The Unwomanly Face of War

This oral history of Russian women soldiers offers a fresh take on World War II history.

Svetlana Alexievich worked for years tracking down and interviewing female veterans of the Great Patriotic War—i.e., the Eastern Front of World War II. The Unwomanly Face of War is the compilation of these interviews. Yes, there are gruesome combat stories, but far more interesting are stories of how Soviet ideology clashed with real life attitudes. Women were allowed to volunteer but male commanders often refused to let them serve once enlisted. In turn, these patriotic women refused to be denied the right to defend their motherland. Soldiers devised many ingenious ways to attach themselves to units; e.g., hiding the woods every night so they could not be placed on transport trucks to the rear lines only to emerge in the morning much to their commander’s surprise. That’s the tip of the iceberg. The stories run the gamut from humor, heartbreak, suffering, and occasional redemption. There are many anecdotes of men apologizing to their comrades for doubting their bravery, capability, and selflessness. Recorded decades later, gender roles still distorted the process. There was an approved Soviet history of the war and often these stories deviated from that. Many husbands demanded to be present when their wives were interviewed to ensure their wives “would not get something wrong.” The unique of approach of emphasizing personal, subjective experiences as opposed to a canonized timeline of historical events earned Alexievich a Nobel Prize for Literature, the first for a journalist. I highly recommend the audio version read by Julia Emelin, Yelena Shmulenson, and Alan Rickman.


kfieth's picture


Great post, Bryan! The Soviet Union fielded several tank battalions composed of females only. It was a bold step in 1942, if one thinks about it. Then again, with staggering losses during the war and the significant loss of leadership during the purges, it seems that the traditional thoughts about women in combat were, although not given up, at least mitigated by the winner take all warfare of the Eastern Front. 

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