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The Unwomanly Face of War: an Oral History of Women in World War II

Reviewed by Dymphna Crowe  

(Penguin Modern Classics: 2017) by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This is a book about war, but not about battles and great victories. It offers the personal testimonies of hundreds of Russian women who were engaged in the Second World War at every level. When they returned no-one wanted to listen to their experiences; their war remained unknown. Women who had fought were shunned so they remained silent. ‘We were silent as fish. We never acknowledged to anybody that we had been at the front. We just kept in touch among ourselves, wrote letters’ (109). Men were honoured, ‘the war was theirs’ (109). The book comprises monologues of these women speaking about their experiences in the war, offering aspects of World War II that had never been related before.  Alexievich completed The Unwomanly Face of War in 1983, but it remained unpublished until 1985 when Gorbachev’s ascent to power led to political change.  

The author, Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 2015, grew up in a small village in Minsk, where she listened to the stories of local village women. As she writes in the introduction, ‘The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it remained for me: stories of war are told by women. They weep’ (xiv). These were not stories about the glory of war. ‘There are no heroes or incredible feats, there are simply people who are busily doing inhumanly human things’ (xvi). As she explained, ‘This made a big impression on me. A much bigger impression than books, which filled our house. Because in books, the Soviet government made war look like a victory—beautiful, without misery’ (Interview in ‘The Paris Review of Books’, 2017).

As a young writer Alexievich tried out various genres; later explaining that she was ‘searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life.’ To this end, she chose to use oral testimony. She wanted ‘a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details’. In the 2017 interview she explained, ‘I want to create a novel out of the voices.’ She continued, ‘my books are made using the rules of novel writing. I have a beginning, a plot, characters.’ (

After the war there was a strong pressure to self censor and to conform to the public narrative. Mention of suffering and the human cost of war was frowned on and regarded as treasonous. Alexievich wanted to get past the public, sanitised history. She initially approached women through friends and acquaintances but gradually women started to contact her. They were often giving voice for the first time to long-buried, traumatic memories and she spent many patient hours building up trust, waiting for their raw, subjective impressions to emerge. This amazing book is the very powerful culmination of all that patient work. There is so much detail, so many moving stories. But there is a coherence, which carries the reader along, from the young teenagers desperate to play their part, the harsh experiences fighting alongside the men, and their return, very changed, but unable to share their experiences. In the words of one woman, who was just twenty when the war ended, ‘In war your soul ages. After the war I was never young. That’s the most important thing’ (139). So many individual stories have stayed with me.

I would also recommend a later book by Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer: a Chronicle of the Future (2013), a history of the Chernobyl disaster from the testimony of survivors.



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