Liza Mundy, a fellow at New America, is the author of “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Codebreakers of World War II,” which will be published in October.
Early in “The Unwomanly Face of War,” Svetlana Alexievich’s harrowing and moving account of female Soviet soldiers during World War II, there is a scene where a group of female fighters arrives at the front. Wearing army shirts and forage caps — shorn of the long braids they once felt proud of — they are crack graduates of a women’s sniper school, assigned to the 62nd Rifleman’s Division. Their commander is not happy to see them. “They’ve foisted girls on me,” he complains.
The commander orders them to prove they can shoot and perform other key tasks such as camouflaging themselves in the field. Skeptically watching their training exercise, he steps on a hummock and is taken aback when the ground below him speaks. “You’re too heavy,” the hummock tells him. It is a female sniper, embedded in the landscape. “I take back my words,” the commander admits amid their laughter.
The woman recounting that anecdote killed 75 men in the years that followed, receiving 11 combat decorations and becoming renowned for her skill at picking off Nazis. She and her companions were among some 1 million women who fought in the Soviet army, helping repel the Germans during four bloody years of siege, occupation and combat. For many Allied countries, World War II was the watershed conflict that brought women into the military (and intelligence) in significant numbers; with fighting taking place in so many quarters, it proved impossible to staff a global war using only men. But the Soviets deployed theirs most fully. At the outset of American involvement, U.S. officials dithered over whether to admit women even in non-combat capacities — it was feared that they might become hysterical if permitted to work as, say, air traffic controllers. Soviet women, in contrast, served as fighter pilots, tank drivers, infantrymen, antiaircraft gunners. “The Unwomanly Face of War” tells the story of these forgotten women, and its great achievement is that it gives credit to their contribution but also to the hell they endured.
“At nineteen I had a medal ‘For Courage,’ ” says one. “At nineteen my hair was gray. At nineteen in my last battle I was shot through both lungs.”
Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and author, in 2015 received the Nobel Prize in literature. She has been saluted for writing intricately braided oral histories that give collective voice to the suffering caused by cataclysmic events including the Chernobyl disaster and the occupation of Afghanistan.
“The Unwomanly Face of War” began in the late 1970s, after she read a newspaper article about a female accountant retiring from a Minsk auto factory. The article mentioned that the accountant had been a sniper — the one with 75 kills. Alexievich sought her out; one interview led to hundreds. Soviet publishers at first rejected the book as overly naturalistic and insufficiently admiring of the Communist Party. Perestroika was more receptive. Two million copies were printed in 1985.
The English translation arrives at a time when women in combat remain a fraught topic. Anyone who thinks that a female soldier cannot carry a wounded man off the field of battle — a frequent argument and a wrong one — need only read this book. One medic hauled 481 men from under fire. “I myself find it hard to believe,” she reflects.
During the book’s journey to publication, a censor urged Alexievich to tell heroic stories. But, growing up, she had heard enough of those. Men start wars, she holds, and glorify them. She wanted to write a book “that would make war sickening.” She succeeded. There is the radio operator who drowns her baby so its crying won’t give away partisan fighters hiding neck-deep in water. There is the medic — 16 when she joined — crawling to rescue a man whose blasted arm is hanging by a few sinews; lacking scissors, she “bit his flesh off” so he could be bandaged.
Starting out, Alexievich wanted to understand why “the girls of 1941” came forward. “How is it they decided to take up arms on a par with men? To shoot, mine, blow up, bomb — kill?”
In part, the answer lay in the gender egalitarianism of their communist education. “Girls — at the wheel of the tractors!” one recalls being taught. “Girls — at the controls of a plane!” But it’s also because the loss of men was so swift and massive. After Hitler’s 1941 invasion, “millions of soldiers and officers were captured,” as one man recalls. “In six weeks Hitler was already near Moscow. . . . And girls were eager to get to the front voluntarily. . . . Those were brave, extraordinary girls.”
Many admired Stalin and believed in Soviet power. The “frontline girls” were full of fervor, feted by their neighbors, eager to defend the Motherland. One danced while waiting for her troop train. Nobody ever thinks a war will be long. But there were other reasons. “We were starving,” recalled a lathe operator who became a submachine-gun platoon commander. She yearned for the front because there “would be rations there. Rusks and tea with sugar.”
The girls were unbelievably young. One enlisted after the seventh grade. A sapper contracted a fever and realized that her wisdom teeth were coming in.
Some had not yet started menstruating. Those who had often stopped. “We were so overworked we ceased to be women,” said an armorer. The loss of femininity bothered them. They hated wearing men’s underwear, feared looking ugly in death. They struggled to keep their legs out of caterpillar treads while pulling men out of burning tanks. Nobody would marry a legless woman. The difficulty reconciling conventional femininity with killing and fighting is at the heart of this book. One gunner confided that those she killed — “my dead” — still came to her in her sleep.
The assault on their femininity got worse; after the war, front-line girls found that their service marked them, and not in a good way. “Everybody knows you spent four years at the front, with men,” a girl was told by her mother. “ ‘Army whores. . . . Military bitches . . . .’ They insulted us in all possible ways. . . . The Russian vocabulary is rich,” recalled another. In the United States, military women also faced slanderous accusations of immorality, though not to the same degree. So the front-line girls were well-advised not to talk about their service. There is another reason their story was buried: People everywhere wanted to put the war behind them and return to normal life, but in the Soviet Union, forgetting became crucial.
That’s because anybody could be branded an enemy of the people for saying the wrong thing. As one woman puts it, after all the sacrifice — some 20 million war dead, military and civilian — “Stalin still didn’t trust the people.” One fighter lost her highly decorated husband to 10 years of forced labor when an informer turned him in for remarking that heaps of Russian corpses blunted his sense of triumph. “After the Victory everybody became silent,” the author writes. “Silent and afraid.”
Alexievich did an enormous service, recovering these stories. The outsize Soviet role in defeating the Nazi army and liberating Europe is often neglected. If men who fought on the eastern front have gotten short shrift, how much truer of the women. As a female rifleman scrawled in charcoal on the Reichstag: “You were defeated by a Russian girl from Saratov.” That may be an overstatement, but it is not altogether untrue.
By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Random House. 331 pp. $30