The One with the Unrecognized Heroines

Svetlana Alexievich, War’s Unwomanly Face (Russian, 1983)

I was curious to read this book because I had heard of Svetlana Alexievich for her Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 and I had no clue what kind of books she had written. I was surprised to find it in the History shelves at my local library, slightly by chance, as I had mistakenly believed that she was writing fiction. How wrong I was! This is a very powerful book of oral history, by hundreds of women who have talked to Svetlana Alexievich and confided to her with their private memories of the war, many of which had never been shared with others before.

The Nobel prize motivation is “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” It is very accurate of my own reading experience, which is quite unlike what I’ve read before. I have read poliphobic books before, but not that big and not that raw. I am claiming this book as read, but to be completely honest, I read a bit more than half the book. These memories are very harrowing and the accumulation makes it even more difficult. I could only read it in short spurts. So much hardship! So much blood and tears!

The thing that made me come back to the book again and again was the feminist vision of war. Women are often seen as civilian victims, but not fighters, and the book shows an often ignored part of the Second world war in the Soviet union: girls and women enlisted and fought next to the men. They were as brave if not braver, having to fight prejudice among their fellow fighters first before getting to the front lines. But the Soviet union was so desperate in its defense against the Nazis that beggars can’t be choosers.

When I saw that the book was originally published in the early 1980s, I was reminded of the kind of Communist literature about wars, that insists on sacrifices for the great motherland, on strong men and women fighting the ennemy side by side. But this book goes well beyond that, as it shines a light on the not-so-glorious behavior of the Soviet men, and never ever glorifies war, even when some women speak strongly of fraternity and courage under fire.

The bitter part of these memories is to see that these courageous, even fearless women were not recognized as such as the end of the war: contrary to their fellow fighters they didn’t get medals but suspicion and distrust instead. They had transgressed some tabu and they were no longer marriage material, even tainting their younger sisters by association. The women who had left kids in the care of family to fight had difficulties to get them back because they were deemed unfit mothers. And countless others preferred to stay silent over their experience of the war when their husbands, male colleagues were flaunting theirs.

I can’t say that you’ll love reading that book, but you won’t forget it anytime soon.

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