Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War

During WWII, women served in all branches of the military: 225,000 in the British, 450,000-500,000 in the American, and about a million in the Soviet army. The women in the Soviet army contributed to the German defeat, but little was known and little was said about them and the price they had to pay for victory.

Over the course of twenty six years, Svetlana Alexievich sought out many of these women and became the repository for their untold stories. This is part of the body of work that earns her a place as one of only seventeen women out of a hundred and fifteen Nobel Laureates in Literature.

Maybe it’s because Svetlana Alexievich says that she isn’t writing about war nor the history of a war, “but about human beings in a war… the history of feelings.” Maybe it’s because she is what she says she is, “A historian of the soul.” Maybe it’s because she believes, for good reason, that suffering is “a special kind of knowledge,” “the highest form of information,” that suffering has a direct connection with the mystery of life. (“All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love. And these women tell me more about it…”) Maybe it’s because she makes this book of unburdening into an overwhelming choir of over two hundred voices singing a soulful rendition of an unsung threnody for the first time, that it answers my question as to why a piercing account of war can be so beautiful and so important. 

Special thanks to Gabi for encouraging me to read this and for giving it to me as a birthday present last year. 🤍