War's Unwomanly Face


S. Alexiyevich

Source: From War's Unwomanly Face, Progress Publishers, 1984.
Translated: Keith Hammond and Lyudmilla Lezhneva
Transcribed and HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

All that we know about Woman is best described by the word "compassion". There are other words, too-sister, wife, friend and, the noblest of all, mother. But isn't compassion a part of all these concepts, their very substance, their purpose and their ultimate meaning? A woman is the giver of life, she safeguards life, so "Woman" and "life" are synonyms.

But during the most terrible war of the 20th century a woman had to become a soldier. She not only rescued and bandaged the wounded; she also fired a sniper's rifle, dropped bombs, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering, and captured identification prisoners. A woman killed. She killed the enemy who, with unprecedented cruelty, was attacking her land, her home, her children. One of the heroines of the book, trying to convey all the horror and the cruel necessity of what had happened, says: "Woman was never destined to kill." Another woman wrote the following on the wall of the Reichstag: "I, Sofia Kuntsevich, came to Berlin to kill war." Woman thus made tremendous sacrifices to bring about Victory and at the same time they accomplished an immortal feat whose magnitude we can grasp only gradually in time of peace.

In one of his letters, which he wrote in May-June 1945 and which is now kept in the Slavic Anti-Fascist Committee fund at the Central State Archives of the October Revolution, Nikolai Roerich said: "The Oxford Dictionary has licensed several Russian words now recognised throughout the world; for instance, the words 'ukaz' and 'Soviet'. One more word--the untranslatable meaningful Russian word 'podvig'--should be added. Strange as it may seem, no European language has a word with at least approximately the same meaning..." Should the Russian word "podvig" ever find its way into the world's languages, part of the credit for this should go to Soviet women who had to shoulder the burden of supporting the rear, saving the children and defending their homeland together with men.

...I have been following the scorched roads of other people's memory and pain for four tormenting years now. I have recorded hundreds of accounts given by women who fought at the front as medical workers, signallers, field engineers, pilots, snipers, gunners, anti-aircraft gunners, political workers, cavalrymen, tankmen, paratroopers, sailors, traffic controllers, drivers, privates in bath-and-laundry units, cooks and bakers, and also by those who fought in the underground and in partisan groups. Marshal A. I. Yeremenko wrote that there was "hardly any military skill which could not be mastered by our courageous women on a par with their brothers, husbands and fathers". There were women Komsomol leaders of tank battalions, drivers of heavy tanks, and commanders of machine-gun companies, and submachine-gunners in the infantry, even though the Russian vocabulary lacks the feminine form of the words "tankman", "infantryman" or "submachine-gunner", since never before had women been engaged in these activities.

The Leninist Komsomol alone managed to mobilise about 500 thousand girls for the army, including 200 thousand Komsomol members. Some 70 per cent of these girls served in the army in the field. All in all, more than 800 thousand women served at the battle front during the war.

The partisan movement was nation-wide. In Byelorussia alone, about 60 thousand courageous Soviet women fought in partisan detachments. Every fourth Byelorussian was burnt alive or killed in some other way by the Nazis.

We know these statistics. But behind them lie human destinies and human lives mutilated by the war; we do not know as much about the loss of those who were near and dear, impaired health, women's loneliness, and the unbearable memories of the war years.

"No matter what our date of birth was, we were all born in 1941", Klara Semyonovna Tikhanovich, anti-aircraft gunner, wrote in a letter to me. I want to tell you about the young girls of 1941, or, to be more exact, they will tell their own war stories.

"I've had it on my mind all these years. I would wake up in the night and lie with my eyes open. It occurred to me sometimes that I would carry it all into my grave and that nobody would ever learn about it; the thought filled me with fear..." Emilia Alexeyevna Nikolayeva, partisan).

"...I am so glad that I can tell somebody about it and that our time has also come..." (Senior Sergeant Tamara Illarionovna Davydovich, driver).

"If I tell you everything the way it was I would again be unable to live like the rest of the people. I'd be ill. I returned from the war alive, only wounded, but I was ill for a long time. I had been ill until I told myself that I should forget it ah or otherwise I'd never be well again. I even feel sorry that a young girl like you should want to know about it..." (Sergeant-Major Lyubov Zakharovna Novik, medical orderly).

"Men could go through it all. They were men after all. But I just don't know how women could cope with it all. Whenever I recall the past now I am seized with terror but at that time I could do anything, say, sleep next to a killed person, and I myself fired the rifle and saw blood; I remember only too well the especially strong smell of blood in the snow... It makes me feel unwell even to talk to you... It wasn't that bad then and I could go through anything. I began to tell all about it to my granddaughter but my daughter-in-law checked me: there is no need for a girl to know of such things. She said she was to become a woman ... and a mother... And I have no one to tell it to..."

"We shield them in this way and are then surprised that our children know little about us..." (Sergeant Tamara Mikhailovna Stepanova, sniper).

"...My girl friend and I went to the cinema. We've been friends for nearly forty years now: during the war we both were active in the underground movement. We wanted to buy tickets to the cinema but there was a large queue. My friend happened to have her Great Patriotic War veteran card on her so she approached the booking office and showed it. A teenage girl of about fourteen or so said, 'Did you women really fight? I wonder what sort of feat won you your cards.' Other people in the queue were, of course, willing to let us ahead of them but we no longer felt like going to the cinema. We seemed to be in the grip of a fever..." (Vera Grigolyevna Sedova, member of an underground organisation).

I, too, was born after the war when the trenches had already been overgrown with grass, when three-layered dug-outs had crumbled and when soldiers' helmets left behind in the forests had gone rusty. But the war's deadly breath has affected my life, too. We still belong to the generations that have their own accounts to settle with the war. Our family lost eleven of its members: my Ukrainian grandfather Petro, my mother's father, is buried somewhere outside Budapest, my Byelorussian grandmother Yevdokia, my father's mother, died from starvation and typhus when the Nazis had sealed off partisan-controlled zones, two families of our distant relatives together with their children were burned alive by the Nazis in a shed in my native village of Komarovichi, Petrikov district, Gomel Region, and father's brother Ivan, who had volunteered for active duty, went missing in action in 1941.

My own "war" also lasted four years, and I was often shattered by what I heard. To tell you the truth, at times I felt I couldn't endure it any longer. Many a time I wished to forget what I had heard. I wished it but no longer could. All this time I kept a diary, which I have also ventured to include in my book. It records my feelings and experiences, and also the geography of my search, which covered more than a hundred towns and cities, settlements and villages in various parts of the country. I was for a long time in doubt whether I had the right to use the words "I feel", "I am anxious" and "I doubt" in my book. What are my feelings and torments compared with their feelings and torments? Will anybody be interested in a diary concerned with my emotions? But the more material accumulated in my files the more confident I became that a document was fully valid only when its author had made his or her presence felt along with its contents.

There are no dispassionate testimonies: each conveys a patent or hidden passion that the author experienced. And many years later that very passion will also serve as a document.

People's memories of the war and their related notions are "masculine" in nature. This is only natural since it was, for the most part, men who fought at the front; and yet it is an acknowledgement of our inadequate knowledge of the war. True, hundreds of books have been written about women who took part in the Great Patriotic War and quite a few memoirs have been published, which show that we are dealing here with an unprecedented historical phenomenon. Never before in the entire history of mankind have so many women fought in a war. We know a few legendary names from the past, such as the woman trooper Nadezhda Durova, and partisan Vasilisa Kozhina; and during the Civil War women served in the Red Army, however, mostly as nurses and doctors. But the Great Patriotic War furnished the world with an example of Soviet women's mass participation in the defence of their Motherland.

In his foreword to an excerpt from the notes of Nadezhda Durova, published in the Sovremennik magazine, Pushkin wrote: "What made a young girl of noble family leave her home, renounce her sex, assume duties and responsibilities which frighten even men, and appear on the battlefield--and what battle-fields!--where Napoleon fought! What were her motives? Private family troubles? A stirred imagination? An innate indomitable bent? Or love?" Pushkin was speaking of the incredible fate of one woman, and there were scores of conjectures. But it is quite a different thing when 800 thousand women served in the army and many more applied to serve at the front.

They joined in because, as K. S. Tikhonovich, anti-aircraft gunner, has put it: "'We' and 'Motherland' meant the same thing for us." They were allowed to play an active part in the war because the alternative for their people and country--"to be or not to be"--was being weighed on the balance of history. That was what was at stake.

As to the material included in the book and the principle involved, I deliberately avoided famous snipers or renowned pilots or partisans, as quite a lot had already been written about them. "We were ordinary girls who served in the army, like many others," I heard more than once. And I was looking for exactly such people, because their memories make up the treasure-house of what we call the people's memory. "If you look at the war with our eyes, women's eyes, it would seem the most dreadful thing imaginable," said Sergeant Alexandra Iosifovna Mishutina, medical orderly. These words of an ordinary woman who fought all through the war, then married and had three children, and is now helping to bring up her grandchildren, convey the idea underlying the book.

Optics uses the notion of "illumination" taking care of the capacity of a lens to fix the image caught. By the intensity of their emotional experience and pain, women's memories of the war are the most "illuminating" of all.'They are emotionally charged, passionate, and furnish a wealth of detail which make the documents so authentic.

Signaller Antonina Fyodorovna Valegzhaninova fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. While telling of the hardships of the battle she failed for a long time to find an apt description of her feelings at that time and then, suddenly, she came up with the following picture: "One battle stands out in my memory. There were scores of dead... They were scattered over a huge field-like potatoes brought to the surface by a plough. They lay in the positions in which they had moved... Like potatoes... Even horses, such sensitive animals, who walk in fear of stepping on a man, even they were no longer afraid of the dead..." Partisan Valentina Pavlovna Kozhemyakina retained the following episode in her memory: "The early days of the war, our units are retreating waging fierce battles; all the villagers left their homes to see them off. My mother and I are also there. An elderly soldier passes by. He stops near our house and bows low, to the feet of my mother... 'Forgive us, Mother... And save the girl. Oh, save her!' I was 16 then and had a very long plait..." She also recollects another episode: "I was weeping over my first wounded soldier ... and, before dying, he said to me: "Take care of yourself, lass. You'll have to have children yet... Look how many men have been killed...' "

Women's memory retains that realm of human emotions which usually escapes men. While men's attention was held by the war as action, women's perception of the war was different if only because of their different mentality: bombing, death and suffering were only part of the war for them. A woman, because of her different psyche logical and physiological make-up, felt more keenly both the physical and moral hardships of the war, and it was more difficult for her to adapt to the "male" setting of the wartime. All the more valuable today is her extraordinary spiritual experience gained in the death inferno, testifying to infinite human possibilities, and we have no right to bury it in oblivion.

Perhaps these accounts provide little specifically military or other material (that was far from the author's intention) but they abound in human material, that which was largely responsible for the Soviet people's victory over nazism. After all for the entire people to be able to emerge victorious it was necessary for every individual to strive towards victory.

Many of those who fought in the war are still alive. Human life, however, is not endless, and it can only be prolonged by memory which is the only entity not subject to time. People who went through the war and won it are now aware of the significance of what they did and what they went through. They are eager to help anyone trying to preserve the memory for future generations. Time and again, when visiting families, I saw thick notebooks and schoolchildren's slender copybooks containing notes written and left for children and grandchildren. This legacy was handed over to a stranger reluctantly. The excuses given were usually very similar: "We wanted our children to keep them in memory of us" or "I'll make a copy for you because I want to leave the original to my son..."

However, not everybody makes notes. Lots of things remain unrecorded, and are irretrievably lost, forgotten. If a war is not forgotten there is much hatred, but if it is forgotten, then a new war begins, the ancients used to say.

Brought together, the women's accounts depict the war's unwomanly face; they sound like the accounts of witnesses accusing the fascism of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Fascism is accused by mothers, sisters and wives. It is exposed by women.

One of them is in front of me, relating how, right before the war, her mother would not let her go to see her grandmother without an escort, saying she was too young, and two months later she went to the front, became a medical orderly, and fought all the way from Smolensk to Prague. When she came back from the war she was 22. Other girls of her age were still young girls, while her experience was extensive and painful. She had been wounded three times, and One wound was a very serious one-in the chest; she had been shell-shocked twice and when it happened the second time, when she was dug up out of a buried trench, she was found to have turned grey. She had, however, to start her life as a woman anew, to get accustomed again to wearing light dresses and shoes, to marry and become a mother. All the men that returned from the war settled into family life, even if they had been crippled, while women's postwar fate was much more tragic. The war had made them part with their youth and their husbands, and very few of the young men their age returned from the front. Even without statistics they knew the situation only too well because they remembered how the men had lain-like heavy sheaves-on the trampled fields. And how impossible it was for them to believe, to reconcile themselves to the idea that nothing would revive those tall lads in sailor's pea-jackets, that they, fathers, husbands, brothers and fiances, would remain buried in their common graves forever. "There were so many wounded that it seemed as if the whole world had been wounded...," said Senor Sergeant Anastasia Sergeyevna Demchenko, nurse.

What kind of girls were they, these young girls of 1941? How did they come to volunteer for the front? Let us follow them on their long paths through life.