MOSCOW -- If you're a Russian soldier in the midst of a brutal, confusing, muddy war, your fantasy looks like this: She's blonde, 6 feet tall, probably comes from one of the small Baltic countries, generally wears makeup, and always -- always -- wears white tights. And she's pointing a sniper's rifle right at you.
It's an image guaranteed to send a shiver up the spine of any raw recruit.
The legendary Baltic woman sniper has reappeared on the field of battle, with a report out of Dagestan on the front page of the newspaper Sevodnya over the weekend providing the "shocking details."
This is at least the fourth war within the former Soviet Union in which troops have spread stories about pitiless women -- always fighting for the other side -- taking aim with powerful weapons.
Sevodnya said that three women snipers had been detected in recent fighting in Dagestan. Two were killed, and in one of those little imperfections that make the story seem more real, one was found to be not from the Baltics but a Ukrainian. The third was caught by troops carrying someone else's baby, trying to pass herself off as a refugee. The newspaper said the soldiers became suspicious when they overheard her talking to the baby in a non-motherly way.
She's somewhere in detention, the newspaper wrote.
The article said it appeared that the women were former biathlon competitors, trained for years in marksmanship. They are said to be strictly mercenaries, paid per kill.
"It's nonsense," said Andrei Babitski, a radio reporter who has spent two years in Chechnya. "I've never seen anything of the kind."
"It is just absurdity and nonsense," said Alexander Tikhonov, president of the Russian Biathlon Federation, after checking with his counterparts in the three Baltic countries.
"It's a sexual legend," said Igor Rotar, military correspondent for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "It moves from war to war. Look, soldiers love to get together and talk about beautiful, tall women, blonde, long-legged."
The only twist is that these beauties are killers. But the story never lacks for believers.
Viktor Baranets, former press spokesman for the defense ministry, said yesterday that according to what he has heard, snipers are paid as much as $2,000 if they kill an officer or specialist. Previously, he said, they had to provide the head of the dead soldier to collect the fee, but gun-mounted cameras have made that unnecessary.
And Baranets reported one more tidbit: At the express request of the Chechen rebels who hired them, the women shoot specifically at men's genitals.
Russians reported tales of Baltic snipers in the Chechen war of 1994-1996 and in earlier fighting in Tajikistan. Armenians felt their sting in the war against Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.
The legend appears to have its roots in the Russian civil war of 1918-1920, when Latvian women really did take part as snipers. But why fantasize about an insidiously deadly enemy when the Chechens themselves are already frighteningly effective fighters?
"Any war at any time has similar kinds of myths, about some secret mighty weapon, some super secret detachments, super spies -- in short, about something secret which would decide the outcome," said Vladimir N. Druzhinin, a professor of psychology here. Such a myth could also help explain why your own side wasn't sweeping to victory.
Anatol Lieven, a British journalist who wrote a book on the Chechen war, said that female snipers had entered army mythology as "witches casting spells on the troops."
On top of that, the idea of tall blonde women, perfectly made up and even dressed in white, contrasts sharply with the grubby reality of war in the Caucasus.
There's probably more than a hint of ethnic stereotyping: For soldiers who find themselves in the Caucasus, where people are darker-skinned and notoriously hot-blooded, nothing could be more striking than a northern beauty with ice water in her veins, patiently setting up the right shot.
Why, it's only natural, said the Sevodnya article. "Women can endure discomfort better than men, and they have the ability to wait -- the essence of a sniper's job."