Art News

Sniper Who Killed 300 Nazis Isn't the Woman Shown on Graffiti

Kyle Harris
The wheat-paste art near City Park honoring anti-fascist sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko in 2017.
The print of a smiling woman that's wheat-pasted to a traffic control box near City Park states, “300 Nazis Fell By Her Gun.” Who’s the “her” in the picture? After doing some research, I found out — at least I thought I did. Turns out I was wrong.

The words on the print offer a nod to the chorus of the Woody Guthrie song “Ms. Pavlichenko,” an ode to the Soviet Nazi killer from the Ukraine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who killed more than 300 Nazis in World War II. Guthrie's line: “300 Nazis fell by your gun.”

So the image on the print is Pavlichenko, right? Looked like it from photographs, but Westword reader Sheila Droskind, pointed out that the image on the print is actually that of another Soviet female sniper, Roza Shanina, who shot 59 Nazis by official accounts.

In the absence of the anonymous artist offering an explanation of why Shanina's image was used rather than that of Pavlichenko, the sniper the text clearly refers to, readers offered their own ideas:

The artist is the street art equivalent of a Russian troll, a wheat-paste bot spreading disinformation — some sort of high-level Pizzagater noodling with historical accuracy. I doubt that one.

Shanina made for a better model for strictly aesthetic reasons. Ditto: People who glorify killing Nazis in 2018 surely wouldn’t be rewriting history because they find one anti-fascist hotter than another.

A more interesting theory is that the artist was planting an Easter egg, an insider joke for people who know their World War II-era anti-fascist snipers. “300 Nazis Fell By Her Gun,” could be read as Shanina’s internal monologue about Pavlichenko — perhaps it's admiration for her comrade, a matter-of-fact observation, or maybe a comment sparked by the sort of envy one professional can feel toward another: “I killed 59 Nazis, but of course Lyudmila killed 241 more...."

Maybe the point was to spark the kind of historical hunt I’ve been on, researching Soviet snipers, shining light on the history of women heroes of the anti-fascist movement. Perhaps it was a comment on memory — how it warps our understanding of the past and figures fade into each other; specific lives and acts morph into a generic heroism. "Her" becomes a stand-in for all anti-fascist women snipers — perhaps even a woman who passes the traffic-control box and is inspired herself to take arms, metaphorically or literally, against the new wave of fascists.

Or maybe the artist was just confused.

Whatever the reason, the two women have something in common: In their photos, they look content and peaceful, having fought the good fight (Shanina died in combat; Pavlichenko lived until 1974).

The print is fading, torn. Much of woman's smile — Shanina's smile — hasn’t been sullied, though; it lingers, satisfied. And perhaps, somewhere out there, the artist is smiling, too, thinking of how a wheat-pasted image on a traffic-control box that at first glance could be dismissed as agitprop honoring an anti-fascist hero actually contains a puzzle, a little prank on the viewer.

More likely, the artist is I did when I discovered I’d made a mistake.