I first stumbled upon Svetlana Alexievich’s work about ten years ago, when I visited the library and randomly picked up a copy of her brilliant Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of Nuclear Disaster. Of course, Alexievich has been around much longer than that; Voices from Chernobyl was published 20 years ago, and she’s been chronicling Soviet history for decades now. She garnered a lot of critical acclaim in 2013 with Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, and I finally made the connection between her and Voices from Chernobyl when she won the well-deserved 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her unique way of blending a chorus of voices into her oral history storytelling.
Luckily, that Nobel Prize has created a push for her works to be republished and translated for broader audiences. Her first book, The Unwomanly face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, was first published in 1985. It was recently translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published in hardcover in the United States about a month ago. The introduction includes journal excerpts from the years she spent collection the oral histories, but it also includes newer insights and a few clips that the censors had taken out of the original version.
In her introduction, Alexievich writes:
Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.” We are all captives of “men’s” notions and “men’s” sense of war. “Men’s” words. Women are silent. … “Women’s” war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. It’s own words. There are no heroes and no incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things. And it is not only they (people!) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees. All that lives on earth with us. They suffer without words, which is still more frightening.
Indeed, the women featured in the book often speak of their decades-long silence and their desires to tell their story. A lot of the women were young teenagers when they left to defend their motherland during World War II. A lot of them speak of being determined to find a way to the front lines, exhibiting an idealism and enthusiasm worthy of any sweeping Russian novel. The conditions they found themselves in often shocked them, and yet they set to work and proved themselves amongst their male counterparts. They became experts at what they did, some even managing to command groups of men.
Throughout the book, Alexievich notes that by the end of their interviews, both she and her interviewees were often in tears. While many of the women were treated with respect and admiration (if not a deep sense of paternalism by their commanding officers), others recount the fallout of returning to civilian life and being marked as little better than whores who lived in grimy conditions among men; it affected their abilities to find a husband and start a family. Others recount being “war wives” to their married commanding officers, or being told promises by their fellow soldiers only to be cast aside once the war was over: these women lament that their femininity was stripped of them and that they were only viewed as reminders of a terrible war — they literally became “unwomanly faces” upon their return home.
But the overarching theme throughout the book remains the bleakness of war. They spoke of the senseless death and utter devastation, of the animals who wailed like humans over the bodies of their loved ones, of the stench of blood and the shallow graves, of the lack of sleep for days on end, and of the threat of losing limbs to frostbite. Through it all, they recount how they tried to hold on to their femininity and their humanity in the face of it all.
The Unwomanly Face of War is a powerful, sobering book. Alexievich’s oral histories almost have the feel of a Greek chorus, allowing readers to see dozens of points of view while still building towards a common theme. It’s an emotionally devastating book to read, but I’m so glad I did.
The English translation of The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II was released on July 25, 2017 by Random House.