Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory
Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with
- The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
- Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).
Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.
A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,
Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.
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In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.
She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.
I am writing a book about war…
I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]
For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]
The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]
At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.
As a review comments:
The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.
The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus,  where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).
Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be
composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.
After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:
As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:
Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.
No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.
She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.
The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.
The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.
Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.
In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:
I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.
She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:
“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”
“Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.”
“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”
“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”
“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”
Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.
Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:
My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…
He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…
Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:
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, as Japanese spies. […] I want… 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…
After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:
one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.
On the interviews, she goes on to note:
The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.
One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:
Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.
Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.
After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.
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Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.
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Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:
In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…
The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.
 Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.