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  • Jenny Kaminer

Girls of Ice and Steel

A Russian teenage girl, in all of her heartrending vulnerability, recently grabbed the world’s attention. Kamila Valieva, Russia’s 15-year-old figure-skating phenom, finished a disappointing fourth in the women's singles competition at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Hailed as the talent of the century, Valieva’s effortless quadruple jumps; delicate artistry; and graceful, mature musicality had left commentators of many nations breathless with praise. A months-old positive doping test that surfaced in the early days of the Games, however, had reversed Valieva's seemingly unstoppable momentum. In the free skate, she stumbled. Berated by her coach as she left the ice, she clutched at her stuffed animal like a lonely little girl. Western observers decried the scene’s cruelty; didn’t her coaches realize that Valieva was just a child? How could they allow her to crumble amid the pressure, to writhe under the piercing gaze of the world, to watch as she sobbed under her black mask…and not give her a hug?

The Valieva saga prompts us to consider the place of the female teenager in the Russian cultural imagination, and how this image has confounded Western expectations in the past. A look back at twentieth-century Soviet history reveals a pantheon of steely adolescent girls who became part of the official Soviet canon of saints. Take eighteen-year-old Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, the so-called “Soviet Joan of Arc” who became the template for all other girl heroes. Active in the partisan movement during World War II, she was captured by the Nazis while burning down a stable. According to her official biography, she stoically endured hours of torture--including being marched barefoot and barely clothed through the snow--before being publicly hanged.[1] Zoia never gave up her comrades, though, becoming a girl martyr who inspired countless artistic paeans to her courage. Despite the Soviet Union’s official atheism, it drew heavily on Russian Orthodox iconography in creating its heroes for a new society. In the final frames of the 1944 film Zoia (dir. Lev Arnshtam), her face, with a tank superimposed upon it, beams from the sky like a Soviet deity. The symbolism is unmistakable: this teenage girl’s sacrifice should rouse her compatriots to fight and to win. And it did: Soviet pilots even wrote her name on their planes before flying into battle. For generations growing up in the post-war Soviet Union, Zoia and others like her were presented as role models. For the state, these young heroes neatly provided the link between the glories of the wartime past and the imagined triumphs of the future.[2] Nobly prepared to sacrifice their bodies in defense of their motherland, these were teenage girls who did not need hugs.

In my book Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture (Cornell University Press, 2022), I trace the endurance of Soviet myths of adolescence into contemporary Russian culture. My research reveals that the Soviet girl martyr, as emblematized by Zoia, has enjoyed a long afterlife. At the same time, however, some artists are attempting to reinvigorate the Soviet model for a new era. For example, Svetlana Vasilenko’s 1998 novella Little Fool introduces a different type of adolescent savior: a deaf-mute 13-year-old girl who saves the world from nuclear catastrophe not by fighting and dying like Zoia did, but by ascending into the sky and giving birth to the sun.[3] Physically vulnerable and socially marginalized throughout most of the work, her ultimate triumph in its concluding pages points to the possibility of a new kind of heroic adolescence, one that leaves violence and militarization in the past.

The Russian state, on the other hand, works assiduously to maintain the militarization of its youth. In October 2015, President Putin ordered the establishment of the Youth Army, where children and adolescents between the ages of 8 and 18 learn how to assemble a weapon quickly, shoot more accurately, and test their physical endurance. In short, the Youth Army prepares children for war. Since its debut, over 1 million young Russians have joined its ranks. Culture has also been enlisted to play a key role in imbuing the younger generation with military values.

In April 2019 Russian state television launched a new internet channel targeting youth, Victory, which broadcasts World War II-themed movies and shows 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Konstantin Ernst, the director of Russian state television’s Channel One, emphasized Victory’s ability to forge intergenerational links, to allow the “passing of the baton” from those who lived through World War II to young Russians.[4] Wartime ideals, such as heroism and sacrifice, are reinserted into civilian life through the medium of the internet. And Zoia’s ghost lives on.

The post-Soviet Russian state still clearly needs young heroes. It needs them to be prepared for battle, and it needs them on the ice. Women’s figure skating, after all, constitutes a key element of Russia’s “soft power.”[5] As the Valieva doping scandal unfolded, observers debated whether this teenage girl was a “victim” or a “villain.”[6] Could she assume any responsibility for the illicit substances that had entered her body? Or was she the passive object of a system designed to produce victors at all costs? Even to sacrifice its children? As a brief look back to the Soviet period reveals, the steely Russian teenage girl martyr who was prepared to make that sacrifice was nothing new. But Valieva did not channel Zoia’s ghost; she is just a girl, not a myth. The ice melted. This teenager’s saga cast a pallor over the Winter Games. With Russia excluded from international sport for the foreseeable future as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, Kamila Valieva may be the last Russian girl of ice to elicit our collective sympathy for a very long time.


[1] Adrienne Harris, “The Lives and Deaths of a Soviet Saint in the Post-Soviet Period: The Case of Zoia Kosmodem'ianskaia,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 53 (2011): 273-304.

[2] Juliane Fuerst, Stalin's Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 142.

[3] Svetlana Vasilenko, Little Fool, trans. by Elena V. Prokhorova, in Shamara and Other Stories, ed. Helena Goscilo (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000), 123-245.

[4] kanal_tsifrovogo_telesemeystva_pervogo.

[5] Andrey Volkov, “Ladies Figure Skating as an Element of Russian Soft Power in the International Arena,” Journal of Political Science and International Relations 4.1 (2021): 1-7.


Jenny Kaminer

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenny Kaminer is Associate Professor of Russian at the University of California, Davis. Her latest book Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture (Cornell University Press, 2022) is the first comprehensive study in English devoted to cultural representations of adolescence in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. She also authored Women with a Thirst for Destruction: The Bad Mother in Russian Culture (Northwestern UP, 2014), which received the Heldt Prize for Best Book in Slavic/East European Gender Studies. She is currently the Chair of the Department of German and Russian and Director of the Humanities Program at the University of California-Davis.


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