Page numbers are taken from the Random House paperback (2018).
In view of current events, please keep comments focused on history only. Thank you!
Before picking up this book, my knowledge of the Soviet women of World War II was cursory at best. A mythical image might arise of a young woman with dark hair styled in vintage 40s curls, carrying a bright smile under her smart cap and uniform. I knew there had been one or two renowned female fighter pilots . . . that was about as much as I had ever heard of. As a millennial American child, my mind was more culturally attuned to Rosie the Riveter, or girls seated at typewriters. I went into Svetlana Alexievich’s book expecting I would learn something about these bold female pilots and maybe a few others.
Well, yes… but also no. This book is about them, and so many more.
If we are only now learning about the one-million female soldiers who served in all areas of the Soviet military (p. xii), it is no surprise. The hundreds of interviews which comprise this volume took place far later, in the late 70s and early 80s. The manuscript was then silenced by censorship for two years, deemed by the state as having the potential to tarnish a great and glorious Victory (see Penguin). The first (censored) Soviet edition was published in 1985—the English-reading world did not receive a translation until 2018. Thus, we grow up with gaping holes in our knowledge of history, even of events with unparalleled documentation.
These are the main statistics you will find in the book. It is not a typical history book listing a chronology, battles, or strategies and politics. Nor will you find survey data of the quantitative kind. The Unwomanly Face of War is an oral history, meaning it is a vessel of many voices, feelings, and tears. It is as much about the shock and pain of memory as it is about the memories themselves.
Each chapter of the book contains a collection of interview excerpts, and each excerpt is titled with the woman’s name and her job—surgeon, driver, nurse, gunner, baker, and sniper, to name a few. Alexievich steps further away from narration and simply relates what each now-elderly woman told her about their motives for enlistment, their initiation into warfare, and the things they missed or were haunted by. In the background looms the tyranny of Stalin and the cruel reception some soldiers received upon their return home (some to labor camps, p. xlii), a chill often lingering into their twilight years.
What made these interviews truly special was the author’s ability to help these survivors speak from their hearts. While others (even their own husbands) might have told them to quell their trauma and focus on the victories, these women found an open-minded listener in Alexievich. The further on you read, the more their voices blend together and their names recede into a single plea to be heard.
It is from the Nazis’ war crimes in their invasion of the USSR (DW) that we can best understand why so many women, many of them teenage girls, felt convicted to take up arms. Burnings of villages with people alive are mentioned more than once as a Nazi atrocity. “They burned my mother and little sisters on a bonfire in the middle of our village . . .” recounts one woman, trying to explain her side’s savage brutality against captured German prisoners (p. xxxiv).
This is not the only account where a personal trauma inspired immense hatred of the enemy and religious-like devotion to the nation. In a war with so much at stake and so many casualties (“There weren’t enough men, they had all been killed . . . Or taken prisoner”), a patriotic girl could find a place at the front, sometimes by her family’s blessing and other times by running away from home. There were many other motives, too, such as the chance to get better food rations in a time of starvation. The prospect of fighting for glory or gender equality seems to have been far from any of these women’s minds—only death to the invaders and loyalty to home.
The title of the book points to a theme which the author repeatedly highlights—namely, that for most of these women she cites, the idea of participating in war came as a contradiction to their gender. Many went to the front as singing schoolgirls, soon to mourn their lost braids and struggle in uniforms that did not fit. More seriously, the experience took a terrible toll on their reproductive health, sometimes with permanent effect (p. 195).
Reactions to their presence were mixed. The young women usually had to prove their worth to their commanders, even if they had already had the requisite training and could aim a rifle as well as their male peers—and, in some cases, better. As my friend (who was also reading this book) observed, war was still deemed a masculine enterprise even as technology began to change what amount of physical strength was necessary in war.
Juxtaposed with this cultural model is the actual strength of the women themselves. Hauling the bodies and weapons of men off the battlefield, lugging supplies to the trenches, toiling in the grueling laundry unit, and giving medical aid amidst hand-to-hand combat . . . the mental and physical strength of these female soldiers is astounding, not to mention verified by the many medals they received alongside their male comrades.
“I was a tough, strong girl, but I know that in the war I was capable of doing more than in a peaceful life. Even physically. An unknown strength surged up from somewhere . . .” (p. 204)
Today, the debate on women-in-combat goes on, with arguments that are far beyond my knowledge (or frankly, interest) to participate in. What I am convinced of, after reading this book, is that women are not so physically weak as might be expected and that they can accomplish a lot in many front-line roles.
Personally, of course, I am more interested in how we can all avoid war than in how we can get more people involved.
There is so much more I could write about this book, but I want to stop here. I recommend it highly, but I also recommend you read it as quickly as possible, as it is incredibly depressing.
The spirit of these women defending their land and loved ones left me feeling very awed, not to mention more grateful for my own life. Simultaneously, I could not be more convinced of the evil of war and the cruel transformation it works upon anyone in it . . . and their children and grandchildren. Knowing myself, I think I would have done the same things as these women. What else could they do? Still, this history reveals the darkness present even in an act of national self-defense, as well as the double-edged sword that is an undying loyalty to one’s country.
This is a book that does not glorify war; it simply helps us to understand it in a more human light.
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