'No heroes, just people': Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War

Posted on 24th July 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'How can what is human in human beings be protected? That is the question I am trying to answer as I piece together the human spirit.'

A Nobel prize-winner, Belarusian journalist, activist and dissident, Svetlana Alexievich has made it her life’s work to bring people closer to the human face of conflict; interviewing women, children, ordinary citizens and soldiers, the true witnesses to war. Internationally acclaimed, her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War has sold more than two million copies worldwide but has only now been made available in English. An astonishing archive, giving voice to hundreds of Soviet women affected by the Second World War and its aftermath, the Times this weekend called it ‘a symphony of feminine suffering and strength’. 

Here, in a new introduction written exclusively for Waterstones, Alexievich offers a rare glimpse into an extraordinary preservation of a forgotten history.

Translated by Arch Tait

My first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, is about war as seen and described by women. Why war? Because it has always been central in our lives. We are military people. We have always either been fighting a war or preparing to fight one, but everything we know about it we have heard from men. We are in thrall to men’s ideas and feelings about war. Men’s words … When women spoke to me there was nothing, almost nothing, of what we were used to hearing, about one lot of people heroically murdering other people and winning a victory, or losing, what kind of weapons they had, what the generals were like. The women told their stories differently, and what they talked about was different. They saw things in different colours, described them in a different light, brought a new dimension, used their own words. There were no heroes, no officially certified feats of heroism. Just people.

If men are hostage to a war culture, women are not. At the back of what they tell you is an awareness that war is murder. Killing. A woman machine-gunner is describing hand-to-hand fighting, when someone is no longer a human being but a wild animal that wants to live. It hacks and stabs – in the eyes, in the heart, in the stomach.

I put my books together from hundreds of details, nuances and tints. Sometimes all that remains after a full day’s conversation is a single sentence, but what a sentence! ‘I was so little when I went to the front line, I was growing taller during the war.’ Or, after I have been sitting a good four hours with a woman who was a sub-machine gunner and heard only the standard newspaper clichés: ‘The outbreak of war ... and we, young Soviet girls, at one with the men, made haste to take up our post on the front line, as the Motherland instructed …’ I am just wanting to get out of this house, having given up hope of breaking through the platitudes, the propaganda, the history according to men; but then she asks me to sit down again. ‘I’ll tell you ... You can never imagine how dreadful it is to face death at dawn: birds singing, the stillness, and in a few minutes the command is going to come: “Shoot!” The grass is so clean, the air is so bright, but you may have to die.’ That is where literature begins. And then, as our conversation is ending, she remembers, ‘After the battle we walk over the field looking for survivors – perhaps someone might still be alive – but there they are, lying on the trampled wheat, like scattered potatoes, looking up at the sky, the Germans and our soldiers, so young and fine. You feel sorry for all of them.’

It is a slow business, putting together the image of a time from those stories. What kind of people were those living then? What did they really think and feel? What did they believe in, what were they afraid of? What superstitions did they have, what half-formed intuitions about the meaning of life? I asked those women who had waged war how a person lives with the idea they have the right to kill another person, and does not lose their mind. It was all too simple, the way people died, the way they killed other people in the name of some grand ideal.

All my books have had a hard time of it. We were not just slaves, we romanticized our slavery. The Unwomanly Face of War was held up for three years and I was accused of uninspiring realism and pacifism. The censor was particularly outraged by the episode relating how 200 army girls are on the march, with men marching behind trying not to look down at the bloodstains they are leaving in the sand. The women are having those days when they need cotton wool, and none is issued to them in the Soviet army. They are ashamed. When they reach the river crossing there is bombing. The men take cover but the women go into the water to wash themselves. A perfect target! Nearly all are strafed by aircraft.

‘Why are you wallowing in all this biology? You ought to be writing about the heroism!’ the censor yelled. I tried to convince him that people are complicated, made of all sorts of stuff, including biology, that I am interested in the body as a nexus between nature and history, that ideas cannot be plaster-white like our statues. That page was struck out of the first edition anyway; I only managed to get it back in ten years later, during Perestroika. The censor even cut out the paragraph where I asked a woman, who was a sniper, ‘What did you take to the war with you?’ Her answer? ‘A suitcase full of chocolates. I spent the whole of my last wages buying chocolates.’ How we laughed! ‘Do you really think that is history? Sweets?’ the censor scolded me. ‘Yes,’ I told him. ‘Details like that are what lodge in people’s minds.’

But then, when the book was published, my heroines were upset. They felt they were not heroic enough. They wanted more heroism. I received letters lamenting, ‘I have three medals and here I am talking all this feminine nonsense.’ It fell to the public, when the book sold 2 million copies, to persuade them – those were the years of Perestroika – that this was exactly the truth that needed to be told, the human truth you can only reveal if you come forward and talk calmly about what life is really like: ‘This is what I realized, this is what I know, this is what I saw.’

I have never aimed to put together a collection of horrors from the past in order to dumbfound the reader. I am assembling a human being. Dostoevsky asked, ‘How human is a human being?’ How can what is human in human beings be protected? That is the question I am trying to answer as I piece together the human spirit. You may say that is impossibly ephemeral, too elusive, but this is the effort art makes. Every time it gives its own answers.

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The long-awaited translation of the classic oral history of Soviet women's experiences in the Second World War - from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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