#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.

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.