Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 27, 2020

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

It’s easy, when we are all preoccupied by Covid-19, to forget that there are significant events occurring in other places in the world.  We see brief reports about a disaster in Beirut or wildfires in the US but there hasn’t been much attention paid to events in Belarus.  Truth be told, most of us probably don’t even know where it is. One of the old Soviet Republics, it’s a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Its capital and most populous city is Minsk.  Its president is a relic of the old soviet empire, he’s been in power since 1994, and there have been riots in the streets since the last election which is widely recognised to have been rigged.

Ominously, the author of a book I’m currently reading, the Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich, is one of those being targetted by the security forces.  She is one of the seven members of the Presidium of Coordination Council formed by the opposition movement. It appears all other members of the Presidium have been arrested or banished. She too has been harassed and intimidated.

Having previously read Secondhand Time, I’m only too well aware of how Alexievich has brought the suppressed voices of the Soviet past into the light of day, and it’s only too obvious why the authorities would want to intimidate her into silence.

The Unwomanly Face of War shows us how Alexievich has made it her life’s work to speak up for voices that have been silenced.

When women speak, they have nothing or almost nothing of what we are used to reading and hearing about: How certain people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost. What equipment there was and which generals.  Women’s stories are different and about different things.  “Women’s” war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting and its own range of feelings. Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people doing inhumanly human things. […]

Why, having stood up for and held their own place in an absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings?  They did not believe themselves.  A whole world is hidden from us.  Their war remains unknown.

I want to write the history of that war.  A women’s history. (p.xvi)

Living through these tumultuous times in Belarus, Alexievich will again be watching and listening.

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.  On the one hand I examine specific human beings, living in a specific time and taking part in specific events, and on the other hand I have to discern the eternally human in them.  The tremor of  eternity.  That which is in human beings at all time.  (p. xxi)

In The Unwomanly Face of War, the focus is not on military progress or tactics, but on the phenomenon of women — some of them as young as sixteen and only five feet tall — feeling the call to protect their homeland. Some went with their parents’ blessing, some without.  Some feared their own reactions to warfare and learned, suddenly, to hate when they saw what the Germans had done; one wept when she found herself unable to hate a wounded German soldier.  They took on all kinds of roles from nursing on the front line to doing the laundry, the cooking and the communication, to flying bombers, commanding a ship, serving with the partisans and gaining awards for being expert snipers.  They did extraordinary things like hauling injured men twice their size out of burning tank turrets; they marched in boots that were designed for men and didn’t fit them.  And though they were treated like the men in every way, that didn’t extend to feeling blasé about stripping off to deal with the lice in their clothing.

But after the war, they kept quiet.  A man is a hero when he returns from war, but people don’t like the thought of women killing, it’s ‘unwomanly’ and no one, they thought, would want to marry an ‘unwomanly’ woman. So they  put away their awards and decorations and suppressed their memories.

In years to come, when Alexander Lukashenko is gone, as he surely will be one day, I like to think that Svetlana Alexievich will bring us the story of the people’s uprising against his dictatorship.

To quote Subhash Jaireth’s essay ‘Through the Eyes of a Humanist’:

… the documentary narratives Alexievich has written are perhaps unique. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘oral histories’, as in the case of the 2016 English translation of Secondhand Time, but they are different from other oral histories I have come across. What distinguishes Alexievich’s work is the unique interplay between her narrators’ voices and her own. By adding the tag ‘an oral history’, the book has been made to appear lesser than what it achieves.

Each personal story Alexievich retells is intimately tied up with a much larger one; the voices seek answers to fundamental questions about life, death, power and violence. It can be hard to imagine a book or work of art helping to topple a dictator, stop a war or shield a person from a bullet. But I (perhaps naively) believe that the strong moral imperative driving Alexievich’s work, and the chorus of voices given space to bear witness to humanmade tragedy, create what are, effectively, works against war, brutality and tyranny – if only we seize the moment to listen.

The democratic opposition movement in Belarus and the fate of Svetlana Alexievich deserve our interest and support.  You might think that there is nothing you can do, but a letter to our Foreign Minister, (cc’d to the Shadow Minister) asking her to raise the issue in international forums may have an impact you might not expect if enough other people do it.  Here are the addresses you need:

  • Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, PO Box 1420, Parramatta, NSW, 2150
  • Senator Penny Wong: Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, PO Box 6237, Halifax Street, Adelaide, SA, 5000

You can read a statement from Svetlana Alexievich at the Belarus PEN website.

Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Title: The Unwomanly Face of War
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Publisher: Random House (PRH) 2017, first published as У войны не женское лицо in 1985
ISBN: 9780399588723, hbk., 331 pages
Source: Personal library
Available from Fishpond: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II


Responses

  1. Lisa, you are wrong about Belarus. I admire Svetlana’s writing , but she is backing the wrong horse now. She wrote this book in 1985 . Let her rest on her laurels and not be exploited now – an elderly woman – by regime change propagandists whose loyalties lie outside Belarus. They are trying to destroy Belarus as they destroyed Ukraine . It will not succeed.

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    • Tony, she’s only 72, that’s hardly old. I think she’s more than capable of making up her own mind about the politics of this situation and I respect what she has to say at the PEN Belarus website.

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  2. Very timely indeed Lisa. I have her Chernobyl book but I suspect I will have to read this one too.

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  3. Friends,
    I have read Svetlana Alexievich’s books and many interviews in Russian. I admire her writing for her honesty and integrity. She has deep knowledge of Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet history and culture. She doesn’t appear to be one who would easily let herself be exploited by ‘propagandists’. If you are interested you can read material about the current situation in Belarus at the following websites:

    Meduza (A newspaper published in Russian and English): https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/09/24/belarusians-take-to-the-streets-in-protest-following-lukashenko-s-secret-inauguration;
    Novaya Gazetta (in English) on its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/novgazenglish/
    Masha Gessen’s interview with Svetlana Alexievich in the New Yorker
    https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/svetlana-alexievich-is-not-going-anywhere-belarus

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    • Thanks for this Subhash.

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