Perhaps no one has documented the immersion of women in a total war like Svetlana Alexievich in her book The Unwomanly Face of War. Composed of the voices of over 500 women describing in their own words their lives during the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, what sets this work apart is its centering women in the violence of war not only as victims, but combatants.
In the United States, over 350,000 women served in the armed forces in World War II. However, the Americans sought to limit the exposure of women to combat as much as possible. For example, women pilots were relegated to ferrying aircraft within the United States, not in combat zones in Europe or the Pacific, where the closest women generally came to combat were as nurses behind the lines. The contribution of women to victory was enormous, and today as we celebrate Women’s History Month one of the enduring iconic symbols of the achievement of women in World War II is the Rosie the Riveter poster with the inspiring message: “We Can Do It!” The image and theme of the Rosie character, representative of millions upon millions of women who worked in industry on the American home front, carried over as a stirring symbol into the feminist movement of the postwar decades.
In the Soviet Union, over a million women served in the military during World War II, not only as nurses, but in other jobs which placed them in the midst of the carnage, including doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine gunners, and snipers. Growing up in postwar Belarus as a young woman, Svetlana Alexievich was aware that the war had soaked deeply into the lives of all those around her, but when the retirement announcement of a woman from the phone company in the late 1970s included the information that she had killed 75 Germans as a sniper in World War II, Alexievich realized that she was literally witnessing the process of history being lost. She noted that in the official histories of the war sanctioned by the government, only male voices were documented (even though the unity of the Soviet people was emphasized), and that the horrors of the war away from battlefield heroics were sanitized. Alexievich later wrote that “. . . the history of the war had been replaced by the history of the victory.”
She traveled thousands of miles and interviewed hundreds of women over seven years, collecting oral history stories which in many ways went beyond or contradicted the official Soviet narrative of the Great Patriotic War.
She wondered in this time if her work would ever be seen by the public. Then under the Gorbachev policy of policy of glasnost, or openness, her book was published with an astonishing initial run of 2 million copies. After Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, an English translation was published in 2017.
Inside her pages, readers discover an astonishing compilation of female voices telling powerful and poignant new stories of their experiences in the Nazi-Soviet war. Not only do the stories turn over new understandings and perspectives about women at war, but they expand knowledge of a war that is largely unknown to western readers. The rise and fall of the voices in testimony to the realities of war, ranging from daily life and coming-of-age stories to experiences of the most tragic, harrowing, and heart-breaking characters, has been compared to a great polyphonic symphony.
To this reviewer’s mind, two themes stand out and can never be forgotten after reading The Unwomanly Face of War. First is grasping the impact which killing made upon these women, who knew they were vessels of life. One woman who joined the partisans during the war was tasked with poisoning German soldiers in a mess hall, and then spent her postwar life teaching history. She later reflected to Alexievich: “To kill is hard . . . To kill is more terrible than to die . . . I’ve taught history all my life . . . And I never knew how to tell about that . . . In what words . . .”
Second, Alexievich periodically inserts conversations with Soviet censors amongst the war stories as she builds her overarching narrative. In these asides from time and war, she details her own struggle to speak for these women, even as they have struggled to tell their stories in their own words for other, future generations to understand. In one conversation with a censor, he admonished her for not seeking out heroic stories in favor of showing the filth of war, concluding: “You make our Victory terrible . . . What is it you’re after?” Her simple reply is: “The truth.” “No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!” he replies. In another conversation with a censor, he accused her of undermining the “big history” of the “Victory” which Marxist-Leninist ideals and heroic soldiers made possible, objecting to her “You don’t love our heroes! You don’t love our great ideas.” Alexievich’s quiet reply in print is: “True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being . . .”
The astounding journey for the reader in The Unwomanly Face of War is the discovery of incredible heroism in average, unknown Soviet women; little human beings whose voices and accomplishments have been overlooked, and in fact were never little. One of her chapter titles is “A Human Being is Greater than War.” The great achievement of Svetlana Alexievich is in bringing the clear, often pained, but ultimately courageous and transcendent voices of these women forward, creating imagery that burns with the intensity of gem-like flames, to give those of us who never experienced war the terrible, unforgettable insights into what the war was truly like.