I just discovered that the UK Telegraph (a mainstream broadsheet) ran an article about the Ukrainian Asgarda movement a couple of months ago. It’s very well-written, and adds a lot of new information to what we knew before. The author, Sally Howard, actually went to Ukraine, and spent some time with the women of Asgarda, getting to know them and their aspirations. Highly recommended.
Gender relations in Ukraine are indubitably strained. Yet the existence of groups such as Femen and the Asgarda shows how far Ukrainian women have come in breaking free from the constraints of the Soviet regime, under which feminism was despised as ‘bourgeois ideology’.
Indeed, a few days spent with the happy, politicised and ambitious young women of the Asgarda made me wonder if British girls too wouldn’t benefit from such a regime. With many young British women aspiring to the Katie Price lifestyle, perhaps a movement that empowered girls to be martial artists, rather than sex objects, would be a useful antidote.
After a pathetic attempt to master a few scythe skills, I ask the Asgarda what they’d say to young women in Britain. ‘To believe in themselves,’ says Daria, ‘and that women are as strong as men.’
‘You are not just a housewife or a girlfriend or an object to look at,’ Katya adds, ‘you are a person and you can choose your own path.’
I hesitate to write yet again about this, since I have had precisely zero personal contact with anybody connected with Asgarda or the Ukrainian Boyovyi Hopak movement. However, I still get a lot of traffic about it, probably because I seem one of very few people who have made any real effort to do a bit of research (in English, anyway), rather than just copy-and-paste the original article.
So, I just want to add one more post. One of the things that really seems to exercise people’s minds is the suggestion that Asgards is an all-female movement seeking autonomy from men. In my last post about Asgarda, I pointed out that this has been pretty much debunked, and noted that I’d seen her training in a mixed group on YouTube – although at that time, the clip had been taken down. Now it seems to have been re-posted by someone else…
Now here’s the video (which uses a few clips over and over again). Ms. Tarnouska can be seen clearly at several points – and is pretty good with the double shashka!
The original English-language website for Asgarda isn’t online any more. I wonder – was this a joke that took on a life of its own? Was it a university group that didn’t survive the graduation of the original members? (Most of the women featured were undergraduates).
If Ms Tarnouska or anyone who was involved with Asgarda (or anyone who knows them) should happen to read this – get in touch! I’d love to run an interview on ‘the real Asgarda story’.
The number of visitors here has shot up over the last week; mostly they’ve come here from search engines, looking for material on Asgarda. I couldn’t understand where this interest suddenly came from, until Boing Boing (whose RSS feed I follow) ran a piece – from which I learn that a design magazine, Planet, had featured the photographs I first saw on English Russia, and then wrote about*.
For the benefit of those visitors, my understanding is that the Asgarda movement is a spin-off of a Ukrainian cultural movement that’s trying to re-discover/re-invent an old Cossack form of fighting dance, which they call “Бойовий Гопак” (“Гопак” being the purely dance version). This gives ample room for flame wars, since Cossacks occupied many parts of the old Tsarist empire, including Ukraine, Russia, and various Central Asian countries, many of which are now tying to exclusively claim them as part of their own national heritage. Furthermore, many Cossacks also lived in the Ottoman Empire, and served Istanbul, not St. Petersburg. Furthermore, as far as I can see, there was a large divide between the members of the Cossack hosts, and the ordinary Slavs living in Russia/the Ukraine/etc. In modern-day Russia, the hosts have received a lot of recognition and autonomy, and are genuine continuations of the historic Cossack culture. I have absolutely no idea what the situation is in Ukraine.
I became aware of the Cossack “fight-dance” through an interest in the Russian martial art of Systema, the Ryabko branch of which traces its roots back to the Cossacks. I also have an interest since my Siberian ex-girlfriend is a Tatar Muslim, whose ancestors would have been on the other side, perhaps…
This is demonstrated by Russian Cossacks** in this clip:
The Asgarda movement, as I said, seem to be a part of a Ukrainian movement that’s trying to develop their own version of this:
As you can see, this has both men and women training. There was another clip that clearly showed Katerina Tarnouska, Asgarda’s founder, training alongside men, but it’s been taken down now. Anyhow, the whole “women seek complete autonomy from men” angle clearly seems like something tongue-in-cheek, said to wind up a visiting journalist. One anonymous commenter (comment #42) on the Boing Boing article says:
Oh man, this is all hilarious.
Let me tell you what it is all about. Asgarda was (I am not sure if it still is functioning) just a martial arts school based on the Ukrainian own style, Hopak. Only adapted for girls. These pictures were taken by some French photographer, who was traveling around Ukraine and are just for photo session sake.
I happen to know few girls, who were studying in that martial arts school, including the one on photo here. When I told them about all that hype around Asgarda, they laughed so hard, that I thought, that I will lose them 🙂
The bottom line is do not believe everything you read. You’ll be surprised how many foolish things they try to put into your head/
…which seems to have the ring of truth to it to me!
* NB I have no connection with any of these people at all; I just know what I’ve read online, just like you.
** These guys are members of the Spetsnaz, the Russian Special Forces. Spike TV ran a statistical analysis*** of Spetsnaz vs US Green Berets, and concluded that the Spetsnaz would win. Watch the clip here.
I didn’t expect that – which reminds me that I should always be careful about what I say in my posts! That was a very spur-of-the-moment, tongue in cheek, post written while I was waiting to go to the airport, and it was slightly more flippant than it ought to have been. The dressing up as Xena does rather amuse me but, let’s face it, post-Soviet Eastern Europe isn’t famous for its enlightened attitudes to females, and if these women choose to use ‘Amazonian’ martial arts training as a tool for self-empowerment and mutual support then all power to them, I say.
The whole t-shirt of Yulia Tymoshenko thing, I dunno, is that just because she’s a symbol of a successful woman? If so, cool. If it means that they’re some kind of party-based militia? Hmmm, less cool, but I don’t get that impression.
What really amused me was another page that’s linked to from the Metafilter thread, which comes from what seems to be the official Asgarda site. Actually, that’s also not fair – most of the aims it lays out are pretty good, though I wonder about some of the claims regarding the ancient Amazons’ territory… Again… I don’t want to disparage them at all; even if I might raise my eyebrow at some of the historical assertions, they certainly wouldn’t be the first to build a supportive mythology. There’s nothing wrong with looking back into history to develop a positive national idea, and so far I haven’t seen anything to indicate that they’re nationalists of the negative kind…
Anyway, that page confirms the connection though with the “Combat Hopak” Ukrainian dance/martial art, and I’ve already expressed my doubts that that has any genuine historical roots (but… let’s not go there. That kind of discussion reminds me too much of the “Is Piper really African” flame war; it’s just not possible to win this kind of debate). No what amused me was the description of the guy behind Combat Hopak, Volodymyr Pylat, as “Supreme Teacher of Boyovyi Hopak”. Now, granted, this isn’t his site, and I have no idea if he himself uses this title. I hope not! If he does, I can only say dude, lighten up…
I enjoy reading the photostories from English Russia, and I thought I would share this one with you! Apparently “a French explorer discovered a tribe of Amazons”, living together and training martial arts in the Ukraine….. I have no idea what the real back-story of this is… Perhaps it’s better not to know. I’m not sure that there’s any good excuse for dressing up like Xena.
Ah, a bit of Googling sheds more light. These ladies belong to something called the Asgarda Movement, founded by 30-year old Katerina Tarnouska, and there are about 150 of them. More pictures and background can be found here.
It seems that they are connected with the movement to rediscover traditional Ukrainian/Cossack dance/fighting which I mentioned a couple of posts ago.