On Jan. 21, Russia’s Victory Museum, the largest military history museum in the country, launched an art exhibit honoring female fighters during World War II. The exhibition is called “Women—Heroes” and consists of 49 monochrome portraits created by Asar Safiulin, an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts.
The portraits on display at the Victory Museum focus on women recognized with the title “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
In total, 90 women received that title during World War II—most posthumously. However, despite these wartime accolades, many female combat veterans of World War II faced postwar discrimination and received no public recognition in Russia for decades afterwards. The exhibition, free to the public, demonstrates a recent trend in Russia to give women greater recognition for military bravery.
Safiulin, born in 1945, created the portraits as part of a series called “The Beautiful Regiment,” depicting women who fought for the Soviet Union during World War II. The exhibit has particular focus on the first female to be awarded the title—the 18-year-old schoolgirl-turned-partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.
Captured and executed by invading German soldiers for partisan activity in November 1941, Zoya remains hallowed for her heroism. Despite suffering brutal torture, Zoya maintained a fierce and unbreakable spirit, and could not even be induced to disclose her own name. She delivered a defiant speech shortly before being executed by hanging, urging bystanders to keep fighting. Zoya’s story captured national attention and won the admiration of Joseph Stalin. In February 1942, Zoya became the first woman in the Soviet Union to be officially recognized as a national military “Hero.”
While some have argued that her story has been mythologized, most sources agree the story of Zoya’s wartime courage and brave resistance to cruelty is based on fact. Zoya is buried in Novodevichy Cemetery and has been honored in numerous statues and monuments.
As part of its endeavor to honor female fighters, the museum will premiere a film about Zoya’s wartime heroism on Jan. 23.