This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.
The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.
From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.
Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world
As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.
There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.
A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.
I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.
5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich”
Sounds fascinating and after you mentioned it the other day I contacted the publisher and they’ve promised me a copy, so thanks for the heads up! Intriguingly, when I was reading Trotsky’s history of the Revolution, he also mentioned a women’s corp who at one point were defending the Winter Palace from the ‘masses’. So it looks as though the idea of arming women went right back to the very first days of the Revolution, if not before. Trotsky, in his usual misogynistic little way, was kinda sneery about them, sadly…
That’s great – I think you’ll enjoy it. There does seem to be more of a history of women soldiers in Russia than in other countries. And from what I’ve read they’re certainly nothing to sneer at!
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