Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.
During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction. ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones. A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work. The feminine forms were born there, in the war’. Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’
Alexievich, an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict. Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong. She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings. She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown. And still more has been written about them. But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once. Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘ She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts. ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’
It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’ To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape. Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained. A chorus resounds in my memory. An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’ Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.
Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts. She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers. It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.’ Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.’
The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid. Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive. Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read. The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender. Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.