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Modern Greek Heroines Are a Model for Ukraine’s Women

September 5, 2022
By Dorie Klissas

Greek history is rich with strong women who bravely confronted foreign enemies, willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives for their country’s freedom. They are an inspiration for the women of Ukraine who have taken up arms, assembled resistance groups, are serving combat duty, and are even leading troops into battle as commanders. Female fighters make up 15 percent of Ukraine’s army. Tanya Kobzar, inspired by her grandmother, a medic in World War II, is among the thousands of Ukrainian women who enlisted. Learning to fire a weapon, she told NPR, was “easier than making borscht!” The women of Ukraine are also rescuing their children and the elderly, and defending the nation’s most vulnerable. Maryna Hanitska, the director of a special needs home in Borodyanka, protected the residents while Russian soldiers pointed guns in her face. Even under the threat of death, Hanitska was able to use her hidden mobile phone to send information to the Ukrainian military.

Such bravery and defiance are characteristic of several remarkable women in modern Greek history, including perhaps the best-known woman warrior of the Greek Revolution, Laskarina Bouboulina (1771-1825). In 1819, she was among the few women to join the Filiki Eteria  (Society of Friends) which sought to achieve Greek Independence from the Ottoman empire. Bouboulina was widowed twice, with both husbands leaving her a large fortune. She built ships and armed her crew at her own expense.

As a naval commander, she led a brigade of Spetsiot ships, including the Agamemnon, the first warship in modern Greece which was armed with 18 cannons that were fired at the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence on March 13, 1821.

She had seven children, with her eldest, Yiannis, commanding the Agamenon but later dying in battle in Argos. She is known to have personally executed three Ottoman prisoners during her son’s funeral ceremony.

Her ships contributed to various campaigns, most notably the Siege of Nafplion, which led the Turks to surrender on November 30, 1822, and the subsequent creation of an independent Greek state. She was the first woman to attain the rank of admiral in the Greek Navy.

She fought alongside Greek men and was considered an equal to other Greek generals when planning strategy. When building her warship, she bribed Turkish officials, so that the papers said it was a trade ship rather than a larger warship. Her story was made into a film in 1959, Bouboulina, and her statue now stands in the main square of Spetses.

An inspiration for the independence fighters was the brave stand of the women of Souli in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece during the resistance to Ottoman Rule just prior to the War of Independence. Rather than submit to the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the women of Souli jumped to their deaths off the cliffs of Zalongo in 1803. The Greek people of Souli had been living freely in the mountains in a remote area, successfully resisting Ottoman rule. Determined to capture this center of resistance, Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha and his troops built fortifications around the area, shutting off Souli from supplies and provisions. The people of Souli fled the area, but dozens of women remained and were then encircled at Zalongo. Tradition holds they danced and sang, one after another, and threw their children and themselves off a steep cliff, committing suicide. The folk song ‘The Dance of Zalongo’ commemorates the event, with the lyrics, “The fish cannot live on the land, nor the flower on the sand. And the women of Souli cannot live without freedom.”

The 2019 independent film Cliffs of Freedom opens with a rendition of this historical scene, with the main character, Anna Christina as a young girl, witnessing the bravery of her aunt who falls to her death off a steep cliff rather than submitting to Turkish subjugation.  Anna is spared by Tariq, a Turk played by Jan Uddin, who sees her but doesn’t alert the Turkish soldiers as she hides on the mountain. As a 20-year-old, Anna Christina becomes a symbol of the Greek resistance movement. By swearing revenge against the Turks, she inspires her fellow citizens to rise up against the brutal rule of the Ottomans.

During the Greek-Italian occupation of Greece in the 1940s, another seemingly ordinary person who crossed into the heroic sphere was Lela Karagianni (1898-1944), a wife and mother of seven children who founded the Bouboulina Resistance Group, named after Laskarina Bouboulina. Karagianni used her husband’s drugstore and perfume shop and their house as a hideout for Allied soldiers fleeing to the Middle East, as well as a place to feed starving children in Athens.

The Bouboulina Resistance Group established an effective intelligence network and engaged in sabotage acts against the Germans. Karagiannis’ seven children helped too, risking their lives. When arrests began in June 1944, she was warned to go into hiding but refused. Karagiannis was arrested in 1944 together with five of her children. She was interrogated and tortured but refused to turn in the other members of the organization. On September 8, 1944, only a few weeks before the German army evacuated Athens, she was executed, as a part of the last major execution of Greek patriots. During her final moments, the ‘Bouboulina of the Occupation’ was supposed to have sung the national hymn of Greece and danced the Zalongo dance. Her name has been given to a street in central Athens – Lelas Karagianni Street –and her bust is on Tositsas Street near Omonia Square in Athens.

The film Lela Karagiannis, the Fragrance of a Heroine, includes a poignant interview with Giorgos Karagianni, the heroine’s son, himself a heroic resistance fighter. Writer and director Vassilis Loules captures the struggle of the woman who rose above her own family’s difficulties of wartime survival to establish a resistance group, and of her son who was meeting his mother in secret for the needs of the struggle.

These are just a few of the strong Greek women throughout modern history who fought valiantly and gave their lives for their country. The women of Ukraine are proving that they too are worthy of the title, ‘heroine’.


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