Before stepping onto the stage, Svetlana Alexievich left me with her grayish-beige leather coat, as unfashionable as the rest of her. We had met by chance in March at a literary festival in Austria where the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in literature—a stocky woman in her late 60s, barely 5 feet tall—was being honored. “Hold it for me,” she said, and there was something touchingly Soviet in the gesture: You trust your own to keep an eye out for you. I, too, am a former Soviet citizen; we share the experience of surviving in a world that was “making war all the time, or preparing for war,” to quote from The Unwomanly Face of War. One of the saddest books you may ever read, it was the work that launched Alexievich’s 30-plus-year career of “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” as the Nobel citation put it.
“Historian of the soul” is the way Alexievich, writing in her journal, described her vocation as she worked on the collage of Soviet women’s memories of World War II that first won her an audience, in 1985. “Listen,” begins a former sniper (one of roughly 1 million women who served in the Soviet army, in every capacity). Alexievich does just that, and then records the tale, strewn with ellipses and distilled to its haunting essence—one fragment of testimony among many:
How long was the war? Four years. Very long … I don’t remember any birds or flowers. They were there, of course, but I don’t remember them. Yes, yes … Strange, isn’t it? Can they make a color film about war? Everything was black. Only the blood was another color, the blood was red …
Published at the dawn of perestroika, The Unwomanly Face of War was read by millions in the U.S.S.R.; an English-language version was issued in 1988 by the Moscow-based Progress Publishers (and recently could be found on Amazon for $400 and up). Now a wider non-Russian-speaking readership can welcome a timely new English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They artfully render the slow flow of first-person narratives that fill the book, and that became Alexievich’s signature approach in her accounts of the Russian Communist experience—a series that she calls “Voices From Big Utopia.” (These books include Last Witnesses, stories of those who were children during the war—published the same year as The Unwomanly Face of War—and extend to Voices From Chernobyl in 1997 and Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets in 2013.) Weaving an introductory section out of the author’s journal excerpts and other material, this new edition also provides a chance to eavesdrop on Alexievich discovering her path.
Born in 1948 in Soviet Ukraine to a Belarusian Ukrainian family, Alexievich was one of what she called “the children of Victory,” the generation that missed the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s. Her family soon moved to Soviet southern Belarus. She grew up hearing local tales about the Great Patriotic War (in villages like hers, where every fourth person perished in the fight, it was impossible not to). But “military books … the favorite reading of everybody,” she recalled, held little interest for her. She worked for a newspaper in a formerly Polish region of southern Belarus and then went to Minsk, the capital, to study journalism. She resumed her journalistic writing during the ’70s and early ’80s, a period when “official Soviet nostalgia … slowly replaced Marxist ideology,” as the historian Timothy Snyder wrote in a tribute to Alexievich in 2015 in The New York Review of Books. For her generation, he explained, that meant being “nourished on the quasi-Marxist idea that all the suffering had a purpose, and the neo-provincial idea that this purpose was the continuation of the exemplary Soviet state in which they happened to have been born.”
Yet for Alexievich, there is nothing provincial about suffering. In March, after she had fielded questions from the audience (and reclaimed her coat), she told me, “No book about Soviet sacrifice was as strong as the women’s stories I heard as a child.” Her journal entries show her intent on continuing to avoid the prolific patriotic canon she had always skirted—“men writing about men … Everything we know about war we know with ‘a man’s voice.’ ” Still, she was “a bookish person, both frightened and attracted by reality,” and it was a book, by men, that inspired her mission, or perhaps more accurately, her method. The two are inseparable. In I Am From a Burning Village, an account of the Nazis’ path of destruction through Belarus, written by the Belarusian Ales Adamovich, along with his compatriots Yanka Bryl and Vladimir Kolesnik, she found a “novel … composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus.”
Alexievich had known since she was a girl, questioning her grandmother, that “women’s stories are different,” as she wrote in her journal. “There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.” She also knew the obstacles before her. Her first collection of essays, about people’s difficult journeys from the village to the city in the increasingly industrialized U.S.S.R., was pulled from the printing press by Communist Party officials. Today she is eager to put that unpublished volume behind her. “I was just trying to find myself, just like those who got resettled,” she told me. Undaunted and barely 30, she then set off to “discover for myself the world of war.” Alexievich took dozens of trips, recording hundreds of cassettes as she spoke with more than 500 women; she received letters from scores more. Her goal was not modest: to listen to “specific human beings, living in a specific time and taking part in specific events,” while remaining ever alert to “the eternally human in them. The tremor of eternity. That which is in human beings at all times.”
Her enterprise, Alexievich has emphasized, shouldn’t be confused with journalism, or considered a fictional hybrid of some sort. When she attempted to rework her material as fiction, the stories came out flat. Winnowed from hours of conversation, the accounts belong to an evolving form of literary nonfiction that allows her to showcase figures quite different from developed characters. Her pages, as Alexievich put it to me, present witnesses whose testimony conveys the truth that “war is a curse on everyone,” even as their stories also affirm that, in the words of one section heading, “a human being is greater than war.”
Women eagerly seized the chance to talk to her. “There were quite a few girl tankmen of medium size tanks,” a former first lieutenant explained, “but I was the only one who worked on a heavy tank. I sometimes think it would be good if some writer wrote about my life. I do not know how to do it myself.” A telephone operator got in touch by letter to say, “I have no big declarations, only medals. I don’t know whether you would be interested in my life, but I would like to tell it to somebody.”
Yet telling—and having told—was a struggle for women warriors who, back home after heroic service, found themselves viewed as “frontline girls” defiled by grim years among men. While male former comrades were celebrated for their battle scars, the women were supposed to bake and sew, and forget harrowing things. A former sniper covered her face with her hands and said to Alexievich, “Do you really want to know that? I ask you like a daughter.” And then the woman proceeded, pulled onward by an attentive listener: “I need your eyes in order to tell about it.” Alexievich heard things that had never before been aired. “The baby cried,” recounted another woman, remembering a radio operator in her unit who was forced to silence her hungry newborn as they hid from the Germans. “If the dogs heard it, we’d all be killed … She lowers the swaddled baby into the water and holds it there for a long time … The baby doesn’t cry anymore … And we can’t raise our eyes. Neither to the mother nor to each other.” A sergeant major, on receiving the transcript of her interview, decided that Alexievich’s ears had heard too much as she spoke “from the heart.” “What is he going to think of me after this?” she asked, thinking of her son, who considered her “a deity.” She crossed out most of her own vivid words about being a small, untrained girl boldly serving as a medical assistant to a tank battalion, sending back official clippings instead.
“Two truths,” Alexievich came to see, “live in the same human being: one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.” Indeed, while glasnost had made public a lot of information about the tragic Soviet past, not all readers in the U.S.S.R., women or men, were ready for the revelations of unheroic humanity in pages that transcribed memories of everyday concerns (periods, hairstyles) alongside wartime horrors:
We didn’t shoot [prisoners], that was too easy a death for them; we struck them with ramrods like pigs, we cut them to pieces. I went to look at it … I waited for a long time for the moment when their eyes would begin to burst from pain.
I admitted to Alexievich that I, too—just entering my 20s when her book came out—had found the record of our gruesome survival too hard to bear. I read through to its end only as a graduate student in the gender-conscious 1990s, after I had moved to the United States. “I myself didn’t always believe that I was strong enough for this path,” Alexievich told me. She had faced outraged censors. “Who will go fight after such books?” they demanded, as she duly noted down after her encounter with them. “You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism … You make our Victory terrible.” Her book “might never have gotten published if it weren’t for one man,” she said to me, and paused—“Gorbachev.”
Alexievich does not consider herself a dissident, despite her years of exile (she tried out Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden before returning to Minsk six years ago) and her testy relationship with power. (As a human-rights activist since the collapse of the Soviet Union, she has often been at odds with the autocratic Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenka, who has never personally congratulated her on her Nobel. Neither has Russian President Vladimir Putin; though he allegedly liked the book, he must have been annoyed by her repeated references to the war in eastern Ukraine as an occupation by Russian-affiliated forces.) Nor does she think of herself as a feminist.
Instead, Alexievich has forged her own distinctive identity: as a witness to witnesses who usually go unheard. Her quest to write “a history of feelings,” as she put it in her first book—“of small human beings, thrown out of ordinary life into the epic depths of an enormous event”—has proved to have lasting power. “After Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin opening in the 1950s and ’60s,” she explained to me, “we in the Soviet Union wanted to explore humanity, and not just Soviet humanity. When I spoke to women, the heroic clichés and the state-propaganda banalities about the great nation went away.” She kept on seeking out more voices, with more to lay bare—among them, Soviet veterans of the war in Afghanistan—in her subsequent books.
It was Putin’s nationalistic politics, beginning with his expansionist advances in Georgia in 2008, that finally made me cry over Alexievich’s first book. I could no longer keep her work at arm’s length, but was inspired to undertake my own exploration of war-ravaged Soviet political life and its toll—on my family. I wanted to know why, when, and how a public story had come to be spread about my grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev’s son, a fighter pilot who had been shot down and decorated. After he then went missing in 1943, accusations of treason were leveled against him. My search for answers taught me lessons that would not surprise Alexievich: Tales of wartime heroism, or ignominy, have a way of serving some interest other than truth. And women who revisit the fraught past should expect to have their authority challenged. My grandmother, my mother, and I were repeatedly told, You weren’t there, you weren’t involved, you don’t understand, you can’t remember.
In a “post-truth” era when journalism is under pressure—susceptible to propaganda, sensationalism, and “alternative facts”—the power of documentary literature stands out more clearly than ever. An “autopsy on the revolutionary century that turned a country into a graveyard, yet didn’t destroy our soul, is important to all because communism isn’t dead,” Alexievich said in Austria. “It will come back in some form.” The Unwomanly Face of War won’t stop people from fighting wars, but with the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in view, this book, along with its sui generis successors, is a reminder of a higher purpose that suffering can serve. Rather than propping up an inhuman system, it can goad us to continue holding one another’s coats and carrying on. Listen to Alexievich as she absorbs the wisdom of keeping her ears out for her own:
Sometimes I come home after these meetings with the thought that suffering is solitude. Total isolation. At other times it seems to me that suffering is a special kind of knowledge. There is something in human life that it is impossible to convey and preserve in any other way, especially among us. That is how the world is made; that is how we are made.