.” And I replied in jest, “don’t hurry, we’ll be there soon enough, just you wait and see.” And at this moment their heavy weaponry was directed straight at us and opened up with terrible effect. The lads took cover in the tanks and battened down the hatches. Yet I stayed rooted to the spot, sitting in the car with the music playing loudly. Now the boys realised that I wasn’t running away or hiding. Slowly, they started to poke their heads out of the hatches.”

  • 9 One interviewee told me how she, her husband and a neighbouring married couple “sang in unison as a (...)

22She suggests that the soldiers safely taking cover inside the tanks must have been ashamed to be hiding and in a way “loosing their face” by letting a woman display more “male” courage than they did. Here it is also interesting that the Armenian soldiers did not consider it shameful to play “enemy” music. Knowing how to joke, laugh and sing in the most inappropriate places at the most inappropriate moments, evidently not only helped them to get through horrific situations with honour, but also simply to survive, not to break down9. It was the same with Satenik.

23“They sat me in an open «UAZ» (a type of Soviet car) without a canopy, but this was in the intense, stifling heat of summer. I even said to the aide: what a fine lad you are for taking down the canopy; we’ll ride with the wind. And he burst out laughing: “I walked 50 metres from the vehicle, I came back and found it looking like this. An Azeri shell did its work, ripping the roof right off, so I had nothing to do with it.” And there I was thinking that it was him who had removed the canopy...” (she laughed loudly).

  • 10 I had a conversation with this very same L., a tank driver-mechanic, and he told me that he really (...)

24There is nothing surprising in the fact that humour sometimes took a black turn: “L. set off mines a huge number of times. We always joked: you are a human mine-detector”10. Humour helped maintain a distance from bitter reality. It is perhaps, through similar jokes, that psychological defence mechanisms were brought into play, although subconsciously each of them all-too-well recognised the unenviable nature of their situation.

  • 11 Interestingly, there is an idiomatic identification of fate, of life, with the house. The family an (...)

25“Just picture it: we had no pleasure. Our only pleasure was when there were no fatalities. During each operation, we pondered whose fate would come to ruin (lit. ‘whose house would fall down’ um tunn a khandvelu)11. You think about it, and I, you know, took part in all of this, and it could have happened to me. A shell, or this very cartridge, would hit its target indiscriminately. A “blind” bullet doesn’t think about where it’s flying”.

26Privately, Satenik became deeply disenchanted during the Karabakh period. During the war, she had become close to field commander D., who subsequently rose to a high rank. She had spent the entire war side by side with him. “I was more of a wife to him, than a lover”. Her seven-year relationship with him finished when he showed preference to his own family over her. And it was hardly likely that this had been a difficult choice for him, as it was, judging by all appearances, a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. But not for her. It was the breakup itself that was the more painful. “Because of the affair with him (and yes, people gossiped) I began to love being alone. I don’t want to get into any further relationships with men, as they want only one thing from me”.

27As a matter of fact, a rupture in relations evidently occurred between men and women during the war, including at the public level, when women were able to disregard etiquette and joke on a level with male “strangers”. It would have been difficult for them to imagine themselves in such a situation during a stable and peaceful time. These frivolous relations would reach their apogee, when in the course of military operations the rigid system of seniority was ignored.

28“Our chief of staff was wounded. Once again, they called me by walkie-talkie. I came. His arm was wounded. I bandaged it, and jokingly said: “nothing awful has happened and we’re not going to send you off to some hospital. You’ll stay here with us and will fight until the operation is over”. And the chief of staff replied: “as you’re giving the orders, there can be no objections”. 

29What women could get away with during wartime was impossible in peacetime. It was simply that in this context these men ceased to be “strangers”. It was as if this situation of walking on the razor’s edge led to an inversion in relations, and former rules lost their efficacy and force. In the face of imminent death, it was as if all were equal; a fact that became apparent to them with an intuitive, indisputable clarity. The men would later not even wish to recall this, as if it had never been (which, incidentally, had stung Satenik after the war).

30The sense of self-sacrifice, the reckless courage and complete disregard for danger with which S. rushed to the front, prompts the thought that her life temporarily had at some point lost its value for her. Her possible heroic death on the field of battle would have turned the tables and functioned as a “punishment” for those who had disparaged her. It is revealing in this sense that upon being brought to division command when the remains of the sub-unit, shattered and exhausted after battle, returned to point “X”, that at headquarters’ suggestion to voluntarily take part in the fighting in the neighbouring “hot” spot, she had unhesitatingly been one of the first to respond. Enchanted by war, Satenik fell under its “spell”. In my opinion, the excerpts from the interview provided below are more than telling.

31“I grabbed my small suitcase, a stretcher, and rushed off across the field. A shell flew, it seemed, close over my head. I wasn’t afraid and continued running. Bullets whistled, a hail of bullets surrounded me – but all went past. Yet I was firmly convinced that they really would not touch me, that it evidently was not to be my fate. I managed to run through it and reach the boys . . .”

32“And every time, when I made my way through this inferno, I knew I wouldn’t die. I don’t know if it was this hope that gave me strength, I don’t know . . . You know every time . . . I said to myself “I am not going to die. I am immortal.” And it so happened that I didn’t die.”

33“Boys were laid up: the then chief of police had been wounded in the leg, K. had been wounded in the eye, another had died already. We were sinking. We had to cross the field, but the field was being raked with crossfire. I yelled at the driver – “drive, nothing will happen (I don’t know from where I drew such a conviction); while they take aim we will slip through. Let’s get going, quickly. Don’t worry, they won’t see us, they won’t succeed.”

34“Every time I went onto the battlefield I was a paramedic, but I hid behind nobody’s back. For example, a paramedic usually ventures onto the field when they are called, later, at the end [of the fighting]. But I always went to the very front with our soldiers Into the heat. My heart would have stopped (an idiom, signifying a feeling of impatience) if I could not have been there, at the front!” (very passionately).

35Nonetheless, in one of the interviews she acknowledged: “It was terrifying for everyone, and for me, of course, but my teeth didn’t chatter. I, it seemed, had been born for war.” This does seem like she had found her calling, a platform for self-expression.

Finding one’s place in life?

36With time, having appraised her own role on behalf of the “sacred” cause, Satenik changed her attitude towards herself, her evaluation of herself and of her activity. The perception of something akin to people being fated for a specific event and action was also characteristic of other women with whom conversations were held. The fulfilment of this mission, as it seems to them, also provides the “romantic” meaning of their lives. The soldiers, of course, perceived Satenik’s attitude and were endlessly grateful to her for everything. During the war they saw her more as a comrade-in-arms than a woman. “They relied on me. How many times did soldiers say to me: “when you are with us, we are not afraid. We know that whatever may happen, you would not leave us; you would not run off behind our backs.” “The commanders always trusted me, reckoning that I had nerves of steel…” Despite the fact that her appearance as a boundlessly strong woman did not leave a place for her to be regarded as an erotic object (a conclusion drawn from conversations with men, Satenik’s comrades-in-arms) she in part bore within herself that feminine, maternal human warmth and cordiality that soldiers so badly needed in these moments.

37“And here the wounded recognised me by my voice:
- Satenik, is that you?
- Yes, yes, it’s me.
- Well, thank God, that means I’m not going to die; I’m going to survive.”

38This sense of being needed was strengthened when high-ranking military personnel expressed this to her in word and deed. In one of the interviews Satenik recounted the following episode with great pride: “... they removed a fragment of shrapnel from my head. General I. took it in his hand and said: “I shall save this piece of shrapnel from my daughter’s head as a keepsake” and he put it into his breast pocket." On another occasion, despatching Satenik to Armenia with the wounded, the commander pleaded: “only please make sure that you return; we need you here!” To this she replied with no less feeling – “Of course I’ll come back! I wouldn’t be able to live even an hour longer without Artsakh!” Here would be an appropriate place to note that it is specifically through verbal formulae such as these that Satenik voices her patriotism.

39While en route to her deployment, the commander of another sub-unit heading into combat sought to persuade her to take part in an operation, to which she replied with considerable passion: “I was born to fight; to fight for the motherland; for my people. What difference does it make where the fighting takes place, just so long as it is in defence of my own people”. She went into combat with them, and didn’t reach her own unit.

  • 12 K. Petrone « Geroii pol. Podvigi sovetskikh letchits v 1930-e gody”, in V. Tishkov (ed), Sem’ia, ge (...)

40The role and status of women in combat is much more difficult to define, and, especially, to evaluate than the role of men. At best, they are accepted as auxiliary personnel in combat, at worst, their names are cast into oblivion, and their heroism nullified and dimmed in the light of that of the men. Women are simply denied the status of heroes12. It seems that Satenik too understood this. By making multiple references to the names of senior military commanders (some with an intentional excessive familiarity), she was evidently seeking to demonstrate her “inclusion” in the military elite – as an exception, despite her own “inferiority”. This “inclusion” she had also expressed in speech, imbued with heroic rhetoric and an appeal to generalized megalomaniac categories (mer herosy – our hero, mer texnikan – our equipment), aligning herself with the male side (see infra “he shook my hand like a man”).

41She was ready to retrain in whatever was necessary for the cause of serving her motherland. “I hadn’t actually been a nurse earlier, but the war demanded this.” Perhaps she regards herself as belonging to that category of people who are perfectionists, “exemplary students” in everything, honing to perfection any one of their skills. Neither was she a professional member of the military, but she very quickly obtained all of the essential experience for service in the regular army. She mastered military matters perfectly, right down to the ceremonial step. From a letter: “my turn came… and I approached the commander with a precise ceremonial step. All were one in being enchanted by my bearing and precise step”.

42She was also bursting to take the initiative. Whilst taking part in the war, Satenik voluntarily took upon herself yet one more task – to commit to memory the names, and places of birth and death, of those who had perished, so that the names and bodies of our heroes were not left in obscurity.” The task was complicated enough, as she herself remarked:

43“You know, I wasn’t able to tally up all of them; I’m not local. It was difficult for me to remember all of them. It was very difficult for me, as I had known some of them for 4-5 days.”

44“I was not local and I didn’t even know any of them by name. I would frantically make enquiries on the spot so that nobody’s name was lost. But on the other hand, I now know all of them and feel myself to be a true Karabakh local.”

45“And then a shell scored a direct hit on our tank, and nine of our boys were badly wounded. One of them died immediately. I alone saved the remaining eight. However, I very much regret that of these eight people so-and-so and so-and-so [she gave all the names from memory] died later; the others lived. Steeling my nerves and with tremendous exertion, I dragged them from the tank and carried all of them away from the shelling, so that their bodies did not fall into enemy hands”.

Coping with violence: language, body, behaviour

46Satenik says that she had not taken a shot at a single target, that she had not killed a single person. I asked her about this specifically. She had only saved; she had only rendered all possible assistance, showing remarkable courage and skill. It would seem thus that somehow, like many women who fought, she managed to avoid brutalisation. But war and its violence nevertheless affected her behaviour, and another interesting trait of Satenik’s character – a certain ruthlessness ‑ was unexpectedly revealed during the interview

47When her presence alone proved insufficient to motivate a male soldier, she would resort to extreme measures. Once she applied brute pressure to a soldier who, having taken fright, refused an order to escort a paramedic to the wounded across an area subject to intense shelling. “The ambulance driver refused to take me to the wounded. I shouted at him, held a pistol to his temple and said: “Your blood is no redder than the blood of those that is flowing over there!” (She recollected this in a very emotional and lively fashion, gesticulating expressively). In this situation Satenik not hesitate to use violence – even if it meant threatening to take another life. She took upon herself this responsibility, but for the sake of saving the lives of many others.

  • 13 However, unlike in certain other cases, Satenik did not resort to profanity (although this is one o (...)

48It would be especially worth dwelling upon Satenik’s speech and self-presentation, which she had undoubtedly acquired as a consequence of surviving the course of the war, as a result of entering into her new role. Her speech and movement became masculinised. However, this was nonetheless an astonishingly graphic combination of one and the other, of feminine and masculine. The movement associated with her gesticulations was abrupt and sharp; in speech, as in her movements, one sensed the imitation (sometimes not very skilful) of “male” language and manners13, insofar as they were deemed more prestigious by society. Phrases, uttered on behalf of the nation: "They allocated me to a column to accompany the wounded and the dead to Armenia, so that the names and bodies of our heroes (with a lofty note in her voice) would not be left in obscurity. “Many of our boys perished there.” She lists their names, shedding a few tears, positing herself as the mother of the nation. The excessively frequent use of bombastic phrases, of a heightened patriotic rhetoric, conveyed just how important it was for her to clearly express her loyalty to the nation. Whereas her striving to imitate “masculine”, more “social” speech goes unremarked upon during wartime when sexual or social prejudices disappear, this becomes all the more jarring during peacetime.

49Satenik’s verbal descriptions of battles were idiosyncratic. Not one of the men recounted the war with such expressions and colour as she did.

50“Suddenly, shells were flying straight at us and shrapnel from them showered over my head like hail. But I wasn’t afraid. Thus the nightmare began. Everything was torn to shreds.”... It was an inferno: they opened fire with all kinds of weaponry. “A volley”, guns, bullets and shrapnel constantly whistled through the air, and twisted clods of earth”.

51In her mouth, descriptions of scenes of terror were voiced in a completely different way. She did this with warmth and a certain intimacy:

  • 14 A witness, a participant in the fighting at G.A., had also told me about this incident – “the lad b (...)

52“I managed to run up to the lads. I saw one of the boys had his face bloodied, an arm crushed, covered in blood. A shell hit the wall, and it fell on the poor wretch14. I kept my head, quickly laid him on a stretcher and carried him up to a wall where it was safe. I quickly wiped him down, applied a tourniquet, bandaged him and gave him an anaesthetic. And I myself asked the boys, “who is this?” It was impossible to find out, as his face had been transformed into a bloody pulp”.

53“At this moment, one of the soldiers accidentally brushed the trigger of a “desheka” [a heavy machine-gun] and a tracer bullet flared up hitting battalion commander A. in the left side, tearing his lungs all to pieces. I saw all of this from the car, but despite this, whether it hit anyone or not, I rushed to the tank… [and] together with L. tried to recover A... I saw that he was in a critical condition, that we were already losing him. Tears flowed from his eyes, but he couldn’t move his tongue. If only he had said a word; a single word. He moved his lips, but it was impossible to understand anything. Perhaps he was calling for his mother, or what else he wanted to say, I don’t know. Three of his tears fell onto my palm. My heart felt as if it had turned to stone: you know, he was a young lad of 18. You look at all of this and it is as if you forget everything. You think, today it is him [that this has happened to], tomorrow it is you, it’s someone else… Perhaps that is why there were no tears”.

54“A mass bombardment began. A young lad emerged from a tank, and right in front of my eyes his head was blown off and his torso fell back into the tank”.

55In my notebook, I find the following entry: Satenik “recounted new horrors about how the driver M. had been blown to pieces and the men had been afraid to come near and hold the pipette”. Given that war is an extreme situation protracted in duration, it cannot but tell on an individual’s state of mind. Getting accustomed to violence , it would seem, is already revealed in the following episode:

56“And then 3 helicopters and two planes swooped down upon us and opened fire. It was all so unexpected. We had an anti-aircraft battery, both a “needle” and a “wasp”, but nobody expected that they would be brought into action so soon. I managed to ask how to fire missiles from “the wasp”, and the soldiers explained everything to me regarding how the unit worked. I stood as if spellbound, watching as “our” round shot forth. It weaved a zigzag, one moment gathering speed, then slowing the next. I was upset, thinking that I had not hit the target. I was so terribly worried; the tension was unbearable. I was already afraid that our missile had been lost without hitting its target, knowing how expensive it was, and how much we needed it. Millions had been spent on each round. We did economize not just on the shells, but on each bullet gathered from the ground. We even picked up the rusty ones, rubbing them, cleaning them, and putting them to use. And you should have seen my delight when a missile caught a plane and tore into its rear end. You should have seen how it burned! (exulted). However, the pilot managed to eject (with an expression of regret). The pilot landed at some distance from us, and their helicopter flew in to pick him up. In frenzied excitement I hugged D. and screamed – “you saw it, didn’t you, you saw how our “wasp” took it out?!” (with painful eagerness). D. stared at me in astonishment: “you’re as happy as if you’d been at a wedding”. But I still couldn’t calm down – “Then the round we fired did not go to waste. Did you see what the round did?”

57During the war, Satenik was wounded four times: in the head, twice in the leg and in the neck. Here is what she had to say about these incidents:

58“I was hit in automatic crossfire. Something whistled by my ear and flashed by my neck. I felt with my fingers – blood. I thought, no, all the same I am immortal. Again a bullet flew past, they just called out to me, but it hit me straight in the neck. I don’t know how it happened, as it all happened unnoticed. It hits you, but you don’t even know how it could have happened”.

59“When I pulled out a wounded man and turned my back to him to run for a second, the first called out to me – doctor, doctor! I turned around, and he told me that I had been wounded in the leg … I pulled my leg out of my blood-filled felt boot. I quickly injected the vikosol, hastily bandaged myself and walked further, dragging out the wounded. I walked up to a knoll, signalled that we were in trouble and needed help. Assistance arrived and the wounded told the arrivals that I myself had been wounded. But I refused help and continued my work, rushing to the front”.

60“We came under tank fire, and a piece of shrapnel from the very first shot hit me in the head. L., having identified where the projectile was heading by its sound, rushed up to cover me. (She portrayed all of this in gestures). And I screamed out in surprise, “Get off!” And at that very moment a piece of shrapnel lodged straight in my head. You know, if L. had not pushed me aside, my head would have been blown to pieces. I. came up just when I was having the shrapnel pulled out of my head. We looked at the shard - it was about this length (she indicates about 15 cm), with one sharp end. It was like a piece of gold…They pulled the fragment out of my head…”

61“I felt a pain in my leg. I looked, and it seemed as if my trousers had been sliced with a blade. I realised in an instant that a piece of shrapnel had hit me in the same leg that had been wounded during the operation at K.” “. . . Falling from the tank, I hit my elbow hard, and something happened. I felt an unbearable pain in my arm. I now worked with one hand, the second rendered motionless, ripping the packaging off of the syringes with my teeth.”

Longing for recognition after the war: contested memory

62With the end of the war, people began to look at many things in a different way. The situation gradually returned to how it had been before - modes of behaviour and measures of social relationships assumed their former pre-war shape, as was reflected in the position and status of the female combatants. In certain cases, the changes were radical, going so far as turning the evaluation of female combatants’ actions on its head. That is, unconventional behaviour judged to be permissible and even welcome during wartime, became unacceptable (at least in private discourse) when the war ended. However, it cannot be denied that Satenik had all the same been afforded some form of recognition by society. Immediately after the war her name was not only mentioned in newspapers, but articles were dedicated to her. From a letter (04.11.2002): “An Armenian journalist interviewed me twice about the war and my service in the conflict for the newspaper “Martik” (“Warrior”)”. Amongst other forms of public recognition was an invitation to meet with schoolchildren. We got to know each other right after one of these meetings at the Karabakh War Victory Day celebrations on 9 May 2001. The very fact that they had invited her (other women were amongst the invitees, but they attended as veterans of the Great Patriotic War) to deliver a speech to the schoolchildren amongst a number of honoured veterans testifies to Satenik’s special, elevated status.

63Later in 2002 Satenik received a medal “For bravery”. From a letter: “I was at my post. The regimental commander called and requested that I report to the regiment for receipt of my reward. I walked up to the regimental commander and announced my arrival to receive the award for service to the motherland, for the blood that I had shed, and for bravery!” “The whole regiment was formed up on the parade ground, and all of the senior officers of the army general staff mounted the rostrum. My turn came, and they read out my name. I was applauded by the whole regiment… He [the commanding officer] shook my hand like a man [the emphasis is mine – N. Sh.], congratulated me and handed me the medal “For bravery!”. Then I was congratulated personally by the deputy commander and all of the senior-ranking staff officers. Every last one of them repeated that I deserved more than this”.

64The commander of an assault detachment, where she had fought, acknowledged “I consider that she deserves a greater reward than a medal “For bravery!”. I would have expected a “Military Cross” at a minimum”. Nonetheless, in almost every remark Satenik made regarding society’s appraisal of her wartime activity, dissatisfaction, disappointment and discontent showed through. From her letter: “I want to throw everything in and go to Armenia. Titles don’t give anything; they help in no way whatsoever. One week I find myself at my post, the second week in the regiment, and the next week in service … The impression is that all that I had done…wasn’t needed by anybody

65Dissatisfaction concerning society’s neglect was also evident in the pleasure with which Satenik agreed to meet me repeatedly to give interviews about her military career. A note from my field diary: “I stipulated the use of a video-camera. She nodded her head with satisfaction, and agreed. It seems that she felt she was suffering from a lack of attention, and was glad of the opportunity to record her own story”. Obviously therefore, “paper and pen in no way embarrassed her. She answered survey questions readily, but showed a certain impatience, it seems, because of the abundance of information that she felt impelled to pass on to me. She was impatient to switch to a free discussion, to tales of war and her role in it”. It is also revealing that she asked me to make a copy of the video interview with her, as she wanted one for herself. The cassettes have no doubt ended up in the family collection, so she would be able to counter not only people who had reconsidered their attitude towards her and her activity during the war, but also her own memory, which had already failed her in small ways during the interview in 2001, seven years after the armistice.

66When I asked people about Satenik, about what it was that had distinguished her during wartime, I was told that “she was the lover of field commander D, renowned and famous throughout the whole of Karabakh.” In the best case, in fairness, certain women hesitantly added that she had been a nurse during the war and had dragged the wounded straight from the field of battle. One man, a professional soldier, a refugee from Azerbaijan, the very same L. from her interview, rated Satenik’s military service highly, describing her as “a very brave woman”. Satenik herself had remarked how one morning a little boy (she was in military uniform) met her on the way to the garden, pulled his mother’s arm and staring with a fascinated gaze said – “Is this the very same Satenik, mummy? Is it?”

67There is one other interesting element in this tale– the reaction of men to my enthusiastic remarks about Satenik relating to her heroic deeds. From one of my friends (a young man of 23) it elicited genuine hysteria. He did not wish to acknowledge any merit, courage or heroism on her part, other than that “she was an ordinary regimental nurse, of which there were many in the war. She decided nothing, and nothing depended upon her.” In all of her accounts, he discerned boundless bragging and ill-founded ambition. He laughed sarcastically, gathering up all the new elements from her stories, and called in his friend to listen to her words. As for himself of course, he had been “in real quandaries ”, of this there could be no doubt. He was 14 when the war broke out, and he told me in detail how he would carry 40-litre containers of food for the soldiers posted on the mountaintops. Moreover, these were not simply ascents bearing “a burden”, as the mountain was subject to intense shellfire from a great variety of weapons. We even walked with him to this very same mountain, to experience how hard it must have been for him…

  • 15 To bake bread using the traditional Karabakh method in special earthen turun ovens is an exceptiona (...)

68Openly sexist speech could be heard everywhere. I constantly came across “traditional” rhetoric, according to which no matter how effective women’s participation had been, it had always borne an exclusively auxiliary character and been under men’s control. The ambivalence of attitudes to women who had actively participated in the war was also evident in their strict demarcation by role. Women who “had not fallen” from their gender roles, for example, and had been selflessly baking bread for soldiers at their posts day and night, enjoyed great recognition and respect15. These women were singled out for government attention and accorded all of the existing benefits, and in these cases, there was no question of any kind of gender identity crisis.

Gender and nation – a view through Satenik experience

  • 16 C. Cockburn, The Space between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict. London, (...)

69An ethnic war is, in this sense, also a gender war insofar as “the social power of these movements strives to establish or to protect (amongst other things) gendered authority”16. Regimes that are established as a consequence rely on hegemonic masculinity and are usually “male” regimes (with the exclusion of rare examples such as Zhanna Galstian, a female soldier and an Assistant to the President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic).

70There can be no doubt that both men and women perceive reality refracted through the prism of gender dimensions. The image of the soldier, of the defender of the Fatherland, is habitually perceived in masculine terms. And the fact that this image has acquired, albeit on rare occasions, a female silhouette, has been construed as a threat to male dominance. By denying the contribution of women during the war, men subconsciously protect the foundations of their own power: why, after all, should they be placed “in higher authority”, if a woman can cope with everything as well as a man, even with war? Through her very own military experience she demythologises the function of “the defender”, demystifying the image of the soldier, removing the veil of secrecy and the monopoly of competence, negating deep-rooted “interpretations” of power. In everyday mass consciousness, such women are simply “upstarts” who have deviated from accepted norms.

  • 17 Moreover, in an analogous situation when speaking about a brave man, a tautology is employed – tygh (...)
  • 18 One woman, serving in the Karabakh army as a signaller, reproduced the prophetic phrase: “In war th (...)

71In conditions of war, this conflict is partially resolved by the marginalisation (here the word “marginalisation” is used in the sense of being at the frontier, finding oneself at a junction) of such women, of the “equalisation” of their rights with those of men. They can swear and drink like men, as well as with men. They are admiringly referred to in high praise as tyghamard-kyneg (dialect), which literally means man-woman17. But at the same time they are no longer viewed as a woman18, insofar as they are not part of the system of gender values of the society being studied. As is evident from the text, in this situation the woman gains the least of all. She pays a price for her “honour” to be accepted into the “masculine brotherhood”, even though this does not bestow the rights of a fully paid-up member.

  • 19 I. Zherebkina, Zhenskoe politicheskoe bessoznatel’noe, St-Petersburg, Alateia 2002, p. 104.

72During the transition to the new role she acquires many prestigious statuses, but loses (as it would seem to a traditional male) something very important for any woman in any society – that is, what attracts a man to a woman – let this be called “femininity”. It is as if she passes from being a “privileged” erotic object, an object of desire, which a woman represents in traditional cultures19, to the position of subject, losing her social position as a woman – namely a passive position. Indeed, the fundamental function of female passivity consists of presenting oneself as an object, rather than rising to public prominence as a subject. However, it would seem that Satenik’s outcast status as a usurper of the subject role is not so much on the personal level, as on the cultural and social level. That is, there are certainly men who would like her, but they would not take steps to strike up a serious relationship, as they would wish to avoid social censure; there is also some influence from her former liaison with a “powerful” man, after which it would be difficult [for suitors] to live up to the competition.

73In this way, in her own life Satenik had displayed an unconventional behavioural decision, violating former established cultural canons and regulations. Notwithstanding this, on the verbal level, in the style of language and narration, she also demonstrates a deep female identity (when she does not attempt to imitate and speaks in “her own” language). However, in accordance with her presentation of self and conduct outlined above, it seems that she portrays herself (or was compelled to portray herself) to a greater extent as an Armenian, and to a lesser extent, as a woman. In other words, the national idea, the local-patriotic identity prevailed within her, sweeping aside many existing cultural stereotypes. In the struggle for identity, ethnic self-consciousness had triumphed at the expense of others, but this had happened when there had been nothing to lose. In this connection, it would have been more expedient not to have polarised these identities, taking into consideration their demonstrable interdependence with everyday life.

  • 20 S. Ruddick, Maternal Thinking. Towards a Politics of Peace, Boston, Beacon Press, 1995.

74The adoption of this path was directly linked to a role-crisis within ordinary, everyday life. It provided certain benefits, but it had “costs” that would lead a woman into a cultural “dead end”. The national idea appears stronger than so-called “maternal thinking”20, but often this strategy for the marginalised “who have strayed from the track”, arises from a variety of life circumstances and reasons. The factor cited as giving rise to national-patriotic feeling was the advent of war, and later [life] in the army, but an analysis of their lives yields different results such as: a personal, closely associated with a public, crisis in the former society; a lack of fulfilment in that society; marginalisation and an irreconcilable conflict with tradition. From the perspective of Armenian society, these reasons were not very appealing, thus it is possible that they were never voiced in the public sphere.

  • 21 E.Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New-York, Anchor Books, 1959.

75The idea of a marginalized mother securing the position of her children through national-patriotic actions reveals new facets of so-called maternal thinking and altruism. If one assumes that social interaction depends upon the establishment of the mutual understanding of the conditions of interaction (in line with the ideas of E. Goffman21), then it is precisely this understanding, possibly, that encouraged Satenik to activate her varied statuses in specific situations: a traditional woman; a mother; a patriot; a soldier; a war heroine, and others. From this perspective, her individual qualities occupy an important place, her ability to manoeuvre and adjust (especially against a background of negative experience when she had already broken loose of the social rules of the game, not understanding the conditions of social interaction).

76Satenik was grateful to her mother-in-law for having raised and given away her daughters in marriage. She, finding herself under the pressure of traditional norms, understood that this was the best outcome for her daughters, who would scarcely be considered a “decent” match in marriage, if she had been brought up by a “good-for-nothing” mother. Thus, the articulation of ethnic identity not only is not in conflict with “maternal thinking”, but on the contrary, is also directly dictated by the interests of the children, their prestige and position in society. She had removed herself from the scene, but to where she had a great chance of returning and being “at the top”, or not returning at all, but all the same being “at the top”. The events of Satenik’s pre-war life inexorably led her to that point beyond which lie the marginalised and outcasts. Failing to reconcile herself to her lot, Satenik resolutely chose a dangerous military path.. Then she had needed self-justification and rehabilitation in the eyes of her children, even at the cost of her own life. As a result, by her eighth year of service in the ranks of the Karabakh army, Satenik had secured both the recognition of her own children (the restoration of links with her daughters and their families and an economic improvement in the family budget) and social recognition. This occurred in parallel with a contradictory gender identity crisis and everyday general criticism of the behaviour of female combatants, while at the same time extenuating them.

  • 22 For example: “The Coordinating Council “Women for Karabakh” adopted a resolution on 6th December 20 (...)
  • 23 E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914., London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.

77Thus, as is evident from the material, during armed conflicts women do not play the normal “passive” role inherent in their normal situation, but quite the contrary. Moreover, judging by summaries in the International Network, apparently similar “extraordinary activity” took place amongst Azeri women22. Nevertheless, in the traditional value systems of both peoples female passivity is the most valued quality in a woman. Moreover, it is cultivated and nurtured as a primordial trait of the female character from generation to generation, having been transformed into a constant of social consciousness and accepted as a given. The collapse of cultural values is evidently directly linked to that condition which specialists call ethnic frustration, a psychological state of the whole people characterised by a loss of the prospect of historical development, accompanied by a heightened sense of hopelessness. This is what E. Hobsbawm calls “difficult times for the nation”23. Such was the cataclysm in the case under consideration, the Karabakh War indisputably mobilised the energies of all layers and segments of the population, leading to an extreme intensification of ethnic self-consciousness. Interviewees acknowledged that finding oneself in a trench being shelled by various forms of destructive weaponry makes one feel an Armenian woman or man to a far greater extent than when going about everyday activities during peacetime. This is the case in an ethnic war, particularly in Karabakh, when every individual is reminded of who they are in terms of nationality 24 hours a day, leading to an extreme accentuation of collective identity.

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1 This text is a revised version of from Nona Shahnazarian’s Gender i voina v prizme metoda issledovaniia sluchaia (Case Study): Nagornyi Karabakh, 2009, pages 8-38.

2 As a consequence of this dispute some 160,000 Azeris and Kurdish Muslims were driven out of Armenia, whilst simultaneously 350,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan became refugees (V. Cheterian, Malyie voiny i bol’shaia igra. Kavkazskii institut SMI, Yerevan, 2003, p. 21). According to other data the number of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan was reckoned to be 450,000 (N. Dudwick, “Postsocialism and Fieldwork of War” in H. G. De Soto and N. Dudwick (Eds), Fieldwork Dilemmas, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000, p. 19).

3 M. Oganian, A. Mkhitarian, “Zhenshchina i vooruzhennyi konflikt. Voina v Karabakhe”, Gendernyie issledovaniia, # 6, Khar’kov, 2001, p. 246.

4 The myth of “female passivity” is shattered upon becoming acquainted with the accounts of the Russian women’s death battalions (1917), the famous story of Mariia Bochkareva, and the women’s corps of the Israeli Army etc.

5 F. D’Amico, “Feminist Perspectives on Women Warriors”, Peace Review. A Transnational Quarterly, 1996, Vol. 8, # 3, p. 379. Italics are used for the “voice” itself, translated by the author from the Armenian language (literary and dialect).

6 In writing a first version of his article in Russian, I encountered the difficulties associated with the translation of interview texts reproduced in turn in the Armenian literary language and the Karabakh Armenian dialect (plus intrusions in Russian) with an abundance of tropes. It sometimes proved to be impossible to convey the sense of certain speech structures, wholly alien to Russian-language models. With respect to certain idiomatic expressions, one would be driven to lengthy explanations that do not fall within the scope of this research article. Due to the fact that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has not de jure ended, the serious problem of the coding of militarily sensitive information arose. The conduct of a fierce information war between the government of Azerbaijan and the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh dictated caution in the naming of geographical locations, people and other information, which, however, did little to disrupt the outline of the narrative. The interviewee was aware that she could be identified, and has expressed repeatedly her consent to take this risk.

7 I had conversations with many women who would have gone “to help the Fatherland” if they had not been burdened by family ties. A woman from the western diaspora came to Karabakh during the war to participate in the struggle by working as a nurse. She was also free from familial obligations.

8 For example, the name of deceased Karabakh hero Monte Melkoniana (Avo). From an interview with Satenik: “soldiers turned to General A. to allow them to retreat as it was impossible to hold out. But the general loudly announced over the radio [enunciating passionately with military precision] – “Sons of Avo, you have no right to abandon this ground. You know you are fulfilling his orders, his dream.” A number of the soldiers fell silent… they gathered their strength, pulled themselves together. From somewhere or other, strength was found”.

9 One interviewee told me how she, her husband and a neighbouring married couple “sang in unison as a quartet to drown out the artillery barrage, sitting in the room whilst the shockwave rattled the windows, shaking and chipping the crockery in the sideboard and the chandelier above our heads. Each of us imitated musical instruments with our voices: the duduk (two parties: backing and solo), the dhol and the zurna. My husband hit a “false note” now and then. We had fun singing and laughing, and it really wasn’t so bad. We no longer wanted to hide in the cellars and tremble with fear; we were tired of this...”

10 I had a conversation with this very same L., a tank driver-mechanic, and he told me that he really had been blown up by mines 29 times, receiving numerous injuries, but had somehow miraculously remained among the living.

11 Interestingly, there is an idiomatic identification of fate, of life, with the house. The family and its centre – the house – again appears as the highest value, repeatedly fixed in the language.

12 K. Petrone « Geroii pol. Podvigi sovetskikh letchits v 1930-e gody”, in V. Tishkov (ed), Sem’ia, gender, kul’tura, Moscow, Institute of Ethnology, 1997, p. 359.

13 However, unlike in certain other cases, Satenik did not resort to profanity (although this is one of the strongest markers of masculinity in the tradition under study). From my diary: “She did not use foul language, yet spoke very colourfully. Each muscle of her face was brought into play. Her hands, white and primed, flew first this way, and then the other. She recounted how she had run from one position to another, dragging corpses away from the line of fire. That these were very strong hands was strikingly apparent. I thought that only the owner of such hands would have been able to drag out the lifeless male bodies from the hatches of the tanks...”

14 A witness, a participant in the fighting at G.A., had also told me about this incident – “the lad beneath the rubble was in a terrible state, and his mutilated body had assumed such unnatural forms that three young men had turned away and were crying. It was unbearable listening to the wheezing and all of the sounds that issued from the wounded man.

15 To bake bread using the traditional Karabakh method in special earthen turun ovens is an exceptionally time-consuming activity requiring special skills.

16 C. Cockburn, The Space between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict. London, Zed Books, 1999.

17 Moreover, in an analogous situation when speaking about a brave man, a tautology is employed – tyghamard-tygha – man-man, meaning by this a “real man”, both biologically and by force of spirit. These turns of phrase explicitly express an opinion about bravery and courage as a male prerogative.

18 One woman, serving in the Karabakh army as a signaller, reproduced the prophetic phrase: “In war there are no women; all are men! We ate with the men, slept in the same room, and survived the death of friends and comrades-in-arms together. A special friendship was established between us. A relationship that is higher than between a man and a woman”. Interview from 1/05/2001.

19 I. Zherebkina, Zhenskoe politicheskoe bessoznatel’noe, St-Petersburg, Alateia 2002, p. 104.

20 S. Ruddick, Maternal Thinking. Towards a Politics of Peace, Boston, Beacon Press, 1995.

21 E.Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, New-York, Anchor Books, 1959.

22 For example: “The Coordinating Council “Women for Karabakh” adopted a resolution on 6th December 2000 in Baku during the round table “Women say “No” to a defeatist world”. A Coordinating Council was established in November 2001 within the framework of “The Organisation for the Liberation of Karabakh”. The participants did not hide their radical attitude to the Karabakh problem, which, in their opinion, should be resolved by force. Speaking at the round table, women proposed the formation of a women’s battalion, and also demanded from the government a report on expenditure on the national army. In its statement, the Coordinating Council called upon the Azeri people to “mobilise for the sake of saving Karabakh””. Source: I.A. “Prima”, Khronika, 10/12/2001.

23 E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914., London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.

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Electronic reference

Nona Shahnazarian, A Good Soldier and a Good Mother: New Conditions and New Roles in the Nagorno-Karabakh WarThe Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 03 May 2016, connection on 15 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nona Shahnazarian

Institute of Archealogy and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences (IAE NAS), Yerevan/ Center for Independent Social Research (CISR), St. Petersburg

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