Unkissed Regiments Project Story

Unkissed Regiments CAD Installation Fall 2018 Galina Shevchenko from galinashevchenko on Vimeo.

UnkissedRegiments 2017 by Galina Shevchenko from galinashevchenko on Vimeo.

Unkissed Regiments : : Project story : : 2010-2024 : : AIC, CAD, Ice House gallery, Shiva Gallery, Lubeznik Center for the Arts

My original exploration started in 2010 with research, drawing and animation, dedicated to WWII Soviet women fighter pilots of the Unkissed Regiments. (These were the three WWII regiments comprised of all-female pilots and support staff). I researched multiple online photo archives, read biographical accounts and listened to recorded testimonies of the veterans. I based my Unkissed drawings and animations on the existing photos, trying to extract and project the quintessence of valor, beauty and sacrifice that these women’s stories had manifested.

The history of Unkissed Regiments is riveting. The name reveals the incredible sacrifice these young women underwent. Aged between 18 – 22, young, fragile and fearless, they chose heroism… Many of them died never to be kissed.

When the USSR was invaded in 1941, there was a number of young skilled female pilots in the Soviet Union. Most of them had received initial flying qualifications through free youth sports programs available across the country to young people of both genders; some graduated from the flight academies. These young women pilots were willing to participate in active combat and demanded to be enlisted.

On October 8, 1941, Stalin issued a decree # 0099 to form three all-female air-force units: 588 Night Bomber Regiment, 587 Bomber Aviation Regiment and 586 Fighter Aviation Regiment. Women that volunteered came with varied degrees of flying expertise and were distributed between the three air-force regiments. The lucky ones became pilots, the others became the support staff: mechanics and air traffic controllers.

The least experienced pilots were assigned to the 588 Night Bomber regiment. Ironically, they were the first ones to be sent to the Front. They flew Polikarpov Po-2 wood and canvas aircrafts, that were essentially outdated (1929) airplanes, used primarily for crop dusting and training purposes. However, the Po-2 easy operation, maneuvering flexibility and all-weather capacity granted them a part in Soviet air-force. They could fly low and slow and bomb with extreme precision, which also made them easy targets, when discovered by the German projectors. It was entirely demoralizing for Germans to realize that they were being shot by women operating old flying “Kaffeemühle”, (coffee mills) or “Nähmaschine” (sewing machines). Such names were given to the planes for the specific sound of their motors. Fascists nicknamed the night bomber regiments “Night Witches” and were terrified by them. 588 Night Bomber regiment pilots flew over 30,000 missions (around 800 missions per pilot). 24 of the pilots of the regiment have been awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

The 587 Guards Dive Bomber Regiment used heavy and bulky PE-2 twin engine dive bombers that needed a crew of three: pilot, bombardier and air-gunner. The regiment recruited more experienced pilots and throughout the war flew a total of 1134 combat missions over Stalingrad, Don region, Belarus and Poland and dropped over 980 tons of bombs over German military positions.

The Fighter Aviation Regiment 586th operated Yak 1 airplanes. It required pilots with the most expertise. Throughout the war the regiment provided air defense to multiple strategic locations and supported ground troops across the front lines of Russia, Ukraine, Romania and ended the war in Budapest, Hungary. Several women of the regiment joined the fight for Stalingrad and two of them: Ekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak earned the title of “fighter ace”. Lydia Litvyak, nicknamed “White Lily of Stalingrad”, holds a record of the greatest number of kills(12) by a female fighter pilot. She died in combat right before her 22nd birthday. Ekaterina Budanova died in combat when she was just 26 years old.

My Unkissed drawings, animations and embroideries are based on the archival photos of the women. The heroines’ dazzling images manifested fragility and strength, valor and super human effort, beauty and femininity.

I first exhibited my animated videos in 2010. In 2011, I live video-mixed and projected my heroines at the closing reception for the Windows on the War exhibition at the Modern Wing of Art institute of Chicago. In 2018 my project became a site-specific installation, updated with embroidered portraits of the heroines and laser-cut acrylic medals and airplanes. In 2019, the project became a part of a multi-media performance Aerograd at Ice House gallery in Evanston, IL.

My Unkissed inquiry persists within my practice as an ongoing vernacular manifestation. I honor both historical significance and iconographic transcendence these images evoke. I muse with their power of signification. I relish and indulge into their symbolic matter.

Dressed in male uniforms, working exhausting shifts, putting themselves voluntarily through unimaginable danger on a daily basis, these women have faced many deprivations, but they refused to be deprived of their femininity. They claimed their beauty, kept their long braids or curled and bleached their cut hair. The ultimate tangible measure of recognition of their combat efforts have become a medal. The highest award being the golden star of the Hero of the Soviet Union. Many of these awards have been granted posthumously.

As my project developed throughout the years, I have been updating the animations for the larger new screens. Additionally, more information has become available on the histories of the heroines. My personal and creative relationship to their story has evolved as well. The sound of the Po-2 engine that made the Germans call it Nähmaschine (flying sewing machine) has become an integral part of my digital embroidery project inspiration.

In the context of the current Russian-Ukrainian war, the new paradigms of heroism have emerged. If a traditionally acclaimed hero is assumed to possess superhuman powers, just like the WWII fragile and merciless maiden-warriors, a new heroine in Russia becomes such, while attempting to sustain her humanity.

The new reality of contemorary war has shaken the historically established definitions of heroism. What became truly heroic, is the appeal to the fundamentals of humanity. It became heroic to simply refuse to participate in the fight. Another pivotal protagonist of this current war has become a female in the supporting role: a mother or a wife of a soldier that refuses to collaborate in a “heroic” effort, refuses to sacrifice. A hero is the one who is Non-Conforming. Appeal to remain human becomes an act of new heroism. The new heroes are elusive, their identities cannot be revealed. We just know that they exist or we hope to believe that they do.