When Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015, the reports noted that English translations of her work were ‘sparse.’ Happily for readers in English, that has now been addressed. I decided to start with her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, with translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It was published in 1985 after glasnost helped persuade reluctant publishers that an oral history of women’s day to day lives would not detract from the more heroic, ‘manly’ accounts of the battle against fascism. Also, who wouldn’t want to learn more about the brave women of the Red Army who destroyed fascism?
The Unwomanly Face of War is much more than that though. Alexievich doesn’t only speak to the famed snipers and front-line fighters. She listens to the experiences of medics, gunners, engineers, cooks, pilots, telephone operators, drivers, mechanics, radio operators, partisans behind enemy lines, those who washed the uniforms, those in construction battalions, logistics, everyone. She hears them start their stories reluctantly, many times saying that they are not giving the correct level of historical details – places, dates and so on – that the men would. Alexievich notes in her introduction that for her as a child in Belarus, the war was all around: in stories, as children played at Germans and Russians, through parades and remembrances – and often those stories would be told by women.
Women’s stories are different and about different things. “Women’s” war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things. And it is not only they (people!) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees. All that lives on earth with us. They suffer without words, which is still more frightening.
But why? I asked myself more than once. Why, having stood up for and held their place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…
The interviews are bookended by such notes from the author, many of them taken from her journals at the time she was recording the interviews. They allow us to hear her reflections on the work and what she wants to achieve by gathering the accounts together. And the notes also give the reader a chance to breathe and reflect in the midst of many moving and incredibly harrowing recollections. The censor told her: ‘You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.’ That was far from the response at the time. The women who had fought came home and were told to keep quiet about their war. No one would touch them, and even their younger sisters would remain unmarried, if people knew they had been at the front for years with the men.
More than once a reminiscence begins with a remembered girlhood, of studying and home life, interrupted by the German invasion. More than once they tell of the certainty of their resolve to defend their country and replace the soldiers who had been lost in the initial Nazi attack. They argue with families and village heads to let them go. They lie about their ages and argue with military commanders who want to keep them away from the front lines. They argue with instructors who tell them women can’t be snipers. They win and are allowed to get on with driving out the Nazis, but first they have to battle their own side.
That internal battle had, of course, been raging for years before 1941. A girl whose parents were ‘enemies of the people,’ is wounded and weeps, ‘Now everybody will trust me.’ Another first learns of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine, from a girl in her unit and tells her that Stalin will overcome the ‘saboteurs’ that the official line claimed were responsible before hearing the truth. Yet another with a beloved uncle in the gulag hears from her mother that she should go and defend the homeland and they will sort it out later. Some of the girls had been raised by heroes of the Civil War, Bolsheviks since the early days, and knew that Nazism was a threat to be countered without delay. Some tell of their faith in Stalin and Communism sustaining them, mentioning that people now must think them naïve, while others state that they didn’t fight for Stalin as much as they did for the people and yet others remain steadfast in that faith.
This isn’t junk and ashes. This is our life.
There is a proposal by the Reichstag (could there be a more romantic site?) but she berates him, ‘Begin by making me a woman: give me flowers, court me, say beautiful words.’ The reminiscences pause as they wonder about how to find a woman’s place in the war. How to stay in touch with your own concept of being a woman while remaining a warrior? ‘You looked for any pretext to pick up a needle, to mend something, to take back your natural image for at least a time.’ They sing softly to themselves on sentry duty, curl their remaining hair with dry pinecones and stash away earrings to sleep in at night.
The women recall the ‘small details,’ like the sound of the wheat rustling in between bursts of enemy machine guns, ‘And you think: will you ever hear again how the wheat rustles?’
I would accept to stand there [on duty] all night till dawn, just to hear the birds sing. Only at night was there something reminiscent of the former life. Peaceful.
For all that they claim not to be covering the ‘important’ information of dates and places, I learned a great deal and realised how much of the Great Patriotic War is still not common knowledge in the West, ignored perhaps due to the change of allegiances in the Cold War. The country’s vastness staggers the reader, as Siberian women volunteers take two months to reach the front. The partisan war in the German-occupied territories of Belarus and Ukraine was especially brutal, the atrocities committed not as widely known as they should be. The families of partisans particularly suffered. ‘For one German killed they used to burn an entire village.’
A partisan fighter:
I’m sorry for those who will read this book, and for those who won’t…
Alexievich’s work is a truly unique portrait of a time and place that had remained undiscovered for too long. I cannot recall another account of the war that puts the reader so firmly in the place of the people who fought and brings to life not only their actions but their thoughts, concerns, their desire to live and to see the Victory as The Unwomanly Face of War does. They come across as both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time, young girls like you or I are or were, who came together to perform superhuman tasks and drive a great evil out of their land – if not completely out of the world. We may need to call on such courage again.
In Alexievich’s words:
However much I love to look at the sky or the sea, still I’m more fascinated by a grain of sand under a microscope. The world in a single drop. The great and incredible life I discover in it. How can I call the small small and the great great, when both are so boundless? I’ve long ceased to distinguish between them. For me one human being is so much. There is everything in him – you can get lost.
Author image by Elke Wetzig
Members of the Sydir Kovpak partisan detachment – Image of pre-1954 image, unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons