Double agents in Kyiv
Early last May, at a Moscow exhibition of art related to the Second World War, I lingered in front of a 1942 painting called Tania (The Feat of Zoia Kosmodemianskaia), by the Kukryniksy group. The style was standard-issue socialist realism, but the subject caught my attention. A boyish young woman stood on a scaffold in a snowy village, looking defiantly at the soldiers who were about to hang her. Russian women in kerchiefs stood with their heads bowed. In front of the scaffold were three Germans snapping pictures: fascist paparazzi.
Zoia Kosmodemianskaia was a real person, more or less: the Soviet Union’s most famous World War II martyr. According to her official biography, she was recruited by the Komsomol and in 1941, at age 18, worked as a scout behind enemy lines in the Moscow region under the code name Tania. She was captured while burning down a stable in a village, supposedly in an effort to undermine the German war effort. Though she was tortured and forced to march barefoot in the snow for hours, she did not betray her comrades, and made a heroic speech to the villagers who gathered to watch her execution. Her body was left dangling for a month; on New Year’s Eve, drunk Nazis stabbed her corpse with bayonets and cut off her left breast. A photographer snapped her picture just after she was cut down. In it, the noose is still around her neck and her short black hair snakes out onto the snow. Although her open shirt shows her mutilated breast, her eyes are closed and there is a serene smile on her perfect young face. A Soviet saint was born.