The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

A valuable but somewhat biased contribution…

🙂 🙂 🙂

During World War II, many women in Soviet Russia went off to war, not just in the traditional female roles of nurses, cooks, etc., but to take up arms themselves – to kill or die for their country. When they came home – those who came home – they were not lauded as heroines. At best their service was forgotten; at worst, they were seen as unwomanly, no longer suitable marriage material, sometimes even shunned by those around them. Decades later in 1985, as Soviet Russia was about to enter the period of glasnost (openess) under then President Gorbachev, Svetlana Alexievich published this collection of oral histories from some of the women who served. For her ground-breaking work, including this book, Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. This is the first time the book has been translated into English, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current leaders in the field of Russian-English translation.

There is no doubt of the importance of this work in bringing a piece of the Soviet Union’s lesser-known history to light, and for giving a voice to many women who had been silenced by their society’s desire to forget their contribution. Many of the memories Alexievich records show the patriotism and courage of these women, while also giving an insight into their naivety as they set off for “the Front” – words that seem almost to have taken on an element of propaganda, as something glorious and heroic. The reality, of course, was brutal and barbaric. Alexievich tries to understand why so many women – girls, in many cases, often only sixteen or seventeen – were determined to cut off their cherished braids, learn to shoot or fly or bandage wounds, and set off for war.

I left for the front a materialist. An atheist. I left as a good Soviet schoolgirl, who had been well taught. And there . . . There I began to pray . . . I always prayed before a battle, I read my prayers. The words were simple . . . My own words . . . They had one meaning, that I would return to mama and papa.

The answers were as varied as the girls themselves. Some went against the opposition of their mothers, because they had lost a father or brother or lover and wanted revenge. Some saw it as a great patriotic duty. Some were more or less forced into it by parents who had no sons to send, or who had already lost their sons in the carnage. Some went simply because their friends were going. Some, and these were the saddest, saw it as an exciting adventure. Often the recruiting officers tried to talk them out of it, but the girls were determined to go – I formed the distinct impression it had simply become the ‘done thing’, a kind of macabre fashion statement. When they got there, the men they were to serve with often saw them at first as an annoyance – just another thing they needed to worry about. But many of these girls soon became vital cogs in an army that was losing men in almost unimaginable numbers. Alexievich lets us hear from snipers, girls who worked dragging the injured from burning tanks, women who flew war planes or manned their guns, surgeons who worked through extreme exhaustion to treat a never-ending stream of men and women with horrific injuries, nurses who tried to give some comfort to those in agony, waiting for death.

I had some reservations though, mainly around Alexievich’s intentions. Apparently she interviewed hundreds of women and received written accounts from many more. At the beginning of each section, she gives a little introduction telling the story of how she collected and selected her material, and it was these that made me wonder about her agenda. She becomes emotional to the point of mawkishness again and again, often inserting herself into the middle of a memory to show how deeply it has affected her. She admits immediately to being obsessed with death, and I felt it became clear quite quickly that she also had what felt like an unhealthy, voyeuristic obsession with suffering.

I listen to the pain . . . Pain as the proof of past life. There are no other proofs, I don’t trust other proofs. Words have more than once led us away from the truth.

I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery. With the mystery of life. All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love.

And these women tell me more about it . . .

She makes plain – though I’m not sure intentionally – that she dismissed memories that didn’t meet her criteria. So women who wanted to talk about pride in the eventual victory rather than suffering were dismissed, with it being signalled that they had been indoctrinated by men to think about the ‘man’s’ war rather than the ‘woman’s’.

Svetlana Alexievich
(Photo by Elke Wetzig)

I couldn’t help but feel that she was very close to distorting history to suit her agenda – to prove that women suffer more, have bigger hearts, more capacity for empathy, find it harder to kill. True? Perhaps. Or perhaps some form of reverse sexism. We live now in a world where women regularly serve on front lines – in some countries it has been the norm for decades, if not centuries – and I doubt if our female soldiers would relish being portrayed as somehow less fitted for war, or that the many men who live with ongoing emotional trauma are happy to be considered less feeling. I also felt that Alexievich’s sympathy for the women only lasted until it interfered with her work. I was particularly put off by one anecdote she recounts, when she sent a transcript to a woman she had interviewed. The woman scored out some personal stuff and said her son would be horrified to read it, since she had never told him. But Alexievich overrode the woman’s objections and printed it anyway, carefully including the woman’s full name. It felt as abusive as anything the society she is criticising had done to the women.

Some of the extracts are intensely moving, some so horrifying they are difficult to read. Others left me curiously untouched – repetition dulls the senses perhaps. Eventually I found I was having to force myself to pick the book up, so finally gave up at about two-thirds of the way through. I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, but one that needs to be viewed with a certain amount of caution as having been too carefully selected to bolster the author’s viewpoint, rather than to give an unbiased and balanced platform for the memories of the women who served.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics.

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30 thoughts on “The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

  1. Imagine how powerful this would have been if it had been published as a selection of the women’s stories, rather than having been manipulated to tell a particular story. The author commenting in the middle of the stories must have been irritating, unnecessary too. Although, I think everyone manipulates history and stories to promote their own agenda, I don’t think it is possible to tell a story without doing this.

    • It would have been much more powerful! I also could see why she quoted them all exactly, but I found the style very tiring … all those… pauses… and… you know… speech mannerisms… you know? But I got very irritated by her suddenly popping up in the middle of someone’s story – most historians have some kind of bias as you say, but most of them try to keep themselves in the background. I suppose she’s a journalist rather than a historian, but most good journalists don’t feel they have to be part of the story either. I’m afraid it just didn’t quite work for me…

  2. There is definitely a difference, as an author, between admitting a bais and working around it versus actually manipulating the story to fit the bias. Sounds like one of those books that is frustratingly close to being something fantastic to read.

    • I think that’s a great description of it – had she managed to keep herself out of it more and at least try for some balance it would have been a much better book. As it is, I found it…difficult.

  3. I was pumped about this book at the beginning of your review. Celebrating the fact that women did go to war is important, especially since in the States we’re still fighting over whether or not women are a burden to male soldiers, especially how “tempting” it is to sexually assault female soldiers. But if this author is screwing with the information, she’s being unethical, and I don’t want any part of that.

    • I have to admit that I can’t quite get my head round why women want to go to war, but that’s to do with my age, upbringing, society, etc., etc. So in that sense I could see where Alexievich was coming from. But if someone is writing about history they have to at least be aware of their own biases and fight against them. I felt Alexievich was mostly trying to prove how wonderfully empathetic SHE was – not what I expected from the book…

  4. The topic itself – these women and their stories – is fascinating and moving and powerful, and I can see how it would be absolutely gripping, FictionFan. I’ve been hearing good things about it, too. But if the author is being manipulative, that’s enough for me. Oh, and this could have been remarkable…

    • There is good stuff in it, Margot, but the author made herself too much a part of the ‘story; for my taste – historians (or journalists) should be in the background, and should at least try to fight against bias, I feel. And her selective approach and printing stuff when she’d been asked not to left a rather sour taste…

  5. I can understand – somewhat – if someone has “an agenda” to focus on aspects of war that have not been acknowledged; to draw people out of their own numbness, or lack of empathy and compassion. But the idea of going against interviewees wishes for discretion is very disturbing. Hopefully, one day I will get around to reading The Unwomanly Face of War, myself. Thank you for your thoughts on this one.

    • Certainly many people seem to be far less critical of it than I’ve been, so perhaps my own biases come into play – I really prefer with factual books for the author, historian or journalist, to be firmly in the background, whereas I felt this book was almost as much about Alexievich’s feelings and agenda as about the women’s stories. And whether one agrees or disagrees with her viewpoint, the dismissal of memories that didn’t suit her purpose made the book seem seriously flawed, while including things that she’d been asked not to left a very sour taste…

  6. I don’t think this one’s for me, and your review pretty well clinches it. As a former journalist, I was trained in fair and truthful. This one feels a bit contrived and selective. Okay, that’s done. On to the weekend!!

    • There’s some interesting and moving stuff in it, but it felt too skewed to meet the author’s agenda for my taste. I know we all bring our biases to things, but most of us at least try to recognise when we’re doing it…

  7. I really wanted to read this book, and I would have despite your objections. But by her deliberately ignoring one woman’s request to take out personal information, and not even changing the woman’s name, she’s lost me. That trust should not be broken on purpose.

    • I must say that’s how I felt too, and what surprised me is that she told the anecdote herself, so clearly didn’t think she had done anything wrong. It would have been so easy to anonymise it if she felt it had to be in… though I didn’t think it was so important or enlightening that it would have made much difference if it had been left out completely.

    • There is interesting stuff in it, but in the end I just got so irritated by the author continually telling me how devastated she felt and then by her using the women herself. A pity, but as usual lots of people have been far less critical than I have, so maybe it’s me…

    • It is intriguing – pity it didn’t quite live up to the premise, for me at least. No, I haven’t seen the film, but looking at the blurb it sounds interesting – I shall add it to my watchlist!

  8. Yeesh I’m surprised the publisher agreed to include the statements that the woman wanted taken out, not only is that unethical for an author to include but a major publisher like penguin should know better!

    • I suppose Penguin were in the position of either sticking with how it was originally published or being accused of censorship. The odd thing is that, as usual, I seem to be in a small mintority of reviewers criticising her methods – maybe it’s me! But I fear it left a sour taste…

  9. I’ve been really interested in reading this, especially as lately I’ve been reading a lot about women serving in the Forces, and I’m disappointed to learn that it’s so biased. I will probably still read it (the bias in itself is an interesting reflection of the time/culture in which it was happening), but it is a shame that she manipulated the accounts and violated people’s trust in this way.

    • Yes, I think that’s a very fair point about the bias reflecting the time and culture. I think it was her insertion of herself and her own feelings that put me off most – I prefer factual writers of history to keep themselves in the background and let the events speak for themselves as much as possible. And the violation of trust left a very sour taste. I’ll be interested to hear what you think, if you do get around to reading it…

  10. All historians manipulate the facts and work to their own agenda – at least you were very clear that this was happening in this book, although that intrusive an author can be quite annoying, I agree.

    I had been eyeing this book, but feel less certain now. Thanks for your honest review.

    • That’s true, and in my written notes I did comment at one point that at least she was being transparent, but I’m afraid I still found her constant insertion of herself and her feelings too mawkish, and her dismissal of anything that got in the way of the picture she was trying to paint invalidated a lot of it, I felt. However, as usual, there are plenty of people who found it far more worthwhile than me, so I hope I haven’t put you off completely…

  11. Oh dear. That piece of information about the personal story of one woman, included without her consent, and naming her, as you so rightly say, is abusive. And has made me feel sick for her. Not a book I will read, now. Shame on you Svetlana Alexievich’

    • Yes, although I read on for a good bit after that, it was at that point that my general annoyance at her style became actual dislike of her methods, and from there on I found it hard to read without wondering what other excerpts the women might not have wanted printed. I know it was that that led me to abandon the book in the end, more than any other irritation I had with it…

  12. Thank you for such a reasoned and interesting review. This book caught my attention when it was included in the Guardian’s list of books to look out for in 2017, but in the end I thought I’d wait for the reviews before diving in myself. It does sound like it will add a lot to my understanding of this period of Russian history – though from the issues you raise, I’m not sure I’m ready to start reading just yet …

    • Thnaks, Shoshi. I do think it adds a different facet to the accepted history, and that might be why I was so irritated at what I saw as its flaws. It’s one of those ones thought that, although I can’t say it worked for me, I don’t really want to put other people off reading, so I hope you might get re-inspired by some more positive reviews…

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