On Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’

Romhy Cubas
Aug 16, 2017 · 5 min read

Svetlana Alexievich | Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky
384 pages
6 1/8" x 9 1/4"
Also available in eBook and audio formats
ISBN 9780399588723
First English Edition
Random House
New York City, New York, United States
Available HERE

“[…] In the center, there is always the insufferable idea of death, nobody wants to die. And even more unbearable is to have to kill, because a woman gives life. She gives it away. She carries it inside for a long time, takes care of it. I’ve understood that for a woman to kill is much more difficult […]”

It comes with a terrifying emotion, the stanza of at least three million skilled and decided women leaving their houses and schools to wear men’s underwear and to shave their heads. Even now, when rights and equality cast a tangible pressure within the societies refusing to recognize them, it can be curious to think about the war beyond the profile of manly soldiers in the front. Of course, the first statement isn’t entirely true; yes, girls had to wear men’s clothes and get rid of their vast and wavy braids but that bravery was for one fair reason: to fight for their country in the middle of a World War.

It only takes five minutes of a war movie to spot a cargo of men with the photographs of their wives and girlfriends as only memoir of a woman’s touch; the detail that movies and books don’t usually illustrate is that females were more than a consolation portrait back in 1939, when the world became a battle camp from all possible skies, and in few accounts has this story has been told more accurately and faithfully that in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. Within these pages is a truth that we didn’t hear in school, and it has the appearance and soul of a woman battling for her life.

“[…] They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones. A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words tank driver, infantryman, machine gunner, because women had never done that work. The feminine forms were born there, in the war […]”

What a beautiful and tragic way of crafting genders for a profession, a feminine form born in war. Svetlana Alexievich declares with the title of her book — first published in 1985, but not translated uncensored into English until now — decades of testimonies and tapes recollected over seven years of research. It seems a lot of nights to write a book, but the Nobel Prize has a taste for those hidden truths that age with the sun. She has exposed that journalistic nature, as well, with works such a Voices of Chernobyl or Secondhand Time, her most recent work about the collapse of the former Soviet Union, in which, as in The Unwomanly Face of War, she recollects hundreds of voices that tell not the story of tragedy and war but the story of the soul that gets to survive throughout them. Particularly in this oral narrative, Alexievich tells the life of the one million Russian women who fought in the Soviet Army. Undoubtedly she couldn’t interview them all but the 200 testimonies are enough to reveal an ignored landscape within the war.

“[…] Women war has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats; there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things [. …]”

The value of these pages comes with the voices given to those women who, at their return from the front, were rejected and mocked for their unworthy condition and accused of sleeping with alien husbands and of dirtiness and impurity. In the clarity of hindsight, this can easily be the story of all of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters.

The book is divided into short but cutting subtitles such as “Of Mommies and Daddies” or “Of Oath and Prayers,” along with simple but insightful entries by the author as a form of reflection. The ultimate emotional and objective view is left for the eyes of the reader; the history told in the smile of a woman becomes, for some reason, much more real but also much more painful. Through the chronicle, the testimonies repeat themselves, reiterating a sense of duty and love for their land that becomes a statement of time.

These girls, barely teenagers, start their memories in college, returning from the country or from school, laughing with their friends, some of them turning 16 and 17 years old that summer of 1939 when the cake and candles were the last things on their minds when the war notice came. They all presented directly to the offices of registration not to sew, not to launder, not to cook, but to drive and shoot, to operate and repair. That was a common thread; these weren’t girls crying because of the war, but begging to go to the front.

It is easy to pass hastily through these pages, only to realize in a few hours that you have lived a hundred lives with these women, and as them, survived. The memoir questions the human nature at its core of these same faces intent to internalize how they are still standing after all the blood and death, after the loss, the gains, the fears that still inhabit them in front of the color red or the smell of burned meat.

Then the final condition, the one that tries to figure out how to walk in a world without the presence of the war, between the living and the dead.

“[…] About thirty years pass before they began to pay us honors … To invite us to give presentations … At first, we hid, we did not even show our decorations. The men, they put them on, the women did not. The men were the victors, the heroes; the grooms had made the war, but they looked at us with other eyes. In a very different way … They took away our Victory, you know? […]”

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

Romhy Cubas

Written by

Venezuelan journalist living in Berlin. I like to think that I can live without wifi. I read then I think. MA Literature student.

The Coil

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.