Svetlana Alexievich’s first book is the latest to be (re-)translated into English, in the wake of her Nobel Prize win. It tells a story that stretches back over a century – Russian women fought against Napoleon too, as Alexievich notes – and over the border – to the Finnish Red women. Yet it is not well known, as it was not even spoken about, let alone honoured, until Alexievich started asking.
She grew up in a Belarusian “village of women” where the memory of the war that had just ended was ever-present. The stories the women told her, and tell here, don’t fit the heroic narrative so well. As she began to listen, more and more began to contact her and ask to meet.
Yes, these women were heroines – the fighter pilots, or “Night Witches”, are among the best known – but they couldn’t just up and leave their families for the front without a fight:
This didn’t really change when they completed their training and got to the front, either: they then had to prove themselves to their comrades-in-arms, or their men:
Yet these men would not have been able to put a foot forward without the women going first:
And they would never have made it back without the women, either:
What is striking about these women’s accounts is not only the relational way in which they tell them, but also the sensory experience – sounds, scents, touch, weight are engraved on their memories. Many of Alexeivich’s interviewees had not told their experiences to anyone. Even when she published them in the 1980s, the book was heavily censored. Now, just as the Second World War is slipping out of living memory, their full story is ready to be read.