When Vladimir Putin's troops stormed Ukraine two months ago, Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was quick to lend her voice to urgent appeals for an end to the bloodshed and disclosure of the full truth to Russian citizens.
She more than many knows the enduring human cost of war, depicting it as a “grandiose and predatory world” after interviewing hundreds of Russian women who fought in the Red Army against the Nazis.
A critic of Putinism and an opponent of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Alexievich lives in exile these days in Berlin. In 2015 she won the Nobel prize for literature, for non-fiction work documenting life in the Soviet Union and its aftermath. Her parents were teachers, and she was born in the west Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk in 1948 and grew up among people marked by the second World War. Her Ukrainian maternal grandfather was killed at the front, and her Belarusian father was the only one of three brothers to return from the battlefield. "The Germans burned alive eleven distant relatives with their children – some in their cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family," she once wrote. "The village of my post-war childhood was a village of women."
Starting out in the late 1970s, when the Soviet empire was still intact, she spent years visiting the women of Stalin’s army to record stories ignored in the official narrative. The resulting tome of monologues, The Unwomanly Face of War, is a haunting evocation of fortitude, dread, sorrow, loss and compassion. Alexievich completed the manuscript in 1983, only to see it suppressed. A censored edition finally appeared in 1985 as Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened some transparency. Republished by Penguin after she won the Nobel award for work described as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”, the book bears moral witness to the scars of conflict and its long shadow. “I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.”
Read against the backdrop of slaughter in Ukraine, the horrors here raise questions as to whether Putin has learned anything at all from history. The great patriotic war against Hitler is a foundation stone of Russian identity, and Putin himself draws on the heroic contribution of Ukrainian fighters to “their great common motherland” when laying claim to the “historical unity” of the two countries. But the cruel fallout from his brutal war on people he claims are at one with his own is not all that far removed from Nazi aggression decades ago.
“We marched past a small settlement. I think it was in Ukraine,” Klavdia Grigoryevna Krokhina, a sniper of first sergeant rank, told Alexievich.
“And there by the road we saw a barrack or a house it was impossible to tell, it was all burned down nothing left but blackened stones. A foundation . . . Many of the girls didn’t go close to it, but it was as if something drew me there . . . There were human bones among the cinders, with scorched little stars among them; these were our wounded or prisoners who had been burned. After that, however many I killed, I felt no pity.”
Krokhina came back from battle at the age of 21 with her hair completely white, one of several interviewees who told Alexievich of sudden, premature greying in the face of carnage. Other survivors told of an abiding aversion to wearing red clothes or even carnations because it was the colour of blood. One mother described running with her baby in arms for miles by the side of her weeping husband as he left for the front, their final moments together: “I’ve never even seen his grave.”
A grandmother, Liubov Mikhailovna Grozd, who was a medical assistant in the war, told of comrades gently recognising her undeclared love for an officer who was killed: “I went up and kissed him. I’d never kissed a man before.”
Elsewhere, farmers ploughed in the darkness when there was no shooting: “I remember how we came to a village where an old man was being buried. He had been killed at night. Sowing wheat. He gripped the grain so hard we couldn’t straighten his fingers. He was put in the ground with the grain.”
These fragments from a 330-page volume do not do justice to the overwhelming force of personal testimony. But they reflect the grief that burns decades after the guns go silent. "Now I live in Crimea," said Xenia Sergeevna Osadcheva, a hospital matron whose own mother did not recognise her after the war. "Here everything drowns in flowers, and every day I look out the window at the sea, but I'm worn out with pain, I still don't have a woman's face. I cry often. I moan all day. It's my memories."