Archive for the ‘Svetlana Alexievich’ Category

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.

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