#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.

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Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Slavs

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I was going to dedicate a whole post to the Russians, but I don’t actually have many obscure ones in that pile, merely the obvious suspects (Dostoevsky being one of my favourites), so I have added the Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, Serbs – all the Slavic languages that I have on my shelves. I will do a separate category for the Romanians, and have perhaps far too few Greeks and Hungarians to create a separate category for them (other than a wishlist).

Kieslowski on Kieslowski (edited and translated by Danusia Stok)

Nowadays Kieslowski is best known for the films he made in France- The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours trilogy (Blue  with Juliette Binoche is my favourite of the three, in case you are wondering). However, to those of us who lived in Eastern Europe during Communist times, he is above all the director of the TV series The Decalogue and his quasi-documentary films about life under an oppressive and uncaring regime, like Personnel, The Scar and No End. The films were banned in Poland after martial law was imposed in 1980, and they were difficult but not impossible to find on video in Romania in the late 1980s, as long as you knew a pilot, cabin crew or truck driver who could smuggle them into the country.

He was notoriously reticent in interviews (perhaps unsurprising, considering how he was hounded by the Polish authorities for a while), but in this book published in 1993 he muses at length about his life, his creative process, his country and censorship. I bought this when I first came to England and there are whole passages heavily underlined. They ring even truer today.

Communism is like AIDS. That is, you have to die with it. You can’t be cured. And that applies to anyone who’s had anything to do with Communism, regardless of what side they were on… If they’ve been exposed to the system as long as they have been in Poland… then Communism, its way of thinking, its way of life, its hierarchy of values, remains with them and there’s no way of expelling it from their system. They can expel it from their minds, of course, they can say they’re no longer sick. They can even say they’ve been cured. But it’s not true. It stays inside…. It doesn’t particularly trouble me. I just know I’ve got it and know that I’ll die with it, that’s all. Not die of it, die with it. It only disappears when you disappear.

He also has excellent insights into the differences in film-making in Eastern and Western Europe:

The fact that we had censorship in Poland didn’t necessarily entail tremendous restrictions of freedom since, all in all, it was easier to make films there then it is under the economic censorship here in the West. Economic censorship means censorship imposed by people who think that they know what the audience wants.

Tamara Karsavina in The Firebird, one of her pivotal roles

Tamara Karsavina: Theatre Street

Tamara Karsavina was one of the leading ballerinas at the Marinsky Theatre in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution. In 1918 she moved to England, danced with Diaghilev’s company and the Ballet Rambert, and became a famous teacher and Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dancing. This is her charming autobiography, recreating the tough training regime at the Imperial Ballet School on Theatre Street, the pranks she and her fellow students would get up to, her debut at the Marinsky, the relentless pace of touring, escaping from Russia during the revolution, but above all the many charismatic legendary dance figures she encountered: Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Lydia Lopokova (who later married the economist John Maynard Keynes), Isadora Duncan and many more. A book recommended to me by my favourite primary school teacher, Miss Mason, who introduced me to opera and ballet.

Olga Slavnikova: La Tête légère (transl. Raphaëlle Pache) – Lightheaded

This is a recent acquisition from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon – it hasn’t been translated into English yet. I was captivated by the absurdist premise: Maxime Ermakov is a talented publicist but has a very strange head. Secret service agents show up at the door of his Moscow apartment to tell him that his head is upsetting the harmony of the world, so he should commit suicide and thereby save millions of lives. But Maxime has no intention of doing that, and so he becomes public enemy no. 1 and the villainous star of a video game about killing Ermakov. I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to reading it – perhaps this month for WIT?

 

East European Literature Month: The Good Life Elsewhere

369px-EasternBloc_BorderChange38-48Stu from Winston’s Dad blog is an inspiration for all lovers of translated fiction. He seems to get through more books (and from a wider variety of countries) than nearly anyone else I know. For March, he is challenging and encouraging us to read fiction from Eastern Europe and I can only say bravo to him and feel slightly ashamed that I hadn’t thought of it myself, since I originally come from that part of the world. Which, of course, is currently very keen to rebrand itself as ‘Central European’.

GoodLifeKnowing what a massive problem emigration is for many of the former Communist countries, I picked a book from Moldova about economic migrants: ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ by Vladimir Lorchenkov (translated by Ross Ufberg, published by New Vessel Press). This little-known former Soviet Republic is said to be one of the poorest countries in Europe. I have a special fondness for Moldova because it used to be a part of Romania, with whom it shares religious, historical and cultural traditions, and the majority population speaks Romanian (although the Russian state and minority population persist in calling it ‘Moldovan’).

It consists of a series of vignettes of the villagers of Larga in Moldova, who spend most of the book trying (and failing) to get to Italy, by hook or by crook, legally but mostly illegally. Italy becomes the ‘promised land’, the land of milk and honey, of plenty of job opportunities (cleaner, dishwashers or caring for the elderly) and amazing salaries of no less than 600-800 euros. Serafim Botezatu has a different but equally burning reason to get to Italy: he has been dreaming of its rich history and culture, its artists and architecture since he had come across a book called Views of Rome in the library as a ten-year-old. He has even taught himself Italian from an ancient, torn textbook that he borrowed from the library.

Needless to say, his dreams – and those of his friends and neighbours in the village – are systematically shattered. They each pay 4000 euros to people smugglers who fail to deliver them to their destination in Rome. They form a curling team in an effort to obtain an Italian visa, undeterred by the fact that they have no ice rinks or equipment, and need to practise using brooms on raked earth. They attempt to convert a tractor into a plane, only to be shot down by the cloud-dispersing bullets of the Moldovan government. The submarine they attempt to build out of the remains of the same tractor does not fare much better. One man sells a kidney and then tries to raise a pig as an organ donor. The village priest organises the First Holy Crusade of Eastern Orthodox Christians to the unclean land of Italy to reclaim the lost souls of Moldovans who have gone there.

vladimir-lorchenkov-01
Author portrait from World Literature Today.

All of these stories are cobbled together in a non-linear fashion, with jumps between viewpoints and time settings. It’s not very hard to follow, but it can be distracting, and adds to the slightly surreal quality of the tales. The humour is very black indeed: there is a lot of death by accident or suicide. Lorchenkov depicts a village and a country where everyone is corrupt, stupid, crazy or just desperate to leave, including the president, who is ready to fake his own death in a plane crash in order to find a job in a pizzeria in Italy. The satire is sharp, often biting, the stories grotesque, and – although I did smile at some of the scurrilous humour and absurd predicaments – I thought the author sometimes lacked real compassion.

I may be biased, but I did wonder if that was because he himself is Russian rather than Moldovan, and the son of an army officer rather than a farmer. At many points in the story the characters express a distaste for agriculture and hatred for the land, which does not quite ring true for at least the older generation of farmers. There were some comments about how life had deteriorated after the fall of the Soviet empire, which is probably true – the power supply, for instance, was always firmly situated on the Russian side of the border – and overall he sounds really fed up with life in that ‘failed state that no one wants’, as he has called it in interviews. But what irked me is the lack of presence of any Russians in the story, as if only Romanians and gypsies are doing silly or nasty things in present-day Moldova.

From Media Moldova.
From Media Moldova.

Moldova lives in constant fear that it could become the next Ukraine. In fact, there was a brief civil war between the two ethnic groups in the early 1990s and there is a separatist state within its tiny surface already. It remains a country with beautiful landscapes, delicious fruit and wine, a tortured history and a difficult present. I enjoyed this corrosive and viciously entertaining portrayal of a disillusioned society, but for a more nuanced depiction of the plight of Moldovan villages and the desire to emigrate, I’d recommend reading Stela Brinzeanu’s Bessarabian Nights.

This book also counts towards my Global Reading Challenge for Europe.