“I am a historian of the soul,” the journalist Svetlana Alexievich wrote in her journal at some point between 1978 and 1985.
From any other writer, this would sound grandiose, even delusional.
In those years, however, Alexievich had embarked on a remarkable project. Inspired by the example of Ales Adamovich, the Belarusian poet and professor, she’d begun to turn Soviet history on World War II inside out.
Rather than report on troop movements, conferences, and battlefield heroics, on the play of ideas in the minds of the elites, she would focus on the stories of everyday people. In their voices.
Rather than tell history in the voices of men, she would report it in the voices of women. The more than 1 million Soviets who fought in the global conflict. And rather than write toward victory, she would tell the story of suffering.
“I think of suffering, as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery,” Alexievich wrote in that same journal.
“The Unwomanly Face of War” is the book that emerged from this project and its more than 500 interviews. It could not have appeared at a more opportune time. It was first published in Russian in 1985, just as the Soviet empire tilted toward perestroika. Over 2 million copies sold in the coming years as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union broke apart.
The book’s success launched one of the most remarkable literary careers of the past century, with Alexievich collaging — like an eastern Studs Terkel — several oral histories amounting to an emotional chronicle of the cost of communism. For this work, she won the Nobel Prize in 2015.
At last this volume is available in English. Alexievich’s introduction is worth the book’s cost alone. Anyone who has ever elicited important stories or traumatic remembrances ought to read it. Her descriptions of how she entered the homes of female veterans in Minsk and Moscow are profoundly sensitive. How she sat and drank tea; how she cried with them; how she waited for relatives to leave so the real stories could be told.
“Tell it the way I taught you,” one man says to his wife, after complaining she hasn’t brought out strawberries for Alexievich, who is there to interview her. “Without tears and women’s trifles: how you wanted to be beautiful, how you wept when they cut off your braid.”
Happily, many of the women did not listen to such men. “We were a cheerful cargo,” one says, sounding not unlike many World War II American GIs. “Cocky. Full of jokes. I remember laughing a lot.” Many had to have their hair cut short like a boy’s. Braids were snipped off, yet many begged to have them cut off. “I want to shoot! To shoot like he does,” says one woman who became a sniper, recalling her boyfriend’s declaration he was being sent to the front. She got her wish.
Women did everything — this book reminds and reveals. They learned to pilot planes and drop bombs, to shoot targets from great distances. They drove tanks and marched as foot soldiers. They were not sentimental about it. One hospital matron recalls being thrown from her feet when an ammunition dump was bombed. She came to after being unconscious, unglued her eyes, and arrived at a hospital covered in blood. “Where have you been so long, Xenia,” the head nurse scolds. “The wounded are hungry and you’re not there.”
The Germans were baffled by such an enemy. “Show me . . . the rifleman who killed so many of my soldiers,” one soldier recalls a German captive’s demand. After the officer learns it was a woman, he is flabbergasted. “You’re all beautiful,” he tells an interrogator. “Our propaganda tells us that it’s hermaphrodites and not women who fight in the Red Army.”
The gratitude of some of the women soldiers Alexievich talks to is immense. “Finally somebody wants to hear us,” one of them tells her. The women talked about the ways their problems differed from those of the men. One sergeant major describes rallying her cowering men to battle — “I took off my cap so they could see: a girl’s standing up . . . And they all stood up and we went into battle.” She wins a medal for bravery and later experiences for the first time “our . . . women’s thing.’’ Unsure of what is happening she calls out that she’s been wounded. “Where are you wounded” a paramedic asks. “I don’t know where . . . But there’s blood . . . ” she recalls replying. “He told me all about it, like a father.”
They were women, and they were young, and killing is hard. One sniper remembers having to kill a wild colt for food. Hiding from Germans in a swamp, another soldier, with a newborn baby, must do the most terrible thing to keep her comrades safe. “Once hand-to-hand combat begins,” a sergeant major says, “there’s immediately this crunching noise: the breaking of cartilage, of human bones. Animal cries.”
They were, however, not universally beloved for their sacrifices. One man says his wife, who did not fight, thinks the women soldiers “went to the war to find husbands.”
Like all soldiers, they lost limbs; sanity fled their minds like messenger pigeons. They also buried brothers, fathers, sisters, cousins, and in some cases, lovers, all this recorded beautifully by Alexievich, who guides us from interview to interview in brief italicized sections. Layering the quotations, and then moving on to a new theme: fear, love, victory, remembrance.
It is the stories of lost love that gouge the deepest. One woman’s husband is killed by shrapnel. She won’t let him be buried. She needs one more night. Then she decides to bring his body home from the front, several thousand miles to Belarus. “We had no children,” she begs a commander. “Our house burned down. No photographs are left. There’s nothing. If I bring him home, there will at least be a grave.” Eventually the man gives her permission to go.
One of the bafflements — itself baffling — expressed in skeptical reviews of Alexievich’s previous books concerned eloquence. Do people really speak this way? The catalogue of horrors and deprivations of this book is so vivid it seems monstrous not to fathom that time puts its most awful pressures on the story of a trauma. It carves them into the most true instrument.
Alexievich says as much in her introduction. To be so hungry as to eat potato peelings; to watch your children mimic the most deformed and yet courageous bravery. “[M]y mama can’t leave,” a mother recalls her young daughter telling a pilot who wants the two of them to board his plane and escape. “She has to fight the fascists.” Thousands upon thousands of them came home, and in this frightening and lacerating book — as beautiful as a ruined cathedral — Alexievich has turned their voices into history’s psalm.
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR:
An Oral History of Women in World War II
By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Random House, 384 pp., $30
John Freeman is editor of Freeman’s and author of “Maps,” a collection of poems forthcoming this fall.