“We are all captives of men’s notions and men’s sense of war,” writes Svetlana Alexievich in “The Unwomanly Face of War,” her oral history of women in World War II. “Women’s stories are different and about different things. … There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”
At least 800,000 women served in the Soviet military during World War II — as snipers, pilots, cooks and surgeons. Yet their voices rarely have been heard, especially in the English-speaking world. The interviews for this book were conducted in the 1970s and ’80s; the book was published in Russia in 1985, selling 2 million copies.
Alexievich, a Belarusian writer, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature for a kind of literature that she describes as “the history of the soul.” She interviews scores of witnesses to history as a means of exploring how catastrophe has seared their internal lives.
“I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts and words,” Alexievich said in her speech to the Nobel committee. “The things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”
“The Unwomanly Face of War” introduces us to the heartbreak and heroism of women Alexievich tracked down and interviewed over cups of tea at kitchen tables, often long into the night. Many describe their naive excitement when enlisting, getting their long braids clipped and military uniforms assigned. That eagerness quickly faded.
A cook reveals a different perspective on the immense scope of Russian casualties. “Sometimes after battle there would be no one left to eat,” she says. “I’d cook a whole pot of soup, a pot of kasha, and there would be no one to give it to.”
A former nurse says: “I saw so many cut-off arms and legs. It was hard to believe that somewhere whole men existed.”
Another woman introduces us to a less obvious threat — the rats that ate the flesh off the hands of wounded soldiers who were too sick and injured to move. A former rifleman couldn’t shake one particular indignity. “You’re at war. You’re preparing to die for the Motherland. And you’re wearing men’s underpants.”
The stories — translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky — are abundant, compelling and fresh. But we learn little about most of the women beyond their names, military titles and quotations. Alexievich’s editing leaves little room to describe their faces, their families, their homes — the context of their stories. It leads to a sometimes choppy format that calls out for more narration.
The book’s English publication comes on the heels of Alexievich’s much acclaimed “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets,” published in English in 2016. Both follow a similar format, which has transformed Alexievich into the foremost oral historian of the Soviet socialist experiment.
Jean Hopfensperger is a Star Tribune reporter.
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.
Publisher: Random House, 331 Pages, $30.