Book review: The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich
Yet another book about war? What for? There have been a thousand wars—small and big, known and unknown. And still more has been written about them. But…it was men writing about men—that much was clear at once. Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”
When I came to polish up this review before publishing, I realized with horror that I’d written nothing beyond the quotes I pulled. That’s not my usual way, but something was different here. I was so emotionally drained after reading this – in a GOOD way – that I think I couldn’t even put my thoughts into words. That’s still hard to do here, actually.
I’d always heard that Svetlana Alexievich’s books, in the form of oral histories, are in a category all their own, but I had no idea it’d be like this. This book moved me in ways I didn’t expect, having read hundreds of other nonfiction war-related books.
The Unwomanly Face of War was originally published in Russian in 1985 and finally in English last year. Alexievich, a native Belarusian, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but even at that time she was still largely unknown in the English-speaking literary world. She’s spent her career collecting testimonies – oral histories from some of the ordinary Soviet citizens who lived through some of the last century’s most pivotal, and traumatic, historical events.
Here, Alexievich focuses on the women who fought in the Second World War – known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. In other histories of the era, it’s common to read accounts of people, like American soldiers or German citizens, expressing surprise at encountering Soviet forces that included a number of front-line women.
About a million women fought in the Soviet army. They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones. A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work. The feminine forms were born there, in the war…
I knew this from other sources, but this book gives these women the much-needed opportunity to voice their own experiences, traumas, triumphs and memories as they recalled them, or as they choose to tell their stories. That’s one ever-present troublesome element – when Alexievich first interviewed and recorded the oral histories, the Soviet Union hadn’t yet crumbled, and old habits and beliefs died hard anyway.
It’s clear in many instances that the women are holding back, censoring themselves – but elsewhere, they simply don’t – bluntly calling out failures and mistakes the government and military made before and at the beginning of the war. I was shocked and impressed by the boldness. And where things are left unsaid, what gets through is enough to be stunningly powerful.
They are still paralyzed not only by Stalin’s hypnosis and fear, but also by their former faith. They cannot stop loving what they used to love. Courage in war and courage of thought are two different courages. I used to think they were the same.
Here, Alexievich shares a conversation with a censor, and I think she did her best how she could: “This is a lie! This is slander against our soldiers, who liberated half of Europe. Against our partisans. Against our heroic people. We don’t need your little history, we need the big history. The history of the Victory. You don’t love our heroes! You don’t love our great ideas. The ideas of Marx and Lenin.”
—True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being…
Wartime jobs of the women interviewed include the famous snipers plus foot soldiers, medical personnel, tank drivers, pilots, minesweepers – the scope of their work was incredible, dissolving gender boundaries. Many were caught up in the patriotic, highly propagandized fervor of the war and German invasion of the Soviet Union, motivating them to join the Red Army, even when they were incredibly young. Some women tell personal pre- and post-war stories of their families, children, and backgrounds. Sometimes their reasoning for joining the front lines, instead of quieter work in their hometowns, came from necessity, or else bravery born of nothing left to lose.
The command: Fall in…We lined up by height; I was the smallest. The commander comes, looks. Walks up to me: “What sort of Thumbelina is this? What are you going to do? Maybe you should go back to your mother and grow up a little?”
But I no longer had a mother…My mother had been killed during a bombing…
Others talk more about what occurred during their service, specific incidents or relationships, or telling the stories that the dead never could. They dispel some myths, share dirty details, fondly recall certain moments or stories, and speak with horror and fear about events that still haunt them decades later. I can’t convey how powerful these accounts are.
We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew. Even now I don’t know any other world and any other people. Did they ever exist?
Alexievich writes little herself, but where she does, her writing is a forceful underscore to the stories she’s helping to curate. She’s a master at asking the right questions and letting the narrative flow from the sources she suggests. And as I’ve realized from reading another book of hers shortly after this one, she also has a special talent for knowing when to withdraw and let her subjects pour out their own impressions. “I listen when they speak…I listen when they are silent…Both words and silence are the text for me.”
I find it hard to review, except to say it’s one of the best books of Russian history I’ve ever read. I don’t doubt that the women were biting their tongues sometimes, still afraid to provoke reactions from Soviet censors or the government. Alexievich kind of touches on that, somewhat, describing the work here: “History through the story told by an unnoticed witness and participant…the narrators are not only witnesses—least of all are they witnesses; they are actors and makers. It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings. I understand that I am dealing with versions, that each person has her version, and it is from them, from their plurality and their intersections, that the image of the time and the people living in it is born…This is just history. Mere history.”
My review is quote-heavy, but the words and stories of these women are what makes this a treasure of both history and literature. I think reading them should be enough to tell whether the book is for you, so apologies for resorting to sharing much of what stood out to me in the book in lieu of a full review. But it speaks to the content much better than I can explain it.
You never know your own heart. In winter some captive German soldiers were led past our unit. They walked along all frozen, with torn blankets on their heads, holes burnt in their overcoats. It was so cold that birds dropped in flight. The birds froze. A soldier was marching in that column…A young boy…There were tears frozen on his face…And I was taking bread to the mess in a wheelbarrow. He couldn’t take his eyes off that wheelbarrow; he didn’t see me, only the wheelbarrow. Bread…Bread…I broke a piece off a loaf and gave it to him. He took it…Took it and didn’t believe it…He didn’t believe it!
I was happy…I was happy that I wasn’t able to hate. I was astonished at myself then…
I’ll explain to you: it’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.
War remains, as it has always been, one of the chief human mysteries. Nothing has changed. I am trying to bring that great history down to human scale, in order to understand something. To find the words. Yet in this seemingly small and easily observable territory—the space of one human soul—everything is still less comprehensible, less predictable than in history. Because before me are living tears, living feelings. A living human face, which the shadows of pain and fear pass over as we talk.
We didn’t follow the roads; the roads were being bombed, shelled. We moved across the swamps, along the waysides. We moved in a scattered way. Various units. Where they became concentrated, it meant they were giving battle. And so we went on, and on, and on. Went across the fields. What a harvest! We walked and trampled down the rye. And the harvest that year was unprecedented, the grain stood very tall.
Whenever I think, it all comes back. Happiness is beyond the mountains, but grief is just over your shoulder…
There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart.
For a long time after the war I was afraid of the sky, even of raising my head toward the sky. I was afraid of seeing plowed-up earth. But the rooks already walked calmly over it. The birds quickly forgot the war…
I understood long ago that we are a people of roads and conversations…
My rating: 5/5
The Unwomanly Face of War:
An Oral History of Women in World War II
by Svetlana Alexievich
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
published July 25, 2017 by Random House
published in Russian in 1985
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