The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. Published by Penguin Classics, July 2017.
Perhaps of all the stories recounted by the war veterans, the following is the most startling. A Soviet partisan recounts the time that a German unit hunted their group. The radio operator had given birth and was carrying a poorly-fed and cranky baby while being on their verge of starvation herself. The baby starts to cry. A silent decision is made by the rest of the partisans. The mother takes note of the look of her comrades. “She lower[ed] the swaddled baby into the water and [held] it there for a long time . . . The baby [didn’t] cry any more.”
We see captured in this image the widely-held taboo that surrounds women in combat: that those who’d bring life into the world should not be tasked with taking life. Necessity in conflict has often undermined the luxury of such moral rectitude. During the Second World War, women served across the Soviet Union’s vast front. They washed clothes and drove trains, they dug tunnels and shot sniper rifles.
For all of their undoubted heroism, they became an embarrassment to the Soviet Union after victory was declared. A traumatised population turned on the women who reminded them of the scale and cost of conscription necessary to turn near annihilation into eventual conquest. The women became more and more reluctant to share their accounts in anything but the most official histories. But their stories have value precisely because they are so very different to those told by their male counterparts.
“We are all captive of ‘men’s’ notions and ‘men’s’ sense of war,” says Svetlana Alexievich in her haunting oral history of Soviet women at war. Alexievich emphasises the role of emotion in history: “Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas . . . whereas women are caught up with feelings.” Anger, anguish and exhilaration are frequent emotions communicated in these transcripts.
Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature in 2015. The Unwomanly Face of War was her first book. Heavily censored by the Soviet authorities at the time of its original publication in 1985, one sees in these explosive oral histories the work - in Alexievich’s own labelling - of ‘a historian of the soul’.
Many of the women who shared their testimonies in later life were teenage caregivers, overwhelmed by the horrific aftermath of mechanised war, but others were doing the killing. Memories of sniper kills haunted one woman for the rest of her life: “Everything was black . . . Only the blood was red.” Some blamed their military service for unfortunate circumstances later in life, like a daughter born disabled.
The women were clearly courageous, not that we should be surprised, and exhibited strength and bravery similar to their male counterparts. Tiny women hauled wounded soldiers across the battlefield under fire or did heavy manual labour repairing vehicles or artillery. One patient saw a nurse’s femininity through the grime and gore of a military hospital, telling her “that my smile brought him back to life, from the other world, as they say . . . A woman’s smile.”
“We didn’t know how strong we were,” a young partisan reflected. There are stories of execution, torture and mutilation too. Female partisans were raped or subjected to the electric chair to brutalise and extract information. “They died in the basements of the Gestapo and their courage was known only to the walls,” a partisan told Alexievich in a particularly harrowing account of months lived in close proximity to the hangman’s noose.
Alexievich sets out her aims at the beginning of her account: “I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening.” It is hard not to be sickened by the accounts, but there is also a sense of respect for those sharing these accounts. Perhaps it is writing these two sides of war on the same page that makes such an emotional history far more transformative than the celebratory accounts of manly success?