“There can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love.”
A while ago I read Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary Chernobyl Prayer, her account – by collating lots of witness accounts – of the Chernobyl incident, the meltdown and the way it affected the people who lived in and around the area both at the time and afterwards. It’s a phenomenal book, hard to read and even harder to understand in many respects, but it’s an important read and it stayed with me for a long time afterwards. Alexievich, a Belorussian writer, won the Nobel Prize in Literature before the whole Bob Dylan affair, and like the Bob Dylan affair it prompted a lot of questions though focused around ‘another writer no one has ever heard of’ challenge as opposed to the ‘is it a writer’ challenge, proving that if nothing else the Nobel Prize in Literature always stirs a little debate. Needless to say, I’m glad that Alexievich was brought to my attention. I’ve had my eye on Second-Hand Time for a while, but when I saw that her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, had been published by Penguin I knew I would have to read it.
“I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet? It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war…” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war…And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls.”
Alexievich’s books all follow a similar style, what is referred to as ‘polyphonic’ reporting. She gathers a number of accounts from witnesses, people who were part of the events that the book focuses upon. The Unwomanly Face of War focuses on the Soviet women who served during WWII, largely on the front line as snipers, pilots, sappers, artillery-people (artillery man feeling utterly wrong here), tank drivers, nurses, medics or partisan operatives. She sets out at the beginning how the men’s story has been told, how the stories of war told on behalf of men often focus on the battles, the strategic priorities, the victories and the events, whereas she wanted to hear about how the war made people feel, how women served and how they were affected both before and afterwards. At a time when we have yet another male-dominated drama in the movies – Dunkirk – a movie which is described as ‘epic’ which may glamorise heroism and stoical self-sacrifice, it felt good to read about that part of war which is often left unspoken: the woman’s war. That’s not to say it’s not important to see how men fought and suffered during the war, of course it is, the war affected so many ordinary men and they were called upon to do extraordinary things. But we often think of women as being behind the lines, safe and secure, when the truth is often something quite different. Here Alexievich allows so many women to tell their stories, to speak of how they felt, how they coped, how they suffered and how they continued to suffer after the war.
“We were in hiding, and I was the lookout. And then I noticed one Germany poking up a little from a trench. I clicked, and he fell. And them you know, I started shaking all over, I heard my bones knocking. I cried. When I shot at targets it was nothing, but now: I – killed! I killed some unknown man. I knew nothing about him but I killed him.”
It is hard to describe, here, now, after days of reading these account the effect this book has had upon me. I find myself torn between admiration and horror, the accounts are brutal, bloody, soulful, often tearful and inspiring. There are so many accounts of young women who forcefully demanded to be sent to the front – sixteen, eighteen, twenty year old women. Their Motherland was under threat and they wanted, no demanded, to protect it. They did not know the horrors of war, but they were willing to face the horror of war. Their anger towards the German enemy was boundless, and understandably so when you hear of all the stories of villages burned, people burned in their homes, women raped, their breast cut off, babies smashed into walls, children thrown down wells, people starved, tortured, shot. The enemy was brutal and as an (ostensibly, I appreciate Soviet Russia is a complex society) egalitarian society the women expected to be defend it.
“we left for the front at the age of eighteen or twenty and came back at twenty or twenty-four. First there was joy, but then fear: what were we going to do in civilian life? There was a fear of peaceful life…My girlfriends had managed to finish various institutes, but what about us? Unfit for anything, without any professions. All we knew was war, all we could do was war. I wanted to get rid of the war as quickly as possible. I hastily remade my uniform coat into a regular coat; I changed the buttons. Sold the tarpaulin boots at market and bought a pair of shoes. When I put on a dress for the first time, I flooded myself with tears. I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. We had spent four years in trousers.”
For the women the war didn’t end with Victory, having fought their way onto the front line and fought alongside the men, shooting and bombing and defusing mines, communicating, bandaging, dragging away the wounded, the women came back to find themselves ostracised from society. They were treated like whores; many men who’d been at the front didn’t want to marry a female soldier when he came back. Having got their medals, having saved lives and suffered terrible injuries, these women found themselves facing another war. A war in which they were seen as something tainted, something dirty, a war they could no longer talk about. And here Alexievich has done them a service – she has allowed them to speak, to tell of their lives, when the people around them, and the reaction of their society, have kept them silent for so many years.
“We’d had enough, we frontline girls. And after the war we got more. After the war we had another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us.”
The Unwomanly Face of War is a hard read. It is a book which renders many complex emotions, which asks us to look at these women and try to empathise with their experiences from our place of cushy comfort and relatively undramatic lives. It made me think a lot about what I think adversity means. Our daily, comfortable lives in which the worst thing we might face is some trolling on social media (not to dismiss trolling, it is a horrible experience for anyone and completely unwarranted and should be stamped out) is a world away from the woman who bit what was left of a soldier’s arm off so she could bandage him and stop him bleeding to death, the woman who witnessed the body of a German woman who had been gang-raped, a grenade shoved up her vagina, the woman who lost both of her legs to frostbite. The horrors are unthinkable, but it was war and these women rose to it just like their men did. Their stories deserve to be told.
“I’ll say this: if you’re not a woman, you can’t survive war. I never envied men. Not in my childhood, not in my youth. Not during the war. I was always glad to be a woman. People say that weapons – submachine guns, pistols – are beautiful, that they conceal many human thoughts, passions, but I never found them beautiful. I’ve seen the admiration of men looking at a fine pistol; I find it incomprehensible. I’m a woman.”
And it wasn’t all terrible, people have this extraordinary capacity to find something joyful even in the worst of time. There was love, though somehow the love was harder to speak of than the horror, there was compassion, there was a coming together of people to defeat their enemy, the invader that had tried to take their country from them, inexplicably. There is heroism, but not of a bombastic kind. Just people quietly trying to keep each other safe the best way they can. It is a powerful account which will linger with me a long time after reading. I wish I didn’t know some of it, some accounts are simply awful to read, but I’m so glad Alexievich made it possible for those women to share their experiences with me, and so many other readers who have it, whether we know it or not, so very, very easy.