The Unwomanly Face of War
By: Svetlana Alexievich, Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
The unforgettable oral history of Soviet women’s experiences in the Second World War from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, The Unwomanly Face of War is Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of stories from Soviet women who lived through the Second World War: on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories. As Alexievich gives voice to women who are absent from official narratives – captains, sergeants, nurses, snipers, pilots – she shows us a new version of the war we’re so familiar with, creating an extraordinary
alternative history from their private stories.
Published in 1985 in Russia, The Unwomanly Face of War was Alexievich’s first book and a huge bestseller in the Soviet Union, establishing her as a brilliantly revolutionary writer.
Svetlana Alexievich has been on my wish-to-read list ever since I heard she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her specialisation is oral history in major Soviet events, and I was quite intrigued when I heard that this particular book was published in English a few years ago.
My initial impression: Oh man, where was this book when I was studying Soviet Russian history in my undergrad and grad school programmes? Sure, I could’ve read it in its original Russian but my Russian is nowhere near that good, lol.
Anyway, what a profoundly important book. It is sad how these women’s voices were silenced after the war, unable to express their experiences during the war because it did not fit the official narrative, how outside the social norm their experiences and roles were. War upends a lot of things, turns things inside out, places people in situations they should not be in but are forced to play. Some of them wanted to fight for the cause, some of them were forced to join up, but the things they experienced are altering and scarring, and their difficulty returning back to civilian life palpable. Their experiences varied depending on what roles they played and where in the battlefield they operated at, but their stories are unified in their experiences as women and as civilians who signed up under the Soviet regime. And again their stories also reflect just the destructiveness of war, of facing your enemy who is just as human as you are in suffering and in facing war, and the aftermath.
This little blurb of mine does not do this book justice but suffice to say this is such an important book and how wonderful it is that Svetlana Alexievich was able to compile these stories while these women were still alive and able to express some of their experiences in one way or the other. I cannot recommend this book enough.