Book Review: “The Unwomanly Face of War” by Svetlana Alexievich

September 29, 2017

By Les Conklin

Perhaps you,ve read “Unbroken,” “Matterhorn,” “The Guns of August,” “The Naked and the Dead,” “War and Peace,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “The Civil War, A Narrative,” “1776,” or “Flags of Our Fathers.” These books, like almost all books about war, have been written by men and describe military campaigns, tactics and heroic actions carried out by men. “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II,” by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Svetlana Alexievich, provides a profoundly different perspective of war. Fortunately, an English version of the book, which was written by this Russian woman and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, was recently released for us to read.

An Oral History

During World War II, 225,000 women served in the British Army, 450,000 – 500,000 in the American forces, and 500,000 in the German military. About one million women fought in the Soviet army. They served as tank drivers, nurses, snipers, airplane pilots, laundry workers, sappers – in every capacity carried out by men.

Can you imagine learning that German invaders were advancing into your “Motherland”? Especially after coming to believe in the invincibility of your vast country, then under the rule of Stalin and the  Communist Party. Men and then the boys, had left the Russian villages and cities – many of them doomed to suffer death or life-long handicaps – to fight the Germans. Most girls were anxious to also go to “The Front.” When these girls returned home after the defeat of the Germans, their stories were sublimated to those of the men. And, their service to their country was treated in a manner reminiscent of that experienced by returning Viet Nam War vets in the United States, but  worse.

“The Unwomanly Face of War” is an oral history based on the personal narratives provided by Russian woman who enlisted as girls and served in World War II from 1942 to 1945. From 1978 to 1985, the author visited hundreds of these these women. Since the end of the war, they had lived and worked as wives, widows, accountants, clerks, shop keepers, farmers, doctors, mothers, and grandmothers. A few were anxious to finally tell their stories, but most were reluctant or had difficulty talking about their war experiences. Usually the author would spend hours at the “girl’s” kitchen table, listening and coaxing the recollection of feelings buried in the recesses of their minds.

Alexlevich described her objective in capturing these narratives, “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings… There are no heroes or incredible feats, there are simply people who are busily doing inhumanly human things. And, it is not only they (people!) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees. All that lives on earth with us. They suffer without words, which is still more frightening.”

Times and Censorship Change

Prior to the 1985 publishing of “The Unwomanly Face of War,” the narratives had been censored by the Communist regime or by the author prior to turning the manuscript over to censors. From 2002 to 2004, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, Alexlevich returned to her original notes, resurrecting the uncensored oral histories , I found the section of the book containing this previously censored work particularly insightful because it reflects pre-Gorbachev Community beliefs and propaganda.

Easy to Read, Difficult to Put Down

This is an easy book to read and a difficult book to put down. The narratives are brief, very understandable, and emotionally riveting. Given the current American interest in Russia, this is a good time to gain an understanding of this part of Russia’s history Whether you are male or female, like or dislike stories about war, read this book! It is available at Amazon and all major book sellers.

About the Author

Svetlana Alexievich has spent years of her life living in exile in Western Europe. Born in Ukraine in 1948, she has lived most of her life in the Soviet Union and present-day Belarus. She began her literary career as a journalist. Her non-fiction works include “The Unwomanly Face of War” (1985), “Last Witnesses” (1985),” Zinky Boys” (1990), “Voices from Chernobyl” (1997), and “Secondhand Time” (2013). She has won many international awards, including the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”


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Author: Les Conklin

Les Conklin is the editor of A Peek at the Peak publications and the author of Images of America: Pinnacle Peak. He is the president of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Association and the Monte de Paz HOA. He founded Friends of the Scenic Drive and has served on the Scottsdale Pride Commission, McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, and on the boards of several local nonprofits. Les is a resident of north Scottsdale and a member of Scottsdale’s History Maker Hall of Fame. Les is a volunteer school tour guide at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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