From florist to sniper, Veselina Cherdantseva shares her perspective on Cossack patriotism and the role feminism doesn’t play
I used to think of Cossacks exclusively as the long-bearded, manly defenders of Russia. After attending a Cossack gathering myself in St Petersburg, one attendee challenged my preconceived notions of the group. Among the sea of brawny vigilantes in military suits, the only female in this crowd immediately caught my attention. An athletic, dark-haired woman was sitting at ease while exchanging rough jokes with her fellow Cossacks. Veselina Cherdantseva, 28, is a sniper and military instructor and in more ways than one, an exception to the rule.
She stands out and against the traditional gender roles of the Cossack organisation where men are warriors and protectors of the community while women are expected to raise kids and take care of the household. Veselina works in the “Training centre for special purposes 118” (118-j otdel’nyj uchebnyj centr special’nogo naznachenija) – an educational institution cooperating with the military in training recruits. Courses are also open to civilians willing to learn how to handle weapons in order to become worthy defenders of the Motherland. Veselina teaches all disciplines connected with sniping: camouflage, precise shooting and ballistics.
Born to be a Cossack
Veselina grew up in a small town of the Irkutsk Oblast. She had always dreamt of becoming a soldier since her early childhood. Her source of inspiration was her father, who served in the Russian army for most of his life. “He was my idol. I always wanted to wear the straps, the uniform, I thought it looked great,” she says.
Accordingly to the Cossack tradition, her education was based on values such as militarism, patriotism and attachment to the Motherland. She loved watching old Russian movies of the times of the Great Patriotic War where where women proved their values on the frontlines.
In 2011, Veselina moved to St Petersburg where she worked as a florist for a few years. The job was a start, but flower arrangements never excited her as much as maneuvering a weapon. Her favourite hobbies were going to the shooting range and training in knife fighting. She was attracted by the romantic charm surrounding the figure of the sniper. She claims women are more suitable for sniping because of their psychophysical characteristics: “[Women] have more stamina and patience. Our way of breathing is different, which also influences the way of shooting. Women are more insidious and diligent.”
Patriot, not a feminist
Veselina never enlisted in the regular Russian army where she claims that women are rarely given the chance to become snipers. She acknowledges the strong presence of sexism in the military where certain roles are monopolised by men, but is optimistic about the general trends: “In recent years, I think the situation has improved, there is more gender equality. I think it’s because girls have been proving their skills.”
When asked if she considers herself a feminist Veselina doesn’t hesitate in answering: “In our country at least, feminists cross the line and humiliate poor men … I am not a feminist since I very much respect men, I love men … I agree with equality but I still think the man has to lead. In a traditional family he has to be the responsible one, the one taking decisions.”
When the civil war in Ukraine broke out in 2014, Veselina couldn’t resist the call to arms: led by patriotic feelings, she joined the ranks of the pro-Russian separatists. “Russia was supporting the rebels. If my country takes a side, it means that as a conscious citizen I also have to support the same side.”
After she arrived in Donetsk, Veselina joined the unit led by commander Besler. In August 2014, she was injured in battle and sent back to Russia. That was not enough to dissuade her from coming back to Donbass a few months later where she was promoted to the rank of unit commander.
During the time on the front, she earned the respect of her male comrades who used to call her Vasya, a short name for boys. “They considered me as one of them … They would call me commander. From time to time they would also treat me like a girl, but in a good way, like giving me flowers or cheering me up with sweets.”
In civil life, Veselina isn’t all military boots. She likes to dress up and post pictures of herself on social networks. This surprises those who got to know her on the frontlines. She tells me that the comments on these kind of pictures are often surprise: ‘What happened to our Vasya?? Who is this chick?’
The cruel reality of the profession
Veselina has been fighting alongside people that have been labelled by Ukrainian media as “terrorists” and “war criminals”. She considers such definitions to be completely inaccurate and believes that “treating the enemy with cruelty” doesn’t make you a war criminal.
Veselina doesn’t take any prisoners, nor she believes enemies should be spared in case of surrender. “What for?” she says. “They will come back and shoot at you again. At war, the human side should be put aside since you are responsible for people that are next to you and not for those who are against you.”
The last time she was in the Donbass was in March 2016. She doesn’t plan to go back there again since, like many other volunteers, she feels disappointed by the current political situation in Donbass.
By proving her value on the battlefield, Veselina gained the respect and admiration of her fellow Cossacks. She is always invited to Cossacks’ official gatherings, despite traditions forbidding women to take part in them. During the last meeting, she was sitting in the back of the room when the Cossack leader came over and told her: “Why are you sitting here? Come sit in the front! You are a VIP for us!”
Veselina has no regrets about the choices she took so far. She doesn’t feel the need to have a family since her current priority is her career as a military instructor. “If I was tied to a kid, I wouldn’t feel free to go training in the shooting range and I would feel unhappy.”
However, she discourages other women to follow her same path. “A lot of girls write to me in the internet asking me to teach them: they want to become snipers as well. I try to dissuade them since I know this is tough stuff and once you realise this dream, you can’t live in another way anymore. An 18-year-old girl might dream of becoming a sniper … She will eventually experience the maternal instinct and the desire to get married but at that point there is no way back.”