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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miss Army Contest Seeks Beauty and Bravery

MTLarisa Pogosova taking aim at a shooting range at the elite Tamanskaya division on Wednesday during the marksmanship section of the "Beauty in Epaulets" contest.
KALININETS, Moscow Region -- Holding a leopard skin bag in one hand, with her long blond hair cascading down her shoulders, Alla Terentyeva waited in full uniform by the T-80 tank.

Around her, soldiers in the elite Tamanskaya division gallantly offered hands to help the Space Forces sergeant, with her fondness for blue eye shadow, up onto the tank.

It was an odd day at the army base outside Moscow as 16 of the supposedly brightest and prettiest of the armed forces took part in "Krasavitsa v Pogonakh" or "Beauty in Epaulets," a beauty competition that aims to attract more women to the Russian army.

While some were heavily made up, showing off shoulder-length dyed hair and tottering on heels so sharp they could be classified as secret weapons, the majority smartly wore their unit's uniform of paratrooper, intelligence or Space Forces with freshly polished army boots you could see your reflection in.

The odd mix of femininity and soldiering was reflected in the competition and the patronizing attitude of every male soldier around.

Still, most of the contestants seemed to accept the situation.

The Russian army has one of the highest numbers of women soldiers in the world, according to Sergei Rykov, a professor at a military university who wrote his dissertation on women in the Russian military. Eight percent of the army is female, a figure only beaten by the United States and Israel, but the majority of Russian female soldiers are employed in logistics far away from the firing line.

As of last year women accounted for 100,000 of the 1.1 million in the armed forces. More than 3,500 of those were officers, including more than 150 colonels and 500 majors. Most of the officers served in medical units, with signal corps and financial sections in second and third place. Eight hundred of the women soldiers have taken part in combat, with 200 decorated for their bravery in Russia's first war in Chechnya.

While the 16 female soldiers Wednesday grabbed their Makarov pistols for shooting targets from 25 meters, the need for ballroom dresses loomed in the back of their minds as the next part would focus more on the woman than the soldier. Apart from their shooting skills, the women will be tested on their singing, ballroom dancing and cooking skills.

"Something like a salad," said one organizer when asked what they will be asked to cook.

The competition will continue in the Russian army theater on Thursday and Friday.

Before the shooting competition, the contestants were shown around the base's museum and allowed to clamber on tanks to pose for photographs, a rare instance for them as the Russian army does not let women drive tanks.

Vladimir Filonov / MT

Miss Army contestants being helped off of a tank after posing for photographers.

Soldiers of the Tamanskya division put on a show Wednesday at their shooting range, throwing grenades as they shot their way across a range dotted with ruined buildings. As the orange and black smoke cleared from the range, the contestants lined up excitedly for a go, even if some of them had trouble holding the automatic rifles the right way.

When asked by a reporter what a woman's role in the army was, Larisa Pogosova said, "To decorate it."

Her official job is with an elite army intelligence unit based somewhere in the North Caucasus.

Although the women seemed happy to accept the sweet words on beauty and their feminine side that rained down from army officers, for the majority of them, the job is a career and they would like the chance to do more.

"By law you can do anything, but in reality it is different," said one, as she watched the division throw smoke bombs, "Our army is not ready for us to serve on the same level."

Tatyana Larina, the namesake of Pushkin's heroine in Yevgeny Onegin, a fresh-faced 22-year-old who works in the Signals Corp in Moscow and came second in the shooting competition, said she would love to do more in the army.

Although the ministry's stated aim is to attract women to an army that is steadily losing male recruits, few of those at the division seemed to be keen on expanding a woman's role.

"It's not women's work," said Vladimir, a soldier who had just taken part in the demonstration. Other soldiers made fun of the way the women ran with the automatic rifles.

"Woman are a decoration," said Vitaly Gusak, spokesman for the Moscow Military District.

When asked about the number of women in the U.S. Army, he swiftly responded "Perhaps there aren't enough men there."

Unreconstructed males in the Russian army can hardly be classified as a surprise to anyone, but the prize for comment of the day went to captain Yury Nuzhdin of the Tamanskaya division.

After reading out the results of the shooting contest, Nuzhdin handed out the prize, a small, white pennant, saying "Take this pennant and hang it in the kitchen so that the food for your husband will be very tasty."