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Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Review: Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War



In 1978, Svetlana Alexievich (1948- ) began the interviews which comprise this book. It was turned down for publication in 1983, but Soviet Perestroika allowed it to be published in a censored and self-censored but impressively large state edition in 1985. It is now translated in an edition which restores omitted material, but it was the 1985 edition which underpinned the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alexievich, who was born in Ukraine but is now Belarussian by nationality.
Alexievich does in-depth oral history and then composes her material into books where there is only a small amount of authorial narrative. In this book, she assembled the voices of women who were with the Red Army in the second world war, at the front and especially in the bloodlands of  Russia’s western front, Germany’s eastern front. Partisan, underground and liaison front liners are also well represented.

The narratives are harrowing and I read the book slowly, in sections, so as not to skip too easily over what was being told. Several times I was struck by the thought that these are the women who survived and lived to tell the tale thirty of forty years later, often hesitantly and in tears. Many others would have survived the war but died before then; some would have emigrated to Israel and maybe other countries; some refused to co-operate with the historian.

Several times also I thought this would make a splendid choice as a core text for a course in gender theory. It would disrupt a great deal of polite and facile thinking. Alexievich’s women have a lot to say about being women at the front line and are acutely aware of the tensions between their transgender occupations as snipers and fighter pilots and their previous existence as young women – often girls – in pretty frocks. There are no lesbians in the book, which I am sure has everything to do with Russian culture not the author’s selectivity. There is one woman who claims to be a man to get into the navy and tells a very funny story about it (pp. 202 -3).  But there is a general absence of vodka which surprised me.

There are many splendid examples of young women refusing to take No for an answer even from hardened Soviet bureaucrats. Most of those who fought at the front had first to overcome attempts to place them at the rear when they volunteered. Several simply hitched lifts or hid under tarpaulin to get to the front line and once there tried to make themselves useful and resisted attempts to send them away. Some were  under eighteen and under average height. A repetitive theme is the complaint that they had to wear men's army uniforms and boots many sizes too big for them.Only late in the war did the Soviet bureaucracy start supplying appropriate clothing. 

Alexievich’s patience and empathy – she cries a lot too – is rewarded with astonishing cameos and vignettes which made me cry too. Not the ones which are tales of the kinds of barbarism which still happen every day in modern war zones, but the absurd and poignant. There is the female commander of an anti-aircraft gun, listening to a wireless in the middle of the night and first to hear the Victory declaration. She then rouses her team from sleep to ready their big gun, and personally fires a four-round Victory salute, only to be arrested and then promptly un-arrested by the senior officer she has woken up (p 204). There are the boy and girl kissing publicly on a ghetto bench while a German pogrom is in progress. They are observed with horror by a female Soviet underground fighter who then realises, as the couple stand up and are shot, that they have seen their public kiss as a way of ensuring that they die together (p 208 - 09).

She also elicits oral one-liners which any writer would be proud of and she saves a couple until late in the book. An underground fighter explains that now, decades after the war, she doesn’t like spring. The war stands between us, between me and nature. When the cherry trees were in bloom, I saw fascists in my native Zhitomir (p 277). And on the last page, a medical assistant, Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, tells us that There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart. (p 331)


Do read this book and remember that the context is a war in which twenty million Soviet citizens died, leaving after-shocks which still continue.
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See my Blog of 7 February 2017 for a review of Alexievich's Second-Hand Time

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