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25 March 2017 @ 10:06 am
Review of "The Unwomanly Face of War", by Svetlana Alexievich, pub Penguin 2017 (English version)  
First published in Russian in 1985, this is not a history book, though it would make excellent source material for one. It is a collection of interviews with Russian women who lived through World War 2 – a few were civilians but most saw active service and many on the front line, not only as nurses or cooks but as snipers, tank drivers, sappers, pilots and partisans, among many other roles.

The interviews themselves, which of course make up most of the book, are fascinating. They build up into an overall picture of experiences with some common elements but many disparate ones. For instance, the fierce patriotism and determination to serve seem to have been just about universal – as was the regret at parting with the long braided hair which was then the norm for Russian women. But while some commanders, desperate for troops, welcomed potential snipers or sappers irrespective of sex, others disapproved of women on the front line. Some women found nothing but kindness and support from their male colleagues; others found them predatory – "when there's gunfire they call out 'Nurse! Dear nurse!' But after the battle they all lie in wait for you… you can't get out of the dugout at night". Some women stopped menstruating and feared they would not be able to have children after the war; others didn't stop and were at their wits' end to cope with a condition for which the forces made no provision. Nearly all felt intense hatred of the invader, but most found they could not translate this into hatred for an actual individual and surprised themselves by offering kindness to captive enemies.

The hardships and dangers were often mitigated by their sense of being young, and caught up in something momentous – "there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naïve and so sincere. With such faith!" And there was, as always, humour to lighten matters, as when the commissar of a Field Laundry Unit working at the dangerous Kursk Salient has to put in a report that her girls have found and surrounded two wounded (but still armed) enemy soldiers coming out of a wood. "The next day we had a meeting of the commanders. The head of the political section said first thing, 'Well, comrades, I want to give you some good news: the war will soon be over. Yesterday the laundrywomen from the 21st Field Laundry Unit captured two Germans.'"

Nevertheless, many witnessed the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities, and even the more ordinary horrors of war stayed with some for life, like the ex-pilot who, long after, had to stop working in the field as a geologist when her health gave out: "A doctor came, took a cardiogram and asked 'When did you have a heart attack?'
'What heart attack?'
'Your heart is scarred all over'.
I must have acquired those scars during the war. You approach a target and you're shaking all over. Your whole body is shaking."

Perhaps the saddest aspect of their story, though, is what happened afterwards. Much later, by the time these interviews were conducted, their contribution was being recognised and feted, but immediately after the war they faced little but hostility, particularly from other women: "I lived in a communal apartment. My neighbours were all married and they insulted me. They taunted me, 'Ha-ha, tell us how you whored around there with the men'" – this to a decorated sergeant of riflemen who'd likely had rather too much else to think of at the time. Many of the girls' mothers, when they wanted to enlist, had protested "who will marry you afterwards?" and this proved prophetic; many indeed did not marry. Unlike the men, they tended not to wear their medals and felt their contribution was seen as an embarrassment. Yet, though some wished not to have their full names given, they were eager for the chance to tell the stories they felt had been airbrushed out of history: as one said, "it's terrible to remember but it's far more terrible not to remember".

Basically, then, this is not only a worthwhile exercise but a very gripping, if sometimes harrowing, read. But I must protest, once more, at the current practice, in historical and factual books, of including unnecessary prefaces detailing at inordinate length the author's "journey" in writing the book. I don't know if editors and publishers ask for this, but the writers seem to relish the chance to discard, in these prefaces, the sober style suited to their subject matter in favour of sentimental and self-obsessed gush about themselves and their work process. Here's my two-penn'orth as reader: dear writer, I don't give a damn about your "journey". I don't want to know why you wrote the book, how you felt when writing it or how many publishers you sent it to. Just spare us these "me, me, me" prefaces and get on to your subject. I recommend this book heartily, but I also recommend ignoring the fifty (!) pages it starts with. Go straight to the interviews.
Jules Jonesjulesjones on March 25th, 2017 11:36 am (UTC)
Thanks for reviewing this - it sounds a most excellent addition to my "to buy" list.