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.
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.
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.