The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This is not a review nor an analysis. This is a recommendation. The book, the quotes, speak for themselves. When I read the book, I had no words.

Message to a friend while reading this. This went on for months! I’m not a crier.

I was too overwhelmed to write a review then and that visceral reaction, that gutting feeling, has still not gone away. Yet, I want to share my thoughts. As horrific as the book was, it’s something that needs to be read by more…

Summary from Goodreads –

More than 500,000 Soviet women participated on a par with men in the Second World War, the most terrible war of the 20th century. Women not only rescued and bandaged the wounded but also fired a sniper’s rifle, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering and killed… They killed the enemy who, with unprecedented cruelty, had attacked their land, their homes and their children. Soviet writer of Belarussia, Svetlana Alexievich spent four years working on the book, visiting over 100 cities and towns, settlements and villages and recording the stories and reminiscences of women war veterans.

The Unwomanly Face of War is an oral history recording the war through the perspective of the many women who played a role in it. It’s the war through a female soldier’s eyes, an image that we are so unfamiliar with that it is hard to believe it exists… that it was so commonplace for women to be soldiers. How many of us imagine a woman when someone says “war veteran?” So many World War stories… I did not imagine I would find anything I hadn’t read before – and, yet.

Were they forced to go to war? Will that make the image more palatable to our sensibilities? Were there just not enough men? Yes, and no. Some of them fought to go to the warfront, they begged their parents to let them enlist… to defend their homeland. They ran away from their homes to be part of the war. There were no clothes for women, so they wore men’s clothes. They menstruated through their pants till the cloth stiffened with blood and cut through their skin. Or they stopped menstruating entirely, the biological cycles thrown off by what they endured. Some had affairs, some of them had children at the front. Some married fellow soldiers, fashioning wedding dresses out of tarps, others returned home alone, only to be deemed too scarred, unrecognizable… unwomanly.

Foot soldiers, medical assistants, nurses… distinguished officers, radio operators…

Alexievich lets each of the veterans own their narrative, giving us brief glimpses from a hundred different perspectives… voices of defiance, reluctance, denial of the war, its glorification, the tragedy, the patriotism, the guilt and the anger… conflicting stories, each narrative is private, emotional and coloured by personal biases… but authentic, you know? Human. A must read, if ever.

“I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.”

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

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