From the mouths of the women

Rex Dunn reviews Svetlana Alexievich The unwomanly face of war Penguin Classics, 2017, pp351, £12.99


early one million women served in the Red Army or joined the partisans during World War II. But their contribution has not been given the recognition it richly deserves in the official histories. This is the main reason why Svetlana Alexievich started to interview hundreds of women survivors over a decade or so, starting in the 1970s. Hitherto a mere statistic, thanks to the author, these brave women regain their individuality. They are also given their own voice - just as well, because now almost all of them are gone.

Alexievich also claims that women see war differently from men - although she does not argue that the maternal instinct makes women superior beings. Rather she points out the obvious: when it comes to war, if women are to fight on the front line, then they are in a unique position: “how unbearable and thinkable it is to die. And how much more unbearable and unthinkable it is to kill, because a woman gives life” (introduction, pxxi).

Alexievich is a humanist, albeit not a pacifist. Neither is she a bourgeois feminist. The latter - in keeping with the ethos of neoliberalism - is more interested in female empowerment, so that women can get a chance to help run capitalism, either in the boardroom or the offices of state. Therefore they can start wars of aggression (à la Margaret Thatcher), whilst enriching themselves and their class at the expense of ordinary working people - be they men or women. Rather Alexievich starts out with a quote from a Osip Mandelstam poem: “Millions of the cheaply killed/Have trod the path in darkness.” She also quotes Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who asked, “How much human being is in the human being?” Both quotations express the dilemma of most ordinary Russians who fought in World War II.

For all this Alexievich is to be commended. But she deserves most credit for confronting the crimes of Stalin and his regime, despite the Soviet censors, who prevented the publication of her book for many years. This is a topic which keeps on recurring in the course of her interviews with hundreds of women. As a result, their testimony of sacrifice and suffering is even more heartbreaking. And the interviews make clear that, when the truth was uncovered (even while they were fighting), these women came to see these crimes as a betrayal of the socialist cause. This also helps us to understand that Stalinism has left a poisonous legacy for future generations of proletarians - be they women or men.

Stories about things such as the human-made famine in the Ukraine or the decapitation of the Red Army generals before the outbreak of war also raise the question of the class nature of the ‘great patriotic war’. Understandably this is not part of Alexievich’s main concern, which is to give her women a voice. Nevertheless, I shall try and tackle this question myself - with Trotsky’s help - at the end of this review.


The title of her book establishes a conundrum straightaway. War is “unwomanly”, because down through the ages it has mostly been waged by men. But, when women do get the chance to fight alongside men, they have to follow their orders. Therefore they cannot make a real difference as to how war is fought. Nevertheless, according to Alexievich and many of her interviewees, women really do see war differently. For them it is more than a question of heroism or who won and who lost.

“Everything we know about war [especially this one] we know from ‘a man’s voice’,” writes Alexievich. Yet, although nearly one million women fought to defend the ‘motherland’, until now, “Women are silent ... When women speak [they don’t just talk about] How certain people heroically kill other people and won or lost. What equipment there was and which generals. Women’s stories are different and about different things.” According to many of the women, “There are no heroes or incredible feats: there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things. And it is not only they (the people) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees.” So she decided to write “A women’s history” (pxiv).

Alexievich’s next consideration is to contrast the cold reality of war for women as opposed to men: once again they are involved in killing and are killed themselves; but, unlike men, they give birth to new life - although in the end, for both men and women, it boils down to the loss of humanity, which hopefully can be regained. For many this occurs when one is “close to death”. Then there is the question of chance and fate for each individual person. As one woman says, “A bullet’s a bullet; fate’s a villain.”

But what form should she adopt to express the subject matter itself? Her answer is simple, but profound:

I write not about the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul. [People] say to me: well, memories are neither history or literature. They are simply life, full of rubbish and not tided up by the hand of the artist. The raw material of talk, every day, is filled with it (pxix).

On the other hand, as one survivor said, although she can remember the horror, she is lost for words; therefore, she comes to the conclusion that “We need a poet … like Dante …” (p207).

And so, in the midst of her introduction, Alexievich feels obliged to start quoting from the stories she has heard. One survivor told her:

I remember how one major began talking to me: “I want to defend the motherland, but I don’t want to defend that traitor of the revolution - Stalin.” I had never heard such words … I was frightened ... I’ll tell you a secret … I was friends with Oksana - she was from the Ukraine. It was from her that I first heard of the horrible hunger in Ukraine - Golodomor.1 I said, “Oksana, comrade Stalin is fighting. He destroys saboteurs, but there are many.” “No”, she said, “you’re stupid. My father was a history teacher. He said to me, ‘Some day comrade Stalin will answer for his crimes ...’” (ppxxiv-v).

Anyone who had been captured by the Germans was considered a traitor (even Stalin’s own son, who died at the hands of his captors). If they returned, they were tortured and imprisoned by the regime; even shot.

Animals also have a place in these stories:

There were so many people killed at Stalingrad that the horses stopped being afraid. Usually they’re afraid of the dead. A horse will never step on a dead man [whilst we drove over our own and the German dead]. Frozen … icy … I was a driver, I transported crates of artillery shells, I heard the skulls crack under the wheels ... And I was happy (pxxxiii).

Alexievich’s conversation with the Soviet censors shows that they were self-serving bureaucrats, who produced a rationale which fooled no-one except themselves: “You humiliate women with primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women … But our women are saints … Alien thoughts. Not Soviet” (pxxxi). Another argues:

“Yes, we paid dearly for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples … [You only show] the filth of war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible … What is it you’re after?”

“The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want it to be!” (pxxxiii).

After Gorbachev’s perestroika began, Alexievich’s book was finally published. The first print sold two million copies.

A few last words from her introduction:

Many of us believed … after the war everything would change … Those who were captured, … who survived the German camps, … whom the Germans had taken along to work for them - all those who had seen Europe were arrested. Those who could tell how people there lived … After the victory everybody became silent. Silent and afraid, as before the war (pxl).


Humiliated, trampled upon, insulted - having gone through Stalin’s camps and treachery, these human beings came out victorious. They performed a miracle. But the history of the war had been replaced by the history of the victory. They [the women] will tell about it … (pxxvi).


The main part of the book is composed of interviews with the women survivors. Here are some of them:

“Partisan Nurse” says of the partisans:

Imagine a pregnant woman walking with a mine … She was expecting a child, yes … She loved, she wanted to live. And, of course, she was afraid. But she went … Not for the sake of Stalin, but for the sake of her children. Their future life. She didn’t want to live on her knees. To submit to the enemy … Maybe we were blind, … but we were blind and pure at the same time (p51).

“Private, Nurse-Aide”:

Once there were two hundred men in a shed, and I was alone. The wounded were brought straight from the battlefield, lots of them … I remember I didn’t sit down or sleep for four days. Each of them cried out: “Nurse … dear nurse … help me, dear girl!” I ran from one to another … You never know your own heart.

In winter some captured German soldiers were led past our unit. [It was so cold] the birds froze. A soldier was marching in that column … A young boy … There were tears frozen on his face … And I was taking bread to the mess in a wheelbarrow. He … saw only bread … I broke a piece off ... he took it … He didn’t believe it. I was happy … that I wasn’t able to hate (p68-69).

Tamara Stepanova Umnyagina, junior sergeant in the guards, medical assistant:

In Stalingrad there wasn’t a single inch of dirt that wasn’t soaked in human blood. Russian and German. And gasoline … And Grease … Near Stalingrad … I was carrying two wounded men [one by one] … And suddenly, when I had crawled away from the battle and there was less smoke around, I realised that I was carrying one of our tank man and a German … They were both scorched black. Identical. [I thought] ‘Should I go back for the German or not?’ I knew that if I left him, he would die soon. From loss of blood … I crawled back for him.

Commander of a communications section:

All through the war I was afraid of being hit in the legs and getting crippled. I had beautiful legs. What is it for a man? Even if he loses his legs, it’s not so terrible. He’s a hero anyway. He can marry! But if a woman is crippled, it’s her destiny that’s at stake … (p187).

Sergeant-major, medical assistant in an infantry company:

... there weren’t enough bandages … There were such terrible bullet wounds that each needed a whole package. I tore up all my underwear, and told the boys, “Take off your long johns, your undershirts, I’ve got people dying here.” They took everything off, tore it up. I wasn’t embarrassed in front of them, they were like brothers to me, and I lived among them like a boy.

Sergeant-major, armourer:

Six months into the war, “We were so overworked, we ceased to be women … The biological cycle got thrown off … Very frightening! …to think you’ll never be a woman again …” (pp196, 198, 199).

Underground fighter:

Across the street from our house a boy and a girl were sitting on a bench kissing. There were pogroms [against the Jews] all around, shootings … A German patrol appeared. They too saw [them] … I had no time to think of anything … The first feeling - fear. I only saw that the boy and girl stood up - and had already fallen. They fell down together … Of course, this was love … In reality I was horrified. What else? … It just occurred to me … They were fighting … They wanted to die beautifully. That was their choice … (p208-09).

Medical assistant:

I was in love with him. Head over heels. My first love … Maybe my only love? Who knows? … We were burying him … he was lying on a tarpaulin; he had just been killed … The Germans were shelling us ... I remembered how he gave me a German chocolate bar for the new year. I didn’t eat it - I spent a month carrying it around in my pocket. I’ve remembered it all my life … That moment … There were bombs falling all around … He lay on a tarpaulin … That moment I was happy … Maybe he knew about my love … I went up and kissed him. I’d never kissed a man before. That was the first time (pp246-47).

This is clearly from the mouth of an ordinary woman: a novelist could not make this up!

Commander of an anti-aircraft battery, whose father had been taken prisoner by the whites during the civil war:

Could I sit indifferently when the enemy came again to my land, if I had grown up in such a family, with such a father? … He had lived through so much … He was denounced in 1937. They wanted to slander him; to make him the enemy of the people. Well, there were those horrible Stalin purges ... As comrade Stalin said, when you chop wood, the chips fly (p102).

She was also held back from her ambition to fight, because she was only a girl. But she got her way and eventually became commander of an anti-aircraft battery. She fought on the Rzhevsk front, where she was badly wounded.

Many years later Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva recalled how she received a visit from her chief of staff:

He talked with my husband and reminisced … Mentioned our girls. And I burst into tears: “Honour, you say, respect. But those girls are almost all single. Unmarried. They live in communal apartments. Who pitied them? Defended them? Where did you all disappear to after the war? Traitors!”

In short, I ruined their festive mood … He asked my forgiveness. “I can’t say anything to you, Valya. I can only weep” (pp11-12).

Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina had been an underground fighter. After being captured and sent to a labour camp in France, she escaped and managed to join the Maquis. She eventually returned home only to find:

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there … They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground … I realised someone had denounced him … Slander … “No,” I say. “… He’s a true communist.”

His interrogator … started yelling at me: “Silence, French prostitute! Silence! [My husband] had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp - [so he had to be deemed] suspicious ...

And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won … The people won! But Stalin still doesn’t trust the people. That was how our motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood …

I wrote to the authorities. My husband was released after six months. They broke one of his ribs, injured his kidney … When he was captured by the fascists, they smashed his skull, broke his arm. He turned grey there, and in 1945 the NKVD made him an invalid for good … (p294).

Partisan liaison:

My dearest little husband … he had come back … from the front … And he couldn’t speak. He wept … We had only one night. The next day they came for him … He was smoking and waiting; he already knew they would come … He had gone through Romania, Czechoslovakia. He brought back honours, but he came in fear …

... he had been marked, because he had been a prisoner. In the first weeks of the war … He was captured near Smolensk, and was supposed to shoot himself. He wanted to … [but] they had run out of bullets … the commissar had smashed his head with a stone … A Soviet officer doesn’t surrender. We don’t have captives: we have traitors. Thus spake comrade Stalin, who renounced his own son who had been captured … The interrogators yelled [at my husband]: “Why are you alive?” …

We had one night … In the morning he was taken away … My husband came home seven years later, … four years after the war, and after the Victory, through another seven years of Kolyma ...2

Nowadays we talk about everything. I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know … Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red Commanders - as German spies, Japanese spies [in league with Trotsky! Why the Nazi-Soviet Pact?] … Who assured us our border is secure … I can ask now … Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened … And so we’ll die scared, bitter and ashamed … (pp300-01).

As a surgical nurse who served in the Ukraine said,

During the war I heard quiet conversations … At night the wounded smoked in the corridors. Some … didn’t sleep. They talked about Tukhachesvsky and Yakir3 … Thousands had disappeared, millions of people! … The Ukrainians told us … how they had been driven into [collectivisation]. Forced to obey … How Stalin had organised famine; they themselves called it the ‘Death-by-hunger’ ... recently I visited my friends from the front in the Ukraine. They live in a big village near Odessa. Two obelisks stand in the centre of the village: half the village died of starvation, and all the men died in the war (pp321-22).

Three themes

On the basis of the above, I have deduced three main themes in Alexievich’s book. Whilst the first and third ones are explicit, the second is implicit in character: ie, she does not attempt such an analysis, since her focus is on oral testimony.

Firstly, as I have already stated, Alexievich’s primary objective is to give these women soldiers a voice, since they have been largely been hidden from history. She does not really explain why this is, yet the interviews themselves provide ample evidence for a Marxist explanation.

Cue my second theme: the Stalinist counterrevolution also rolled back the limited gains which women had achieved as a result of October 1917 vis-à-vis the question of sexual equality. Post-1917 it was easier for women to divorce their husbands; but the old division of labour remained, which discriminated against women. As the revolution degenerated, women were pushed further back into their traditional roles. Sexist attitudes continued: whilst, compared to western women, a higher proportion were educated to be doctors, professors and scientists, etc, most Russian women continued to fulfil the role of domestic servants, both at home and in public life.

As I have already explained, when war broke out, hundreds of thousands of women were eventually allowed to fight alongside their male comrades, although the majority of them served at the front as medics, nurses and doctors (this is borne out by many of Alexievich’s interviewees). But, once the war was over, men in general carried on with their traditional sexist attitudes - in particular, against front-line women soldiers. Many ex-Red Army men condemned them as ‘whores’. Given the fact that they had affairs with these same women in the heat of battle, this was, of course, a gross example of male double standards.

The third theme emerges from Alexievich’s interviews: ie, it concerns the fact that many of them confessed that they were terribly disillusioned, once they realised that the regime had betrayed the socialist cause they had fought for - along with many of their comrades, who did not survive.

Now time for some thoughts of my own.

In perspective

For Hitler the Russian campaign was to be a ‘war of annihilation’. Of the estimated 70 million deaths attributed to World War II, over 30 million of them occurred on the eastern front. And the eastern front was decisive in determining the outcome of the war in Europe, eventually serving as the main reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The allies can thank Hitler for his invasion of Russia. Apart from Nazi genocide, following its initial lightning victories, the Wehrmacht then became bogged down in a terrible war of attrition. The eastern front severely weakened the Wehrmacht overall, including its ability to defend the home front after the allied D-day landings in 1944. (This opened up the long awaited second front against Germany about one year after Stalin had requested it.) In the meantime the Russians had to endure the Battle of Stalingrad - arguably the bloodiest battle in history - along with the siege of Leningrad, etc.

In military terms, how can we measure the military cost of the war to the Soviet Union vis-à-vis her allies, as well as Germany? Comparing the number of divisions deployed is not a reliable guide. (For the record, 75% of Germany’s divisions were deployed on the eastern front, leaving only 25% for the western front - ie, after the D-Day landings). This is because (1) Germany’s divisions in Russia were not always at full fighting strength; (2) for much of the time the Red Army had to fight with inferior weaponry, compared to those of Germany and especially her allies. Therefore, to a large extent, the Soviet Union had to rely on sheer force of numbers (about double the number of German combatants).

This also helps to explain the role of Russian women soldiers in the conflict. On the one hand, they witnessed the destruction and loss of life, especially to the civilian population. So they wanted to fight. On the other, given the increasing numbers of men who were either killed or wounded, more and more women were allowed to fight alongside their male comrades.

That said, the only reliable way to measure the Soviet Union’s contribution to Germany’s final defeat is to consider military losses on all sides, taking in both the eastern and western fronts. By 1945 the Soviet Union had lost nearly five million combatants, compared to Germany, which lost just over a million men on the eastern front. Between 1944 and 1945 the allies lost only 165,000 killed or missing in Europe, whereas Germany lost around half a million. On the basis of these figures, the allies got off lightly!

Class nature

What was the class nature of the ‘great patriotic war’? I shall draw upon Trotsky’s seminal essay, ‘Their morals and ours’ (1938), since it addresses the nature of civil war/war in general, along with the class nature of the Soviet Union in the 1930s:

As Trotsky points out, war is a “disgusting barbarism”. Therefore the “idealisation of the masses is foreign to [Marxists]”. Add to this the fact that, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, fascism, as an excrescence of capitalism, had combined with a reinvigorated German imperialism in an attempt to smash what was left of the October revolution. (By so doing, Hitler hoped to make Germany the world’s leading imperialist power.) But by then the October revolution had decayed into

an immense bureaucratic reaction against the proletarian dictatorship in a backward and isolated country ... Stalinism re-established the most offensive forms of bureaucratic privilege, … strangled mass activity under police absolutism, transformed administration into a monopoly of the Kremlin, and regenerated the fetishism of power in forms that absolute monarchy dared not dream of.4

Then there is the question of ends and means. Trotsky goes on to say that there is a “dialectical interdependence of ends and means. A means is justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified”: ie, viz, does it express “the historical interests of the proletariat or not”?5 In the case of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the bottom line had to be the right of the proletariat to defend itself and its limited gains against fascist imperialism, despite the Stalinist bureaucracy.

From Trotsky’s standpoint, regardless of Stalin’s enormous crimes and mistakes, in a war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the former had to emerge victorious. Otherwise there would be no political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy, which would require a conscious movement.


Above all, one cannot escape the sense of betrayal spilling out from many of the women’s testimonies, which, thanks to Alexievich, are now recorded for posterity. In defence of the ‘motherland’, millions of people died.

They also died for a utopian idea, which became the official rationale of Stalinism and the counterrevolution (from within): in the name of ‘socialism in one country’, Stalin elevated the interests of the bureaucracy above those of the October revolution. As a consequence, he had to set up the slave labour camps, wherein millions died. To cement the regime, he built up an apparatus of terror, whereby hundreds of thousands of innocent people were executed, many of them chosen arbitrarily (NKVD men apparently resorted to the telephone directory in order ‘to make up the numbers’ in their quota). Stalin also had most of the old Bolshevik leaders shot on trumped-up charges. Finally he did the same to his generals. Perhaps he feared they might link up with the Left Opposition and overthrow his regime (although by 1937-38, the latter was no longer a political threat).

But when Stalin decapitated the Red Army, he needed to buy time in order to build a new head for the armed forces. Hence his volte face: ie, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 (a pact with the devil). Yet this was not enough to deter Hitler from invading the Soviet Union. It also helps to explain why the Red Army suffered such terrible defeats early on, whereupon the Wehrmacht advanced almost to the gates of Moscow. The Red Army’s new generals had to learn their roles quickly, albeit at great cost to both soldiers and civilians.

The fact that Stalin betrayed the revolution makes the suffering of these women, along with the rest of the Soviet masses, even worse. For this reason, as well, Alexievich’s book should be widely read.


1. This means ‘death by hunger’ in Ukrainian. The term refers to the deliberately created famine of 1932-33, as a consequence of Stalin’s five-year plans, which cost many millions of lives.

2. The Kolyma region of far eastern Siberia - a vast, unsettled, sub-Arctic territory - was made into a mining system of forced labour camps during the 1930s. The prisoners were mined gold, which was exchanged with the USA for dollars to buy machinery (p309).

3. The two most important Soviet military leaders, theorists and reformers. Both were arrested and shot during the purges of 1937 (p321).

4. L Trotsky Their morals and ours New York 1975, p33.

5. Ibid p48.