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Archive for the ‘Svetlana Alexievich’ Category

The wars we are proud of we don’t forget.  We write books and films and televisions shows about them, study them for years, and never tire of discussing them.  We do not let ourselves forget.  We remember because we are proud of what we fought for, what we accomplished, and, even if we lost the war, we can still be proud of how we survived and came to terms with loss.

But there are other wars we cannot forget quickly enough, so urgent is our need to wipe the shame and futility and waste of them from our memories.  Sometimes this begins even as the war is still being fought.

The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted nine messy and fruitless years from late 1979 to early 1989, falls into the latter category.  Only a few years after its start, the Soviet Union was already trying to reshape the narrative and doing its best to hide the true conditions and casualties.  There was anger and frustration among the soldiers, among the families of those whose children had died and were not being honoured, and among the general citizens who felt the truth was being hidden from them.  It was in this atmosphere that Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich was born.

First published in 1990 (and translated to English in 1992 and then again more recently), Alexievich began work on this oral history while the war was still on.  It came from her frustration – one shared by many others – that:

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War I, is what “they” consider safe for us to know.  We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring.

Through countless interviews with soldiers, civilian employees, grass widows, bereaved parents, and regular citizens, she gathers all perspectives and presents them in her typically straightforward manner, allowing each subject to speak for him- or herself.  It’s an approach I love and which Alexievich wields powerfully to compose her portrait of a weary, stubborn, distrustful nation and an increasingly weak government, desperate to retain authority and control.

Her title comes from one of the war’s most enduring symbols: the zinc coffins the bodies were shipped home in.  Like so much else about the war, efforts were made to keep these repatriations quiet but they fooled no one:

In those days [1981] no one had seen the zinc coffins.  Later we found out that coffins were already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night.  The gravestones had ‘died’ rather than ‘killed in action’ engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden.  From too much vodka, was it, or flu?  Too many oranges, perhaps?  Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves.  (Private, Grenadier Battalion)

For parents who lost children, the collective choice to ignore what was going on or to condemn it was wrenching.  To have your child come home in a coffin is bad enough but to have the death ignored, to be treated as though it had no value, made it even worse.  The days of brave soldiers (men and women, as Alexievich reminded the world in her extraordinary first book, The Unwomanly Face of War) being honoured for their bravery and sacrifice were done.  This was nothing like the communal spirit of the Great Patriotic War – those who suffered were left to do it alone:

…I was sitting near the grave and a mother came by with her children.  ‘What kind of a mother would let her only daughter go off to war at a time like this?’ I heard her tell them.  ‘Just give away her daughter?’  The gravestone had ‘To My Only Daughter’ carved on it.

How dare they.  How can they? She took the Hippocratic Oath.  She was a nurse whose hands were kissed by a surgeon.  She went to save their sons’ lives.

‘People!’ I cry inside me.  ‘Don’t turn away from me!  Stand by the grave with me for a little while.  Don’t leave me alone…’ (A Mother)

But there has never been a war without some soldiers enjoying it and Alexievich includes their stories as well, reminding us that war brings with it travel and excitement, the chance to see new things and challenge yourself daily:

I tell you straight – they were the best years of my life.  Life here is rather grey and petty: work – home, home – work.  There we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men.

So much of it was exotic, too: the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen, even those burubukhaiki, the high-sided, brightly decorated Afghan trucks, and the red buses with sheep and cows and people all crammed together inside, and the yellow taxis…There are places there which remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes.  You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains, that it’s nothing but rocks – until the rocks start shooting at you!  You sense that even nature is your enemy. (Artillery Captain)

Once home, life could be difficult for those who believed in what they had done in Afghanistan.  The injured and sick struggled to get treatment and respect from civilians.  For soldiers who came back to public apathy and, worse, disapproval of a war they had spent years of their lives fighting, the public debate that eventually emerged was pointless:

Nowadays they say we were an occupying force.  But what did we take away with us, except our comrades’ coffins?  What did we get out of it, apart from hepatitis and cholera, injuries and lives crippled in all sense of the word?  I’ve got nothing to apologize for: I came to the aid of our brothers, the Afghan people.  And I mean that.  The lads out there with me were sincere and honest.  They believed they’d gone to do good – they didn’t see themselves as ‘misguided fighters in a misguided war’, as I saw it described recently.  And what good does it do, trying to make out we were simply naïve idiots and cannon-fodder?  Who does that help?  (Private, Artillery Regiment)

While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the perspectives of the women who went to Afghanistan particularly fascinating.  Alexievich interviewed female medical personnel and civilian employees, who had not just war stories to share but nasty comments thrown at them by soldiers who preferred their women to stay on pedestals back home apparently:

…we couldn’t walk past a group of soldiers without sneering comments like ‘Well, Bochkarevka!  How’s our little heroine today?  Doing our international duty in bed, are we?’  The name ‘Bochkarevka’ comes from the little houses (they look a bit like railway carriages) known as ‘bochki’ reserved for senior officers – majors and above, so the girls who, well, ‘serviced’ them were known as ‘Bochkarevki’.  You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve served here say things like this: ‘If I hear that a certain girl’s been in Afghanistan she just doesn’t exist for me.’  We got the same diseases as they did, all the girls got hepatitis and malaria, we were shot at too, but if I meet a boy back home he won’t let me give him a friendly hug.  For them we’re all either whores or crazy. (Civilian Employee)

I could go on and on with these quotes.  The book is full of fascinating insights from all different perspectives.  But Alexievich’s genius lies in not just interviewing her subjects and obtaining powerful and emotional stories from them; she is wise enough to know how to set them out in a way that builds her narrative.  Through all these voices she tells a full and complete story of a messy conflict and an even messier home front.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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There are books that are important and books that are an education in and of themselves and books you never want to end.  And, best of all, there are books that are all those things.  The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich is such a book.

Between 1978 and 1983 Alexievich, the Belarusian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, travelled thousands of miles across the USSR and met with countless women to hear and record their experiences of the Second World War.  And for many people, Soviets included, these were stories they had no idea existed – stories of women who served in active combat, who knew what life was like on the battlefield, who had been shot at alongside their male comrades, and whose contributions had been largely swept aside as the official history of the Great Patriotic War took shape.  Published in 1985, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of their experiences changed that and now, thanks to a new English-language translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whose previous work made me fall in love with War and Peace), it can change the perspectives of Western readers too.

When Russia went to war against Germany in 1941, women flocked to sign up.  Time and again Alexievich records women who remember leaving their schools to go to the recruiting office or fighting against military bureaucrats who thought they were too young to be put on active duty.  They enlisted as pilots, as snipers, as members of tank squadrons, and, overwhelmingly, as surgeons, doctors, and other medical professionals.  The Soviet Union may never have become the utopia dreamed of but it had trained women to think of themselves as capable, contributing and equal members of society.  They were doctors and lawyers and engineers without the novelty factor still common in the West.  As Vera Danilovsteva, a sniper, recalled “Girls felt equal to boys; we weren’t treated differently.  On the contrary, we had heard since childhood and at school: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors!,” “Girls – at the controls of a plane!””

But a large focus of the book is on how elusive that equality was.  By the time Alexievich came to speak to them, many had given up hope of ever getting to tell their stories.  They had been swept aside for so long and the relief at finally having someone who cares to listen was immense:

I want to speak…to speak!  To speak it all out!  Finally somebody wants to hear us.  For so many years we said nothing, even at home we said nothing.  For decades.  The first year, when I came back from the war, I talked and talked.  Nobody listened.  So I shut up…It’s good that you’ve come along.  I’ve been waiting all the while for somebody, I knew somebody would come.  Had to come.  (Natalya Ivanovna Sergeeva – Private, Nurse-aide)

Alexievich recounts their stories of life during the war: how they joined up, how they fought, what they missed, how they fell in love (or didn’t), how they longed for their families.  They all had different experiences – understandable enough given their huge numbers (more than one million women joined the military and at least half of those served in active combat roles) – but the universal memory is of how their country and their brothers-in-arms failed them when the war ended:

How did the Motherland meet us?  I can’t speak without sobbing…It was forty years ago, but my cheeks still burn.  The men said nothing, but the women…They shouted to us, “We know what you did there!  You lured our men with your young c—-!  Army whores…Military bitches…”  They insulted us in all possible ways…The Russian vocabulary is rich… (Klavdia S—va – Sniper)

They had come home wanting to be proud of their achievements, to stand next to their male comrades and be recognized for what they had done, but they also wanted to get on with their lives.  And being a soldier, it was made clear to them, was not possible if you were a proper woman:

When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears.  I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.  We had spent four years in trousers.  There was no one I could tell that I had been wounded, that I had a concussion.  Try telling it, and who will give you a job then, who will marry you?  We were silent as fish.  We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front.  (Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva – Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery)

Their silence was extreme.  Some women did their best to make their past disappear, hiding their ribbons and medals away, not daring to wear them on parade days even though all the men did.  In extreme cases, women tore up their papers, making it impossible to claim the pension and benefits due to them as veterans, while others, wounded in the war and ashamed of what had happened, moved far away from anyone who knew them and did their best to hide.

But others remained happy and proud.  For those who had fought alongside their husbands it was easier to retain that part of their life with pride – if he knew and was proud, she could be too.  But it was these same husbands who could be found coaching their wives ahead of their interviews with Alexievich, reminding them of the facts of each battle – the dates, the outcomes, the soldiers lost.  This was their vision of how war should be discussed, particularly in an era when talking about your feelings and opinions about your country could get you into serious trouble, but it was not Alexievich’s – or, thankfully, the women’s.

It’s been a while since I finished the book and what has stuck with me the most were the feelings of the women as they swept through into Germany.  Western Allies remember finding a broken country, with millions of people displaced, millions homeless, and seeing some of the most gracious and elegant cities of Europe in ruins.  For the Russians it was a completely different experience.  They had marched from their own broken and ravaged country with no doubt, after Leningrad and Stalingrad, after passing the Polish death camps on their way to Berlin, of how their enemies should be treated.  But what seemed to bewilder and enrage them in equal measure was what they found in Germany.  For the Russians, after years of starvation, of living on almost nothing, sleeping “on straw, on sticks”, the level of civilization still intact in Germany floored them:

Finally, we were on their land…The first thing that struck us was the good roads.  The big farmhouses…Flowerpots, pretty curtains in the windows, even in the barns.  White tablecloths in the houses.  Expensive tableware.  Porcelain.  There I saw a washing machine for the first time…We didn’t understand why they had to fight if they lived so well.  Our people huddled in dugouts, while they had white tablecloths.  (Aglaia Borisovna Nesteruk – Sergeant, Liaison)

It is particularly feminine observation and a telling one, showing so clearly the disparity between the two enemies but also between the allies.

This was Alexievich’s first book and if she had ended there her contribution to history would have been considerable.  As it is, she has written about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, the survivors of Chernobyl, and the disintegration of the USSR.  She picks timely, important subjects and creates books that matter both in the present and to posterity.  She has left me better informed, much moved, and feeling like I need to read all of her other words immediately.  It is the best possible feeling I can have when I finish a book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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