Oral History

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.


Book Review – Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

In her latest work, 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich explored the lives of those who personally experienced the Soviet Union’s demise. As with her other books, she allowed those who lived the events to tell the story. Reflections of anxiety, anger and disillusionment populated this troubling tome. A very unsettling portrayal of both the Communist and post-glasnost era emerged.

A line from Russian author Alexander Grin inspired the title. Ms. Alexievich observed:

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing it its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.” (Page 9)

Not surprisingly, both the author and her subjects expressed a hellish portrayal of life under communist rule. In the opening chapter–titled “Remarks from an Accomplice”– Ms. Alexievich explained her own views. She wrote, “People didn’t recognize their own slavery—they even liked being slaves.” (Page 2) “Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well.” (Page 3) “Everyone thought of themselves as a victim, never a willing accomplice.” (Page 4) She best summarized the overall tone of the book in the following statement:

People are constantly forced to choose between having freedom and having success and stability; freedom with suffering or happiness without freedom. The majority chose the latter. (Page 8)

That’s a very unsettling observation; especially when the true picture of Soviet life emerged.

The Soviet State ruled through fear. I thought the best observation came from the interviewee who said, “Everyone was afraid, even the people that everyone was afraid of.” (Page 47) To show the pervasive anxiety the government instilled in citizens, another person said, “”I just hope they don’t put me away for telling you all this. Is the Soviet government still in power or is it entirely gone?” (Page 84) One person added a bit of dark humor to his take on the time period. “A communist is someone who’s read Marx, an anticommunist is someone who’s understood him.” (Page 16)

Not all the negative aspects of Soviet conduct were the government’s responsibility. One person reminisced about a disturbing incident during the “Great Patriotic War”:

Hundreds of Jews who’d escaped from the ghettos had gone into the forest. Peasants would capture them and give them up to the Germans in exchange for a bag of flour or a kilogram of sugar. Write that down…I’ve held my silence for long enough…A Jew spends his whole life afraid. No matter where the stone falls it hits him. (Page 194)

The most notable story regarded a soldier who worked as an executioner for the regime. One of the interviewees related the following anecdote that someone had shared with him. Aside from the psychological trauma, killing for the State had some physical repercussions, as well.

At first, we couldn’t meet our quotas. We physically couldn’t do it. So they called some doctors in. Had a consultation. It was decided that two days a week, the troops would get massages. They’d massage our right hands and index fingers. They absolutely had to massage our index fingers because they’re under the greatest strain during the shooting. My only work related injury is that I’m deaf in my right ear from shooting from the right side…” (Page 276)

From these narratives one would anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a halcyon era for those who suffered under its repression. Sadly, events didn’t develop that way. “Today, no one has time for feelings, they’re all out making money. The discovery of money hit us like an atom bomb.” (Page 18) “Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. ‘Putin the Democrat’ is our shortest joke.” (Page 290) “Capitalism isn’t taking root here. The spirit of capitalism is foreign to us. It never made it out of Moscow. We don’t have the proper climate for it in the rest of the country.” (Page 291)

While Ms. Alexievich drew material for the book from a series of oral histories, she managed to incorporate a number of memorable lines into the text.”[Her voice suddenly drops to a whisper. But to me, it feels like she’s screaming.]” (Page 142) “And the truth is…I worked at an archive myself, I can tell you firsthand: Paper lies even more than people do.” (Page 169) “Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” (Page 261) And the most chilling, “The axe will survive the master.” (Page 276)

I came away from Secondhand Time with a new respect for the former Soviet Union’s people. I have immense admiration for their capacity to endure hardship. The author concluded the book with first hand observations on the political situation in her home nation, Belarus. If that is any harbinger of things to come, the past will once again be prologue for the former Soviet Union’s people.

Book Review: Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich

Ms. Alexievich explained her goal as writer to animate the “feelings of war.” (Page 8) She achieved this by presenting Zinky Boys through personal interviews. She told the story of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan from the late 1970s through 1989. The resulting book illuminated an emotional portrayal of anger, sorrow and disillusionment. As the author published it in 1990, those interviewed presented fresh recollections of their involvement.

Many have compared the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan with the American war in Vietnam. I can understand the parallels. Many Afghansti—the nickname for the Soviet soldiers–expressed great anger and resentment towards their government. Those in power had multiple explanations as to the need for military intervention. The Afghan government required help with the socialist revolution there. The Soviets’ southern border needed protection. While there, the troops came to doubt these rationales. A private who fought in the conflict said, “We were given medals we don’t wear and will probably return, medals honestly earned in a dishonest war.” (Page 18)

Numerous combatants commented on the lack of empathy they received upon returning home. (While Americans in Vietnam served a one year term, the Soviet government required a two year tour of duty in Afghanistan.) The best quote in the book came from a construction engineer. He spoke with the author about earlier excerpts that he’d read from her work-in-progress.

These boys were heroes! They weren’t fighting for any so-called “mistaken policy”. They fought because they put their faith in us (the Russian people). We should kneel before every one of them. If we truly faced-up to the comparison of what we did here (at home) with what befell them there we might go mad. (Page 186)

That’s a very intelligent and incisive observation of what society owes its men and women in uniform. It should also remind policy makers of von Clausewitz’s dictum about mobilizing all of society for war.

The Afghanistan endeavor never had popular support. Most civilians living in the USSR expressed either apathy or contempt towards returning personnel. This led a Major from the propaganda section of an artillery regiment to remark, “Don’t confuse the ones who sent us with those who were sent.” (Page 89)

Alexievich aimed to connect with readers emotionally. Here’s a devastating passage from a former Private.

When it was our time to go home we expected a warm welcome and open arms—then we discovered people couldn’t care less whether we’d survived or not. In the courtyard of our block of flats I met up with the kids I’d known before. “Oh, you’re back—that’s good,” they say, and went off to school. My teachers didn’t ask about anything, either. This was the sum total of our conversation:

I, solemnly, “We should perpetuate the memory of our school fellows who died doing their international duty.”

They: “They were dunces and hooligans. How can we put up a memorial plaque to them in the school?”

People back home had their own view of the war. “So you think you were heroes, were you? You lost a war, and anyhow, who needed it apart from Brezhnev and a few warmongering generals?”

Apparently, my friends died for nothing, and I might have died for nothing, too. (Page 77)

As a young man I recall reading descriptions of Vietnam as a “conflict”. The Soviet Union never declared war in Afghanistan, either. The government referred to those lost as “Died in the execution of his international duty.” That’s an awfully glib way to refer to someone who gave his/her life in the service of his/her country.

Since Moscow never declared war, they didn’t issue soldiers with ID tags, or dog tags as Americans call them. The government didn’t provide them out of a fear they would fall into enemy hands. (Page 170)

The people interviewed commented on the troops’ poor training. One solider practiced with live ammunition only once before going to Afghanistan. This lack of training may have led to their despicable treatment of civilians. Units engaged in “revenge actions” by burning fields and killing livestock. A soldier shot up a melon stand when he thought a vendor charged too much money. In her diary the author commented on, “The limits of morality defined by the commands they receive.” (Page 3) I’m not sure the instances I cited had anything to do with superiors’ orders, though.

The esoteric choice of title is my only criticism of the book. At one point a deranged woman told a mother that her son would return from Afghanistan a “zinky” boy. It took me a while to understand the reference. The military buried those killed in action in zinc lined coffins. To be fair to the author, when I did understand the title, it added much more impact to the overall narrative.

I abhor Communism. It’s one of the few things in this world I truly hate. But still, I have great respect for the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Like anyone they had hopes and dreams, loved their families and believed they went to war for the betterment of the “Motherland.” Like the tragedy inherent in Shakespeare’s Brutus, they acted nobly but made a wrong choice. An anonymous person explained to the author: “We must distinguish the war from those who took part in it. The war was criminal and has been condemned, as such, but the boys must be defended and protected.” (Page 193) Perhaps the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has more in common with another American military endeavor.

Book Review – Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

If you’re not moved by this book, you’re not human. Ms. Alexievich delivered a powerful narrative of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As opposed to delivering a dry history of events populated with statistics, she explored the aftermath through the human cost of the tragedy. The author achieved this through personal interviews with those affected.

The hardest task for an historian is to present readers with a realistic portrayal of time and place. Through the book’s structure Ms. Alexievich did. Voices from Chernobyl consisted exclusively of the words of those directly involved. She spoke with former Soviet military personnel who worked on the clean-up as well as former government officials. While that presented an accurate perspective, the most haunting comments came from those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

I’ve read volumes of history books in my time. None contained the emotional impact of this one. Ford Maddux Ford began his The Good Soldier with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I doubt few people come away from Voices from Chernobyl not saying the same thing. I’m not sure how I managed to finish it and I can’t imagine how Ms. Alexievich persisted through writing it. I really have to applaud her commitment to getting the story of the Belorussian people’s suffering out to the world.

To be sincere, I’m struggling to write this review. The stories Ms. Alexievich included really moved me: and I’m not an emotional person. She began and ended the book with stories of men who responded to the disaster and passed away from radiation poisoning. The author allowed their widows to tell their stories in their own words.

One that will remain with me forever involved a woman’s ordeal at the hospital. She concealed her pregnancy so they would let her in to attend to her husband. One of the nurses told her: “He’s not your husband anymore. He’s a radioactive object.” (Page 16) Her daughter passed shortly after birth: another victim of complications from radiation poisoning.

For those managing to hang in there and continue reading this review, there’s much more graphic information in the story. The man who passed away at the end of the book succumbed to a horrendous form of cancer. The widow recounted a conversation with two hospital orderlies.

“We’ve seen everything,” they told me, “people who’ve been smashed up, cut up, the corpses of children caught in fires. The way Chermobylites die is the most frightening of all.” (Page 231)

There are a lot of very disturbing personal reminiscences like this in the book. Once more, that’s what made it so powerful. Approximately 340,000 members of the Soviet military worked at Chernobyl following the disaster. (Page 140) One of them recalled the following.

Before we went home we were called in to talk to a KGB man. He was very convincing when he said we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: it’d kill you only after you got home. (Page 41)

One observer described the Soviet Union as a “country of authority, not people.” (Page 209) Government officials weren’t spared the effects of Chernobyl, either. One former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee indignantly defended his reluctance to evacuate the area after the disaster. His response elucidated the mindset of Soviet officials during the Cold War era.

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded Truth! Well, it’s bad. It’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob…If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Slavgorod in diapers. In a baby carriage, it was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should go to our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild? (Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he’s saying.) (Page 198)

The Swedish Academy honored Svetlana Alexievich with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. After reading this book, I understand the choice. Some experiences in life deeply affect a person. They shape his view of the world around him in new ways. For me, one of those experiences will have been reading Voices from Chernobyl.