The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich

I can’t even imagine the amount of work Svetlana Alexievich put into writing this book: not just tracking down, transcribing and editing the testimonies of these brave, undervalued women, but also the sheer weight of bearing witness to so much courage and heartache. The Unwomanly Face Of War is an exceptionally moving historical document written over the course of decades, and I’m pretty sure that’s the only way she could have borne it: by having time blunt the edges of all the emotion these women poured into her, allowing it to distance her enough to keep working and collecting and reading and writing this almost overwhelming deluge of valor in the face of tragedy.

When Germany broke their treaty of non-aggression with the USSR, the vast majority of the Soviet people thought the war would be over quickly. They didn’t know how badly Stalin’s purges had crippled the military, and as the war progressed, more and more women — who’d been raised all their lives to not only fervently love the Motherland but also to consider themselves equal in capability to men, regardless of what the men thought — seeing that their menfolk weren’t coming home, enlisted and demanded to be sent to the front, too. The USSR, as a matter of fact, had one of the highest percentages of women in the military in the 20th century, and certainly in World War II. Women were famously used as snipers and pilots, but were also active in every front-line military branch and specialty, from anti-aircraft artillery to armory to laundry, from medical aid to tanks to sappers who worked at demining long after the war was over. Women were also important elements of the partisan and underground militias as the Germans occupied more and more territory. These women were a crucial part of the Soviet Victory, but their stories were too often obscured and untold. They faced discrimination getting to their posts and discrimination coming home. Ms Alexievich set about fixing at least one wrong done to them: the feeling that they had to keep quiet about their wartime efforts, as if they had anything to be ashamed of simply for picking up the arms of their fallen comrades and fighting on to victory.

TUFoW is simultaneously an extremely readable book — credit to Ms Alexievich’s editing and prose — and a difficult book to get through. I cried a lot. It’s a terrific historical document that absolutely deserves a Nobel prize for its author. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the Russian literary style, but if you are more into it than I am, you will absolutely love this book (*cough*Doug*cough.) But if you have any interest in war, or in history, or in feminism, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Our interpretations after may be different (I do feel that Ms Alexievich was very gently disproving her interviewees’ ingrained sexism by giving a platform to the many different voices that showed, collectively, how important their femininity had been to preserving their humanity and fighting spirit) but I’d be greatly surprised if reading this oral history wasn’t a revelatory experience for everyone.

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