Thursday, January 04, 2018

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

Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Random House, 2017. У войны не женское лицо: Russian language edition originally published in 1985. The author won a Nobel Prize for literature in 2015.

“’History will spend hundreds of years trying to understand: What was it? What sort of people were they? Where did they come from?’” (page 51)

“There have been thousands of wars on earth . . . but war remains, as it has always been, one of the chief human mysteries. Nothing has changed. I am trying to bring that great history down to human scale, in order to understand something. Yet in this seemingly small and easily observable territory . . . everything is still less comprehensible, less predictable than in history.” (page 139)

“'Once during a drill . . . We finished shooting and were going back. I picked some violets. A little bouquet. I picked it up and tied it to my bayonet. And went on like that.’” (page 52)
"There is not only shooting and killing people, mining and demining, bombing and exploding, going into hand-to-hand combat -- there is also laundering, cooking kasha, baking bread, cleaning cauldrons, tending horses, repairing machinery . . . Ever during war life consists by more than half of banal things. And of trifles, too . . ." (page [159])

"'Dense forests, continuous wire fences with rotted stakes, overgrown minefields. Flowerbeds gone to seed. There were always mines hiding there; the Germans loved flowerbeds. Once there were people digging potatoes in a field, and next to them we were digging mines . . ." (page 222)

After a contingent of Soviet sailors hit a minefield, many were killed. But Olga Vasilevna refused to terrorize German POWS. "I hadn't forgotten, I hadn't forgotten a thing. But I couldn't hit a prisoner, if only because he was already defenseless. Everybody decided that for himself, and it was important." (page 151)
"'If you ask what color war is, I’ll tell you – the color of earth. For a sapper . . . The black, yellow, clayey color of earth . . . Two months later I wasn’t killed, I was wounded. My first wound was light. And I stopped thinking about death . . .’” (page 213)

A lieutenant, commander of a sapper-miner platoon: “We’d spend the whole day watching everything attentively and drawing up a map of the observed front line and marking the places where changes in the surface of the terrain appeared, If we saw bumps on the ground or lumps of soil, dirty snow, trampled grass or dew smeared on the grass, that was what we were after . . . our goal . . . It was clear that German sappers had placed mines there . . . It was necessary to find out . . . [w]hat sort of mines they had put there: antitroop, antitank, or surprise mines. We marked the enemy’s firing points . . . We felt the ground inch by inch. Made corridors in the mine fields. All the work was done by crawling . . .” (page 217)

In addition to serving as pilots, snipers and partisan fighters, Soviet woman also served as doctors, nurses, drivers, mechanics and in many other capacities. Survivors retained memories of harrowing, brutal events that never quite went away. Alexievich has ensured that these people and what they lived through will not be forgotten. Wars will continue, though, remembered or not -- that fact, it seems, nothing can change. 

Today's Rune: Signals.  


the walking man said...

No one should ever face the violence of battle--them doing the fighting would turn away if not for them doing the plotting. "but each make their own decision.." Yep that is what kills or keeps brutality in memory.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like a very valuable source. I read quite a few of the Russian bios on the war back in the 70s but they were all by men.