In March 1945, with victory over Nazi Germany only weeks away, Pravda praised the nearly one million Soviet women who had fought the Germans and their allies. They had ‘proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners. But they don’t forget about their primary duty to nation and state – that of motherhood.’ In accordance with the official policy of the state, women combatants were henceforth to lay down not only their arms but also their wartime identities. While men were celebrated in the postwar years as frontoviki, frontline soldiers who had made heroic sacrifices to defeat fascism, the contribution of women to the struggle was reduced in popular memory to the traditionally familiar wartime occupations of nursing and cooking.
Drawing on diaries and her own interviews with veterans, Lyuba Vinogradova seeks to recover the experiences of Soviet women combatants from the obscurity to which they were consigned. Vinogradova’s rambling but highly readable Avenging Angels follows snipers from their first days of training and their first kills to their participation in great set-piece battles on the Eastern Front and their eventual deployment in the assault on Berlin. Some became accomplished soldiers who fought in the vanguard of the Soviet army and notched up dozens of confirmed kills. Yet in Vinogradova’s account, their voices are frequently submerged beneath a narrative that cannot decide whether it wants to be an exciting account of the heroic exploits of women in combat or a more reflective meditation on the personal dislocations, exhilarations and traumas of war. The female snipers themselves remain, for the most part, psychologically inaccessible. They fight, suffer the death of comrades, fall in love, participate in fierce battles, witness atrocities and (in some cases) eventually return home, often in a few short paragraphs that tend to summarise rather than illuminate.
Soviet society struggled to reconcile contemporary ideas of femininity with the murderous reality of combat. As the mother of one prolific sniper said on learning of her daughter’s death, ‘Maybe it’s for the best that Roza died. How could she have lived after the war? She shot so many people.’ A lot of female soldiers returned from battle to face accusations of being ‘frontline whores’ who had seduced men while their devoted wives waited anxiously for their safe return.
This theme of womanhood in times of war is also explored in the Nobel Prize-winning Belorussian author Svetlana Alexievich’s searing The Unwomanly Face of War. Poised between oral history and literary investigation, it was first published in 1985, though the Soviet authorities insisted on censoring parts of it. A second, uncensored edition appeared in 2004, of which this is a translation. It is an astonishing work. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of women across the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s and condensed their recollections into raw, unflinching portraits of life on the Eastern Front. She muses, ‘a woman gives life… Bears it in herself for a long time, nurses it. I understood that it is more difficult for women to kill.’ It was also far more difficult for contemporaries to accept women as killers. One officer at the front joked with the female snipers under his command: ‘Eh, you girls! You’re good all around but after the war men will be afraid to marry you. You’ve got good aim; you’ll fling a plate at his head and kill him.’
Fearful in the postwar years of exposing themselves to a suspicious public gaze, many of the women whose testimonies Alexievich records retreated into silence. ‘Men were victors,’ one recalls, ‘heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. Quite different… I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.’ Many women combatants found themselves exiled from the defining experience of their lives. Some had never spoken of what they did in the war, even to members of their own families.
The Unwomanly Face of War creates a haunting symphony of the voices of veteran sappers, medics, snipers and partisans caught up in the conflict on the Eastern Front. Alexievich does not provide the reader, as Vinogradova seeks to, with historical context; she makes no attempt to insert the episodes she recounts into an overall narrative of the shifting tides of the war. Instead, she filters – the extent of her editing is never clear – her interviewees’ often hesitant and halting recollections (most are shot through with ellipses) into brief chapters, some no longer than a single paragraph. The stories these women tell shatter the familiar narratives of invasion, retreat, defence, advance and victory: ‘Voices… Dozens of voices,’ Alexievich writes, ‘they descended upon me, revealing the unaccustomed truth, and that truth did not fit into the brief formula familiar from childhood – we won.’
The interviewees dwell on details that lend their stories an unbearable ring of truth. One remembers a woman in occupied Belarus who used her own seven-year-old daughter to carry a mine into a German mess hall, hidden in a basket beneath ‘a couple of children’s outfits, a stuffed toy, two dozen eggs, and some butter’. Another recalls a young nurse captured and tortured to death by German forces: ‘We found her: eyes put out, breasts cut off. They had impaled her on a stake… It was freezing cold, and she was white as could be, and her hair was all grey… She was nineteen years old. In her knapsack we found letters from home and a green rubber bird. A child’s toy…’
Alexievich’s power is to create in a few short paragraphs a painful intimacy with human beings thrust into circumstances that defy the imagination. One of the passages suppressed by the Soviet censor when the book was first published is worth quoting in full:
Aunt Nastya had her five children with her. Yulechka, my friend, was the weakest. She was always sick… And the four boys, all of them little, also asked to eat all the time. And Aunt Nastya went crazy: ‘Ooo… Ooo…’ And in the night I heard… Yulechka begged, ‘Mama, don’t drown me. I won’t… I won’t ask to eat anymore. I won’t…’
In the morning there was no Yulechka to be seen…
Aunt Nastya… We went back to the embers of the village… It had burned down. Soon Aunt Nastya hanged herself from the charred apple tree in her garden. She hung very, very low. Her children stood around her asking for food.
Such accounts are relieved only by the compassion and humanity shown by the women who tell their stories. The Unwomanly Face of War does more than recover the experiences of Soviet women in the conflict; it probes the very blackest recesses of human experience. A profoundly humbling, devastating book, it should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand the experience of the war and its haunting legacy in the former Soviet Union.