War and conflict seem to bring with them a plethora of tales and mysteries that often become sort of lost or distorted with time. In the confusion and death it can be hard to keep track of what sorts of enigmatic tales are the ramblings of minds under extreme duress, which are perhaps more embedded in reality, and which are a complex mixture of both. One extremely persistent tale in Russia of the battlefield is that of a highly trained and lethal band of female snipers said to be as beautiful as they are deadly, a skilled squad of vixens which roam the rubble of war and bring death to all those who land within their scopes. It’s almost like something out of some James Bond movie or action film, but to those who were plagued by this elite cadre of deadly beauty they were all too real indeed.
Starting amidst the Soviet war in Afghanistan, rumors became persistent of well trained female snipers picking off hapless men and disappearing into the rugged terrain without a trace. During the fierce fighting during the Chechen Campaign between 1994 to 1996, similar rumors continued, as curious stories began to emerge from the battlefield. Russian soldiers told of being targeted by a mysterious cabal of female snipers which was said to be comprised solely of stunningly attractive blonde haired, blue eyed women described as being around 6 feet tall and dressed in form fitting white outfits and white tights, a detail which led to them being known as the beliye kolgotky, or literally “white stockings.” Many of the reports went so far as to describe the snipers as going about their dark business fully decked out in glamorous make-up. This sinister unit of deadly beauties were said to prey on Russian troops, demonstrating extremely skilled marksmanship and typically only wounding grunts but killing officers or specialists with a brutal and disturbing shot to the groin. It was also reported that troops would often actually receive taunting radio transmissions from the elusive assassins toying with them and warning that they were on the way, often emphasizing the fact that the officers would be shot in the groin for added terror.
As the legend grew amongst the terrified men of these shadowy female snipers, their background became more fully fleshed out. They were said to have been hired by the rebels as mercenary contract killers mostly from various Baltic states but also from Ukraine and Russia, and that their ranks had been hand picked from biathlon teams and further trained in the art of stealthy death. It was said that these snipers were hired on a per-kill basis, in some accounts for around $2,000 per confirmed kill, and that their superiors had requested that they not only bring back the heads of their prey but also that they specifically aim for the groin of officers. These stories spread throughout the ranks and it got to the point where the White Tights were one of the most feared forces on the battlefield during the fighting in Chechnya.
Although a shadowy group of beautiful Amazonian goddesses stalking the battlefield to mercilessly shoot down soldiers for money seems like something out of a spy movie, the tales were extremely pervasive among the Russian troops and continued on into further conflicts. During fighting in the late 1990s the newspaper Sevodnya reported that not only were the white tights active in fighting with Chechen rebels in Dagestan, but that two had been killed and one captured. The report described how the captured female sniper had been attempting to make her escape in the north Caucasus by posing as a refugee holding a baby. According to the article, Russian soldiers became suspicious of the woman when it became clear that the child was not hers when she spoke to it in a “non-motherly way,” and that she was subsequently apprehended and put in detention, although it is not clear what then became of her. The article mentions no names and is generally quite vague, but it does state that the three attractive women were known to be biathlon competitors trained in marksmanship, reinforcing the notorious legend of the White Tights.
The tales of deadly all-female sniper squads persisted up into the 2008 South Ossetia war, which was an armed conflict between Georgia, Russia, and the Russian backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. During this 6 day conflict, it was reported that female snipers were actively targeting Russian forces and were said to be hired by the Georgians. At the time, a spokesman for the Latvian Ministry of Defense commented that “We had thought that the ghost of the ‘White Tights’ had died in the Russian press, but now we see that it still roams Russia.” All the way up to 2014 it seems that the Russians have been haunted by the White Tights. It was reported that during the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis, during the Siege of Sloviansk, pro-Russian forces were fired upon by snipers who could be heard to be women speaking in a Baltic language.
The question of whether the White Tights ever really existed or not has an answer largey dependent on who you ask. Many soldiers on the battlefield adamantly assert that the squad of sniper bombshells is very real, and indeed the chief spokesman of the Kremlin during the early phase of the Second Chechen War, Sergey Yastrzhembsky, publicly claimed to The Economist in 2000 that their existence had been confirmed by GRU military intelligence, who he further added “don’t make mistakes.” Others have condemned the whole phenomena of a deadly team of fatal beauties as merely an urban legend. Alexander Tikhonov, the head of the Russian Biathlon Federation, claimed that the whole tale was “absurdity and complete nonsense,” and pointed out that the training undertaken by marksmen for biathlon training is very different from that of snipers. Journalists covering the Chechen conflicts have also voiced suspicion, saying that no concrete evidence of the elusive White Tights has ever turned up despite efforts to actively investigate the phenomenon. One radio reporter by the name of Andrei Babitski, who spent 2 years in Chechnya reporting from the front lines, said of the stories “It’s nonsense. I’ve never seen anything of the kind.” A military correspondent for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta said that it was all a myth conjured up by sexually repressed soldiers in stressful conditions, saying “It’s a sexual legend. It moves from war to war. Look, soldiers love to get together and talk about beautiful, tall women, blonde, long-legged.” Others have said that the White Tights are pure myth and military folklore, real only as a military campaign of misinformation and propaganda.
Regardless of whether there ever really was a team of beautiful blonde women in tight white outfits terrorizing troops, the tales at the very least most likely have their roots in some kernel of truth. The use of women as snipers is certainly not new, and the Russians were falling victim to such forces long before the fighting in Chechnya. As far back as the Russian civil war of 1918-1920, female snipers from Latvia were engaging in combat slaughtering Russian soldiers, and in the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939 they were deployed to great effect against the Russians by the Finnish military. Indeed in many senses women were seen as the ultimate assassins, as they were believed at the time to be superbly patient, calculating, and could more easily infiltrate enemy territory without arousing suspicion than their male counterparts.
The efficiency and deadliness of female snipers was not lost on the Russians, and during World War II, in the face of a shortage of men after suffering catastrophic losses, they too began to train their own. The Russians would end up deploying around 2000 female snipers into the cold expanses of the 1000-mile long Eastern Front, who made their way across the desolate landscape picking off any targets that presented themselves and generally sowing chaos. The results were some of the most successful, heroic, and indeed terrifying snipers in military history. One 24 year old sharpshooter by the name of Ludmila Mihaylovna Pavlichenko found herself joining the war and racking up 309 confirmed kills of Axis soldiers, 36 of those other enemy snipers, over a mere 14 month period. She was such an incredibly prolific dealer of death that she was subsequently put in charge of training other female snipers. Another sniper by the name of Tatiana Ignatovna Kostyrina had 125 confirmed kills at the tender age of 19 and in 1943 found herself in command of an entire infantry battalion when most of the officers had been killed. There was even a 100 strong all-female company of snipers led by a Captain Nina Alexeyevna Lobkovskaya who were active in the Battle of Berlin. By the end of the war, Russian female snipers would make over 12,000 kills against enemy forces.
While the success of sniper women during World War II is impressive, these were still snipers dressed in the typical amoeba pattern sniper smocks commonly used at the time, were probably smeared with mud or dirt, and were certainly not all blonde supermodels with their hair impeccably done and dolled up in white tights and make-up. So how did the White Tights come to be, and are they a mere military urban legend or is there something more to them? Boris Kagarlitsky, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Comparative Politics believes that the myth of the White Tights was conjured up from the desire to sow hate and fuel gender, racial, and ethnic prejudices. He said:
In a war you need to form a hate image of the enemy, and the image of the beliye kolgotki in the Chechen conflict serves very useful military propaganda purposes. Here, you have the merging of two powerful images of perceived evil. One is the image of the witch, a very powerful symbol in Russian culture. In this case, a blond-haired, blue-eyed sniper with an almost fascist appearance. On the other hand you have the stereotype of the evil, dark-skinned Moslem. This makes the perfect hate image to feed to the public.
So was the infamous female sniper squad a mere psychological tool of hate to throw into the already highly volatile tensions brewing in the region? Or is there perhaps something else at work? Is there perhaps a human tendency to produce such stories in the face of death and war? A Russian professor of psychology named Vladimir N. Druzhinin had some observations on the nature of man under these conditions, stating:
Any war at any time has similar kinds of myths, about some secret mighty weapon, some super secret detachments, super spies — in short, about something secret which would decide the outcome.
Was this killer corps of lethal feminine beauty ever real or is this all a case of potent imagery and battlefield myth? Why is this mostly a phenomenon encountered by Russian troops? Is there some cultural background at work here? Considering the vast gulf between opinions on the matter of the White Tights and the complicated mix of history, legend, perceptions, stereotypes, and fear that have come together in this case, it is uncertain of just how much weight to lend the stories in their literal sense. It seems that the effective historical use of female snipers lends some credence to the legends, but there are probably several factors at play in the phenomenon. Regardless of the ultimate answers, it is apparent that the legend of the White Tights is firmly entrenched in Russian military lore, and it is no doubt only a matter of time before they prowl the battlefield once more.