The Unwomanly Face of War

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The author is a Nobel Prize winner who documents the experience of women that served in the Soviet Army in the Second World War, based on hundreds of interviews she carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One million women served in the Soviet Army and she spoke to women who worked in every possible role and geographical area, including sappers, nurses, surgeons, foot soldiers, air force captains, pilots, tank drivers, partisans and snipers.Originally heavily censored, it was first published in 1985, and this is the first time it has been available in English.

Belarussian Alexievich was born in 1948 so “didn’t know a world without war” but understood that “everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice’”. In planning her book she considered that “women’s stories are different”, “‘women’s war’ has its own colours, own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings”, “a whole world is hidden from us”, “I want to write a history of that war. A women’s history”.

The book begins with two essays by Alexievich: one from her journal written between 1978 and 1985, and one from the early noughties. She curated the testimonies into broadly themed chapters, for example addressing the impact on mothers, the experiences of partisans and those who served in non-combatant roles. She wrote introductions for these chapters, often remarking upon her interview process and the impact on her, but overwhelmingly this book is given over to her interviewees. She has “happened upon extraordinary storytellers. There are pages in their lives that can rival the best pages of the classics”.

The testimonies themselves are all fascinating. It is almost impossible to capture the amount of information and emotion they contain. Readers are taken through every imaginable experience of war: excitement, camaraderie, fear, horror, grief, the physical impact and in incredible, sometimes horrifying detail.

There is overall very little political commentary in it. From the original journal she writes of Stalin: “I touch upon this subject carefully and rarely. They are still paralysed not only by Stalin’s hypnosis and fear, but also by their former faith.” This is not her interest; she is concerned with “‘small details’…the warmth and vividness of life”. The history she wants to write is “Not the history of a war or a state and not the lives of heroes, but the history of small human beings, thrown out of ordinary life into the epic depths of an enormous event. Into great History”.

It is at times almost unbearable to read. On more than one occasion I was forced to put it down on the verge of tears. One of her interviewees sums up well for me how I feel about this book. She commented in a segment that was cut by the censors in the original publication: “I’m sorry for those who will read this book, and for those who won’t.” The Unwomanly Face of War is quite simply astonishing.