The Unwomanly Face of War

An Oral History of Women in World War II

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A long-awaited English translation of the groundbreaking oral history of women in World War II across Europe and Russia—from the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

The Washington Post • The Guardian • NPR • The Economist • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Kirkus Reviews

For more than three decades, Svetlana Alexievich has been the memory and conscience of the twentieth century. When the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize, it cited her invention of “a new kind of literary genre,” describing her work as “a history of emotions . . . a history of the soul.”

In The Unwomanly Face of War, Alexievich chronicles the experiences of the Soviet women who fought on the front lines, on the home front, and in the occupied territories. These women—more than a million in total—were nurses and doctors, pilots, tank drivers, machine-gunners, and snipers. They battled alongside men, and yet, after the victory, their efforts and sacrifices were forgotten.

Alexievich traveled thousands of miles and visited more than a hundred towns to record these women’s stories. Together, this symphony of voices reveals a different aspect of the war—the everyday details of life in combat left out of the official histories.

Translated by the renowned Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Unwomanly Face of War is a powerful and poignant account of the central conflict of the twentieth century, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human side of war.

“for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” 

“A landmark.”—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

“An astonishing book, harrowing and life-affirming . . . It deserves the widest possible readership.”—Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

“Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition. . . . [She] has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten.”—Masha Gessen, National Book Award–winning author of The Future Is History

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Unwomanly Face of War

“I Don’t Want to Remember . . .”

An old three-­story house on the outskirts of Minsk, one of those built hastily just after the war and, as it then seemed, not meant to last, now cozily overgrown with old jasmine bushes. With it began a search that went on for seven years, seven extraordinary and tormenting years, during which I was to discover for myself the world of war, a world the meaning of which we cannot fully fathom. I would experience pain, hatred, temptation. Tenderness and perplexity . . . I would try to understand what distinguishes death from murder and where the boundary is between the human and the inhuman. How does a human being remain alone with the insane thought that he or she might kill another human being? Is even obliged to? And I would discover that in war there is, apart from death, a multitude of other things; there is everything that is in our ordinary life. War is also life. I would run into countless human truths. Mysteries. I would ponder questions the existence of which I had never suspected. For instance, why is it that we are not surprised at evil, why this absence in us of surprise in the face of evil?

A road and many roads . . . Dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape. Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left my memory, only voices remained. A chorus resounds in my memory. An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping. I confess: I did not always believe that I was strong enough for this path, that I could make it. Could reach the end. There were moments of doubt and fear, when I wanted to stop or step aside, but I no longer could. I fell captive to evil, I looked into the abyss in order to understand something. Now I seem to have acquired some knowledge, but there are still more questions, and fewer answers.

But then, at the very beginning of the path, I had no suspicion of that . . .

What led me to this house was a short article in the local newspaper about a farewell party given at the Udarnik automobile factory in Minsk for the senior accountant Maria Ivanovna Morozova, who was retiring. During the war, the article said, she had been a sniper, had eleven combat decorations, and her total as a sniper was seventy-­five killings. It was hard to bring together mentally this woman’s wartime profession with her peacetime occupation. With the routine newspaper photograph. With all these tokens of the ordinary.

. . . A small woman with a long braid wound in a girlish crown around her head was sitting in a big armchair, covering her face with her hands.

“No, no, I won’t. Go back there again? I can’t . . . To this day I can’t watch war movies. I was very young then. I dreamed and grew, grew and dreamed. And then—­the war. I even feel sorry for you . . . I know what I’m talking about . . . Do you really want to know that? I ask you like a daughter . . .”

Of course she was surprised.

“But why me? You should talk to my husband, he likes to remember . . . The names of the commanders, the generals, the numbers of units—­he remembers everything. I don’t. I only remember what happened to me. My own war. There were lots of people around, but you were always alone, because a human being is always alone in the face of death. I remember the terrifying solitude.”

She asked me to take the tape recorder away.

“I need your eyes in order to tell about it, and that will hinder me.”

But a few minutes later she forgot about it . . .

Maria Ivanovna Morozova (Ivanushkina)

corporal, sniper

This will be a simple story . . . The story of an ordinary Russian girl, of whom there were many then . . .

The place where my native village, Diakovskoe, stood is now the Proletarian District of Moscow. When the war began, I was not quite eighteen. Long, long braids, down to my knees . . . Nobody believed the war would last, everybody expected it to end any moment. We would drive out the enemy. I worked on a kolkhoz, then finished accounting school and began to work. The war went on . . . My girlfriends . . . They tell me: “We should go to the front.” It was already in the air. We all signed up and took classes at the local recruitment office. Maybe some did it just to keep one another company, I don’t know. They taught us to shoot a combat rifle, to throw hand grenades. At first . . . I’ll confess, I was afraid to hold a rifle, it was unpleasant. I couldn’t imagine that I’d go and kill somebody, I just wanted to go to the front. We had forty people in our group. Four girls from our village, so we were all friends; five from our neighbors’; in short—­some from each village. All of them girls . . . The men had all gone to the war already, the ones who could. Sometimes a messenger came in the middle of the night, gave them two hours to get ready, and they’d be carted off. They could even be taken right from the fields. (Silence.) I don’t remember now—­whether we had dances; if we did, the girls danced with girls, there were no boys left. Our villages became quiet.

Soon an appeal came from the central committee of Komsomol for the young people to go and defend the Motherland, since the Germans were already near Moscow. Hitler take Moscow? We won’t allow it! I wasn’t the only one . . . All our girls expressed the wish to go to the front. My father was already fighting. We thought we were the only ones like that . . . Special ones . . . But we came to the recruitment office and there were lots of girls there. I just gasped! My heart was on fire, so intensely. The selection was very strict. First of all, of course, you had to have robust health. I was afraid they wouldn’t take me, because as a child I was often sick, and my frame was weak, as my mother used to say. Other children insulted me because of it when I was little. And then, if there were no other children in a household except the girl who wanted to go to the front, they also refused: a mother should not be left by herself. Ah, our darling mothers! Their tears never dried . . . They scolded us, they begged . . . But in our family there were two sisters and two brothers left—­true, they were all much younger than me, but it counted anyway. There was one more thing: everybody from our kolkhoz was gone, there was nobody to work in the fields, and the chairman didn’t want to let us go. In short, they refused us. We went to the district committee of Komsomol, and there—­refusal. Then we went as a delegation from our district to the regional Komsomol. There was great inspiration in all of us; our hearts were on fire. Again we were sent home. We decided, since we were in Moscow, to go to the central committee of Komsomol, to the top, to the first secretary. To carry through to the end . . . Who would be our spokesman? Who was brave enough? We thought we would surely be the only ones there, but it was impossible even to get into the corridor, let alone to reach the secretary. There were young people from all over the country, many of whom had been under occupation, spoiling to be revenged for the death of their near ones. From all over the Soviet Union. Yes, yes . . . In short, we were even taken aback for a while . . .

By evening we got to the secretary after all. They asked us: “So, how can you go to the front if you don’t know how to shoot?” And we said in a chorus that we had already learned to shoot . . . “Where? . . . How? . . . And can you apply bandages?” You know, in that group at the recruiting office our local doctor taught us to apply bandages. That shut them up, and they began to look at us more seriously. Well, we had another trump card in our hands, that we weren’t alone, there were forty of us, and we could all shoot and give first aid. They told us: “Go and wait. Your question will be decided in the affirmative.” How happy we were as we left! I’ll never forget it . . . Yes, yes . . .

And literally in a couple of days we received our call-­up papers . . .

We came to the recruiting office; we went in one door at once and were let out another. I had such a beautiful braid, and I came out without it . . . Without my braid . . . They gave me a soldier’s haircut . . . They also took my dress. I had no time to send the dress or the braid to my mother . . . She very much wanted to have something of mine left with her . . . We were immediately dressed in army shirts, forage caps, given kit bags and loaded into a freight train—­on straw. But fresh straw, still smelling of the field.

We were a cheerful cargo. Cocky. Full of jokes. I remember laughing a lot.

Where were we going? We didn’t know. In the end it was not so important to us what we’d be. So long as it was at the front. Everybody was fighting—­and we would be, too. We arrived at the Shchelkovo station. Near it was a women’s sniper school. It turned out we were sent there. To become snipers. We all rejoiced. This was something real. We’d be shooting.

We began to study. We studied the regulations: of garrison service, of discipline, of camouflage in the field, of chemical protection. The girls all worked very hard. We learned to assemble and disassemble a sniper’s rifle with our eyes shut, to determine wind speed, the movement of the target, the distance to the target, to dig a foxhole, to crawl on our stomach—­we had already mastered all that. Only so as to get to the front the sooner. In the line of fire . . . Yes, yes . . . At the end of the course I got the highest grade in the exam for combat and noncombat service. The hardest thing, I remember, was to get up at the sound of the alarm and be ready in five minutes. We chose boots one or two sizes larger, so as not to lose time getting into them. We had five minutes to dress, put our boots on, and line up. There were times when we ran out to line up in boots over bare feet. One girl almost had her feet frostbitten. The sergeant major noticed it, reprimanded her, and then taught us to use footwraps. He stood over us and droned: “How am I to make soldiers out of you, my dear girls, and not targets for Fritz?” Dear girls, dear girls . . . Everybody loved us and pitied us all the time. And we resented being pitied. Weren’t we soldiers like everybody else?

Well, so we got to the front. Near Orsha . . . The 62nd Infantry Division . . . 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. At our age we could have been his daughters. “What am I going to do with you, my dears? Where did they find you?” That’s how he treated us, that’s how he met us. And we thought we were already seasoned warriors . . . Yes, yes . . . At war!

The next day he made us show that we knew how to shoot, how to camouflage ourselves in the field. We did the shooting well, even better than the men snipers, who were called from the front for two days of training, and who were very surprised that we were doing their work. It was probably the first time in their lives they saw women snipers. After the shooting it was camouflage in the field . . . The colonel came, walked around looking at the clearing, then stepped on a hummock—­saw nothing. Then the “hummock” under him begged: “Ow, Comrade Colonel, I can’t anymore, you’re too heavy.” How we laughed! He couldn’t believe it was possible to camouflage oneself so well. “Now,” he said, “I take back my words about young girls.” But even so he suffered . . . Couldn’t get used to us for a long time.

Then came the first day of our “hunting” (so snipers call it). My partner was Masha Kozlova. We camouflaged ourselves and lay there: I’m on the lookout, Masha’s holding her rifle. Suddenly Masha says: “Shoot, shoot! See—­it’s a German . . .”

I say to her: “I’m the lookout. You shoot!”

“While we’re sorting it out,” she says, “he’ll get away.”

But I insist: “First we have to lay out the shooting map, note the landmarks: where the shed is, where the birch tree . . .”

“You want to start fooling with paperwork like at school? I’ve come to shoot, not to mess with paperwork!”

I see that Masha is already angry with me.

“Well, shoot then, why don’t you?”

We were bickering like that. And meanwhile, in fact, the German officer was giving orders to the soldiers. A wagon arrived, and the soldiers formed a chain and handed down some sort of freight. The officer stood there, gave orders, then disappeared. We’re still arguing. I see he’s already appeared twice, and if we miss him again, that will be it. We’ll lose him. And when he appeared for the third time—­it was just momentary; now he’s there, now he’s gone—­I decided to shoot. I decided, and suddenly a thought flashed through my mind: he’s a human being; he may be an enemy, but he’s a human being—­and my hands began to tremble, I started trembling all over, I got chills. Some sort of fear . . . That feeling sometimes comes back to me in dreams even now . . . After the plywood targets, it was hard to shoot at a living person. I see him in the telescopic sight, I see him very well. As if he’s close . . . And something in me resists . . . Something doesn’t let me, I can’t make up my mind. But I got hold of myself, I pulled the trigger . . . He waved his arms and fell. Whether he was dead or not, I didn’t know. But after that I trembled still more, some sort of terror came over me: I killed a man?! I had to get used even to the thought of it. Yes . . . In short—­horrible! I’ll never forget it . . .

When we came back, we started telling our platoon what had happened to us. They called a meeting. We had a Komsomol leader, Klava Ivanova; she reassured me: “They should be hated, not pitied . . .” Her father had been killed by the fascists. We would start singing, and she would beg us: “No, don’t, dear girls. Let’s first defeat these vermin, then we’ll sing.”

- About the author -

Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 1948 and has spent most of her life in the Soviet Union and present-day Belarus, with prolonged periods of exile in Western Europe. Starting out as a journalist, she developed her own nonfiction genre, which gathers a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment. Her works include War’s Unwomanly Face (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.”

More from Svetlana Alexievich

The Unwomanly Face of War

An Oral History of Women in World War II


The Unwomanly Face of War

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