This time, I am going to review another non-fiction book after a long time. It is ‘The Unwomanly Face of War; by Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian journalist and activist. Alexievich is the first Belorussian to win the Nobel prize, receiving it in 2015. In this book, she gathered the stories of Soviet women who participated in the WWII and held different positions. This perspective of the is often forgotten in the official accounts of the history, so it was a welcoming change of pace. The stories and the women retelling their memories are diverse, covering different aspects of warfare, from a sniper and an aircraft pilot to a nurse and women working in laundry rooms. Overall, this was a hard book to read due to the nature of the theme, but I did enjoy the honest depiction of the war by these women.
As I am from Serbia, a country somewhat culturally and historically connected to Russia and Soviet Union, I was aware of the role Soviet troops had in the WWII. (Side note, Serbian national television transmits live recordings of the 9th of May parade from Moscow that my mother always watches.) I was also always aware that some of the most highly decorated snipers in the war was Soviet women. So, the idea of women fighting in the war was not new to me. However, I feel like I did learn so much from this book. On one hand, I did not know that there were women in pretty much all parts of Soviet army, but then again, why wouldn’t there be? Throughout their stories, these women did not always remember the exact location or the time of the battle. These are not accounts of major military movements, but personal, heart-wrenching stories about horrors of the war. For me, it was fascinating to read that they remember the tiniest details from their time in the war, that would probably seem too insignificant to be placed in official historical accounts of the war.
Alexievich divided the book into several chapters and sub chapters, each focusing on a more specific aspect of the war. The chapter that truly made me cry was ‘Mama, what’s a Papa?’ in which women recounted their experiences as mothers, many of them having to leave their children behind when they went to war. Their depictions of returning to now almost adult children who do not remember them at all were extremely hard to read. In other chapters, there are certain elements that most of them mention. For one, a lot of them went completely gray, even though they were mostly young women, girls even. They also discuss the issue of having periods in the war, and how male commanders often times did not know what to do with that. Overall, it seems that even though these women were equal participants in the war, they had to fight tooth and nail to be perceived as capable and deserving. On top of that, a lot of them were physically smaller and younger, which often added to this problem of being taken seriously by their male peers.
In prologue, Alexievich wrote about how at first, nobody wanted to publish her book, as it was deemed anti-soviet and anti-Victory. Some went so far as if to say that by doing this, she is diminishing the heroic men and women fighting in the war. In reality, Stalin’s politics after the war essentially erased women’s participation the war. So, when Alexievich asked for their own personal stories and accounts, some of them openly said they were waiting for somebody who wanted to hear and write them down. For some of them, this was the first opportunity to do so. However, those who were married were often discouraged to speak of the war by the men in their lives. Often, their husbands too were in the war and remember it quite differently than them. They also recalled about how after returning from war, some of them had to hide that they were in the war, as they believed that no man will want to marry them. Instead of being welcomed back and praised, often they were seen as lower level of people, being accused of all sorts of immoral acts. They also remember that a lot of it came from other women. In line with Stalin’s politics, many of them have faced members of their families being sent to gulags or being tortured by their own on accusations of betrayal. In many cases, they were accused simply because they survived being the Nazi camps. Some of them managed to clear their name and return, while others perished this way. I cannot imagine how horrifying would it be to survive the war, only to be accused of treason and tortured by the same people you fought for.
I can absolutely appreciate the mammoth work and personal sacrifices that Alexievich must have gone through to bring this book to publication. However, I must say there were a couple of things I did not like. First of all, at times, women mention a lot of names of figures that were relevant and significant to them for whatever reason. Although there is usually a small note at the bottom of the page about them, at times, I felt like their significance was not entirely clear to me. Similarly, I was confused by some of the events referenced in the book. So, I would suggest looking at least a bit about Soviet history and their participation in the WWII. Additionally, I read this book in English, and I am not sure that was the right choice. I feel like a lot of conversational language that our multiple narrators used and Alexievich recorded did not translate entirely to English. I appreciate that this book was translated to English, as I believe that more people in the West should know about these women, but if you can, I would suggest reading it in the original Russian or perhaps translated to another Slavic language. Finally, some of the accounts were extremely short of only a couple of sentences, while some were couple of pages long. I did not mind the long passages but I cannot help but want to hear more from those women who were only given a few sentences. Again, I cannot even imagine the amount of accounts Alexievich had and the work she had to do to sort through them all, but I am not always sure what was the criteria for how much space will each woman get.
Overall, this is an extremely well crafted and executed book that tells an often forgotten story about Soviet women fighting in the war, shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ is an important book that finally gave these women their voices back and praised them for their fight. Despite the few issues I had with it, I can recommend this book to anyone. Everyone should read it, but keep in mind that it is far from an easy read and will break your heart at times.