The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II
By Svetlana Alexievich
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Hardcover in dustjacket, 331 pages
Published by Random House, July 2017
Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
During the Second World War the Soviet Union was faced with an acute manpower shortage. Like other countries, the Soviets utilized women in support roles to free up men for service in combat units. But unlike other nations women also served in combat units, often in combatant roles. Soviet women were combat medics, snipers, tank drivers, pilots, infantrymen, – basically any job which was needed. These women were motivated by patriotism, and often by the desire to avenge a friend or relative killed by the Germans. In all, over a million women served in the Soviet military during the Great Patriotic War.
This book is a series of compilations of their experiences, in their own words. Author Svetlana Alexievich conducted interviews with hundreds of veterans. Their accounts sometimes cover several pages, sometimes single paragraphs. They do not omit any details, describing what they saw and what they thought about it. Many were in the thick of the action, and many were considered “tainted” by their experiences by their countrymen when they returned.
This is a unique book in many ways. While I have read hundreds of books on military history, I had the realization that none were written by a female author, and none about women in combat. Different things resonated with these women, and they were volunteering (often insisting) to enter an occupation dominated by and intended for men. Many mention having to have their braids cut off and the necessity of altering uniforms and shoes which were many sizes too big. Still, they endured the same hardships and earned the same decorations as their male comrades.
This book is at times hard to read, but impossible to put down. Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature for her works, including this volume. Be warned, you will not be spared any of the brutality of war on the Eastern Front here. My highest recommendation.