Svetlana Alexievich deserves her Nobel Prize for these rich, intimate, polyphonic histories of Soviet life
Daily Telegraph, Saturday 22 July 2017
I have an idea of what went through the minds of some of Svetlana Alexievich’s Soviet interviewees when they heard the first German shells falling in the summer of 1941. Women, girls – teenagers – dashed home from work, from school, raced to recruiting offices and clamoured to enlist. “That’s how we were brought up, that nothing in our country should happen without us,” Klara says. “[We] had heard since childhood and at school,” Vera, a former sniper, remarks: “Girls – at the wheel of the tractors! Girls – at the controls of a plane!”
Young, headstrong patriots, they ran joyfully to a war whose reality they didn’t know. Two years ago, when I was reporting on the war in Ukraine, I felt a similar enthusiasm: sitting on the sunny balcony of a shot-out house at Shyrokyne, watching house martins swoop over the Sea of Azov, was like being on a summer holiday. It was only two days later, when a 120mm mortar killed a Ukrainian soldier a few metres away from me, that I understood the separatists on the other side actually wanted us dead.
That transformation of a way of feeling, fundamental, irreversible and exposing, is a universal part of war. But the key to understanding Alexievich’s account of Soviet women’s experiences in the Great Patriotic War is that she is not simply bringing those women belatedly into the narrative of conflict. She is doing something at once both agonising and beautiful, and much greater.
What we know about war, we know with “a man’s voice”, she says. The orthodox stories of war – pace Martha Gellhorn, Clare Hollingworth, Marie Colvin and many honourable others – are men’s, of how “certain people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost. What equipment there was and which generals”. War is made to men’s dimensions. “They began by giving us rifles, and the rifles were taller than we were,” Olga remembers. But women’s war, Alexievich writes, “has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings” – and Olga, a naval NCO who fought in the Baltic, crystallises the difference:
“It was easier for men to adjust to it all. To that ascetic life…. But we missed, we missed terribly our homes, our mothers, our comforts. There was a Muscovite among us, Natasha Zhilina; she received a medal “For Courage”, and as a bonus she got leave to go home for a few days. When she came back we sniffed her. We literally lined up and sniffed her. We said she smelled like home.”
Soviet women, and girls, demanded to serve as signallers, riflemen, anti-aircraft gunners, pilots, commissars, partisans. They lied about their age and learned to kill, pulled wounded men twice their own weight from the battlefield, saw their girlfriends (and men friends) blown to pieces, lost their fear. They used grass to rub the blood from their legs when they had their periods. One smothered her crying baby in order to save her partisan unit from being discovered.
Yet in describing what they did in such action-narrative shorthand, I’m falling into the trap of writing a man’s version all over again. Let’s try it differently: Stanislava, the commander of a sapper platoon, was given two precious eggs by a village woman because she was so thin. “Quietly, so that she didn’t see, I broke those two little eggs and cleaned my boots. I was hungry, of course… – but I wanted to be pretty.” Many of the women found army hierarchies difficult: they could not remember if an officer was a lieutenant or a captain, only that he was handsome or tall or red-headed. Others used their footwraps to make scarves, and yearned to sing or for a needle to embroider, in lulls, a handkerchief. They fell in love “amid fire and death”, and they were unbelievably young: “I even grew during the war. Mama measured me at home… I grew four inches.”
For many, only one fear remained, as Sofya, a medical assistant, says – “of being ugly after death. A woman’s fear.” Those who came home at the war’s end found their experiences expunged from the USSR’s narrative of “the Victory”. Alexievich’s sensitivity and patience in encouraging their subterranean memories to rise to the surface helped earn her the Nobel Prize in 2015. She is able to sit for a whole day with an interviewee, discussing recipes, looking at photos of grandchildren until, suddenly, the dam cracks and her subject goes “into herself. Begins to remember not the war but her youth”.
First published in Russian in 1985, The Unwomanly Face of War has taken more than 30 years to reach us in this revised edition and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkonsky’s pitch-perfect translation. We are the richer for it: at one level this book takes the old, old story of war and dramatises it in utterly new, human colours. Yet at another level Alexievich is writing, as she says, “not the history of a war, but the history of feelings”. And her success is that it is one of the most heartbreaking books I have ever read. Most of those Alexievich interviewed will no longer be alive, but their stoutly resistant, life-loving, girlish voices, coaxed into speech – and what speech! – are as evergreen as the pines whose cones they used as curlers between their battles.
“It’s terrible to remember, but far more terrible not to remember,” Valentina, a Siberian anti-aircraft commander, tells Alexievich. In Boys in Zinc, her 1989 account of the Soviet Union’s nine-year involvement in Afghanistan, published in English earlier this year, that “terrible” bears an even greater weight. The soldiers’ testimonies are nightmarish. “We set out six coffins together: Major Yashchenko, a lieutenant and four privates,” says a (female) NCO in the security service. “They lay there, wrapped in white sheets. We couldn’t see their heads: they didn’t have any.”
Alexievich’s subject is again, unblinkingly, the individual, the human in his or her relationships with another human. The hideous conditions for the “limited contingent of Soviet forces” (actually more than 100,000) sent to Afghanistan to prop up its Communist regime put those relationships under a harsh spotlight. Soviet soldiers were so pathetically fed and paid that they sold rifles and magazines for pies and trinkets for their girlfriends, only to be killed by mujahideen using the same rifles. Brutalised by officers and older veterans, many developed murderous urges; they smoked hash constantly because it made it easier to kill and to die. “There’s no pity… the fear goes away.”
These are a tiny sample of what Alexievich’s interviewees – soldiers, doctors, nurses, mothers – say to her:
“He killed someone…. My son…. With a meat cleaver…. He came back from the war and killed someone here.”
“I suffered more from our own side. The ‘spirits’ [mujahideen] made a man of you – our guys made shit out of you…. Before the army I didn’t know you can hit a man so hard on the kidneys that he’ll choke.”
“We went there to save, to help, to love…. Have you ever seen a roasted man?… No screaming, just a growling from under the crust.”
If Boys in Zinc is more relentless than The Unwomanly Face of War, it is just as necessary, reclaiming the personal and the specific – who a person is for another person – from the state and its ideology. The Soviet-Afghan War was more than the USSR’s Vietnam: it was more vicious, its rhetoric of a “sacred mission” and an internationalist duty more mendacious. The mothers’ stories here are the saddest (after her son dies, one adopts a boy from an orphanage who has the same name and looks like him), and Alexievich privileges their voices fiercely over the USSR’s hypocritical invocation of the “Motherland”. It is ironic that the Belarusian authorities, angered by her criticism of the state, took her to court in 1993 by inciting several of those mothers to testify against her.
Tragically, mothers continue to be pitted against the Russian motherland. The zinc of Alexievich’s title refers to the sealed coffins in which soldiers’ bodies were flown home from Afghanistan. At first the Communist Party lied about the extent of the shipments, codenamed “Load 200”, as it had lied about the war; later it shrugged its shoulders.
A generation later, in 2014, when chaotic separatists in eastern Ukraine began to be directed from Moscow and reinforced by Russian troops, President Putin lied about Russia’s involvement and tried to pass off the “Load 200” shipments as returning aid convoys. By 2015, when I was on the front line, the shipments were routine. So I urge you to read one, if not both, of these two extraordinary books, for what they make most clear is a truth summarised by a voice overheard in the courtroom at Alexievich’s trial: “If we don’t tackle the past, it will come back at us again in the future. And there’ll be more deception, and more blood. The past is still ahead of us.”