#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War

Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War (transl. Pevear & Volokhonsky)

This oral history of Soviet women’s experience of WW2 was compiled with sensitivity, patience and emotion by Svetlana Alexievich in the 1980s, updated in 2000 and has finally been translated into English by that indefatigable duo that is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

And what a surprising, moving and often shocking story it is! It provides an alternative view of war, from the point of view of women on the front line, as well as the lesser known point of view (in the Western world) of the terrible human cost of war amongst the Soviet army. It is an unforgettable virtuoso piece of storytelling and it left me in goosebumps, although I’d heard a few (much milder) stories from my own grandmothers.

Author picture from The Independent.

Alexievich explains her mission in the foreword (and it was revolutionary back then, in the days before perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet empire): history is ‘in the street, in the crowd, in each of us there is a small piece of history’. She wants to give voice to those who have been ignored, forgotten, whitewashed out of history, who have been silenced or simply never been listened to. Not all of the women wanted to speak to her at first: for some, the memories were too painful, for others it was like opening up a dam. On the whole, she is received with warmth, made up of equal parts eagerness to share the untold stories, and reluctance to dwell too much on the details. They explain in simple terms, in language so stark and unadorned, yet with such vivid detail, what it means to survive such darkness.

Although few women veterans suffered the fate of the men who returned to war only to be sent to gulags by Stalin, it is quite shocking to read of the less than triumphant reception many of them experienced. There was no counselling, no treatment for post-traumatic stress after the war. Many of them received nothing except for a few medals – not even adequate housing which they should have been entitled to as war veterans. The state ignored or downplayed their contribution (perhaps out of a sense of shame that they had to resort to using women in their war effort), there was little support for these heroines and little effort to reintegrate them into society. In contrast to the protective and gallant way they had been treated by their male comrades at the front, many women had to pretend afterwards that they had never been in battle, because the men feared these women and longed to marry someone more feminine and untarnished by violence.

Unsurprisingly, women felt that the Great Victory came at a terrible human cost and sacrifice, and they are more aware of this and more willing to acknowledge it, while men were disposed to wax more nostalgic about heroic deeds and former Soviet greatness. And yet, one of the women says:

Life is hard… not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

In other words, they are beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. Yet, at the time, no one questioned the ideology. It was not just that their country was attacked, nor that they unquestioningly followed Stalin. They just felt they had to do something to help, they did not stop to think of themselves (or of their families or even their children) – they felt they were cornered and had no choice other than fighting the enemy as best they could. These women were not just nurses, doctors, bakers, laundrywomen, but also engineers, telecommunication experts, tank commanders, snipers, artillery and cavalry soldiers etc. They were everywhere and each one of them saw things that are almost unbelievable and unbearable. And, unlike men, they struggled far more with killing the enemy or watching their comrades die. One married couple reminisce about the war together and the husband says at one point that the grandchildren don’t want to hear his tales about historical detail, generals, facts, figures. They want to listen to her stories, which are all about feelings and momentary impressions.

War is first of all murder, and then hard work. And then simply ordinary life… how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die and to kill…

It’s the small details which make all the difference: the shoes which were several sizes too big and caused blisters; how they all had to chop off their braids; how uncomfortable it was to pee when they were in the tank with all the men; how they would kiss dying soldiers to soothe their pain; how there was no material to stop the flow of menstrual blood; how they could never bear the colour red after the war or buy meat from the shops.

There is a section on the mixed feelings the army had when they reached Germany. How tidy and wealthy the country seemed to them, to the extent where they couldn’t understand why these Germans had wanted to attack other countries. How they felt they would never be able to forgive them, yet they fed the frightened German children. The women whisper (in fear) about how their male colleagues did in many cases kill in revenge, rape and pillage, things which had been left out of the official history books – ‘are we allowed to mention that now?’.

There is bittersweet recognition that human nature did not learn from the past:

We dreamed: ‘If only we survive… People will be so happy after the war. People who’ve been through so much will feel sorry for each other. They’ll be changed people… We never doubted it. Not a bit.

Some of the girls were as young as 16 when they joined up and only 18-19 by the time the war ended.

Yet there were also instances of compassion and I want to finish on one of those, with the simple, unfiltered words of someone who has witnessed it herself. The last interviewee in the book tells the story of when she was carrying two wounded soldiers on her back, in turns, from the battlefield around Stalingrad. At some point, she realises that one of them was a German and starts getting angry with herself for making a mistake.

Should I go back for the German or not? I knew that if I left him he would die soon… And I crawled back for him… There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one…

Pictures are from Sputnik International and Global Research websites.

35 thoughts on “#WITMonth: Svetlana Alexievich and Women’s War”

  1. Great review as ever, Marina. I was struck by the fact that it’s often the small details that make a significant difference, the accumulation of several painful incidents that make life so unbearable…

    I think I would find it very hard to read this book, but I might try listening to it on Radio 4 – it was serialised on Book of the Week fairly recently.

    1. Actually, I think it might be tougher to listen to it, because it’s precisely a transcription of the interviews Alexievich conducted with these women… so it’s like they come to life, instead of at a slight removal, on the page.
      But yes, I agree with you, those little details are extremely revealing and give you much more of a flavour of the war. Reading about soup made out of boiling leather belts… goodness!

  2. Easy to express that kind of sentiment from a comfortable, privileged position but to say it after witnessing appalling brutality and suffering so much is both astonishing and humbling for the rest of us. Hats off to her and her colleagues. I’m glad they finally have a voice.

    1. They really don’t make women like that anymore, I sometimes feel. And yet perhaps each one of us would be like that if we were forced to. Certainly, it made me think of my grandmothers and the things they had to endure.

  3. Oh, this sounds so powerful, Marina Sofia. And it’s an aspect of the war that I don’t know enough about, that’s for sure. What a moving experience it must have been to interview these women, too. This definitely goes on my list.

        1. Me neither, so how can I judge! But their translation of Master and Margarita nearly killed my first read of it for me, and I’ve read of many who are fluent in both English and Russian lambasting them, so I base my unreasoning prejudice on that! And I have compared translations and founds theirs unpalatable so I read what I enjoy.

        2. I didn’t know they’d attempted Bulgakov as well – the sacrilege! I’ve got the Michael Glenny translation of Master and Margarita, and I also read a very lively Romanian translation of it.

  4. Lovely review Marina. I also read this last week, though I had to intersperse with other, less harrowing books. It’s a very worthy book, difficult to read and emotionally exhausting, but also extremely beautiful.

    1. Yes, you are right, it is quite harrowing. I was also reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day and other cheerier works at the same time. But I am so glad I did read it.

  5. This proved to be as powerful as I imagined it would be when you first said you planned to read it. The Russian vets were indeed badly treated – you can see some of them on the street corners in Moscow hoping someone gives them a few coins. But I never saw any women among them; as you say they were made invisible and their contributions washed away

  6. Superb review which has made me even keener to get to the book. I was shocked to discover that so many women were actually involved in the fighting – it’s very unfeminist of me, I know, but I still can’t understand why today’s women want to fight on front lines. But then I have difficulty understanding why men do, either…

    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking! The book does address that question, actually: they all wanted to contribute. Given that many of them were 16-18 years old, I think youthful idealism must have had something to do with it. Also, years of Soviet indoctrination in schools must have played their part.

  7. I have read some obituaries over here in the States of Soviet women pilots and combatants, very favorable towards them. And a few friends have researched and written articles on individual women.
    I’m very glad they did fight. The Nazis were hell-bent on destroying the Soviet Union and destroying or stealing their industries.
    I think of the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad where the Nazis surrounded the cities, not letting in food or fuel for a few years. Millions died of starvation, freezing to death or typhus. Millions died escaping, too. And then there’s Ukraine, where the Nazis killed 1 million Jews and 3 million Slavs, including Resistance fighters.
    Those who fought back were valiant. Where would we all be if they didn’t fight so hard and if the Nazis had won? The thought is too hard to contemplate. We are all lucky and grateful to those who fought so hard all over Europe and Asia, too.

    1. Absolutely – it was a very different situation back then, with their country being attacked (and in fact half of humanity). Also, Russia was caught between two fascist dictatorships: Japan and Germany.
      Nowadays, when soldiers are required to go into foreign countries with no very clear purpose (ostensibly humanitarian, but often for commercial interests), it must make it morally so much harder.

  8. Soldiers here are still told they’re being sent to protect democracy, our way of life, life. But most of the countries where they’re sent pose no threat to the U.S. And also over here right now, many, including journalists are worried about erosion of democratic and First Amendment rights, right to privacy, etc.

  9. Nice review, Marina! I was travelling in Belarus recently and read another of Alexievich’s books, Chernobyl Prayer, which was just outstanding (and heart-breaking). This one sounds excellent too, so perhaps I’ll try it!

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