The women who fought the Nazis for Rus­sia.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

Early in “The Un­wom­anly Face of War,” Svet­lana Alex­ievich’s har­row­ing and mov­ing ac­count of fe­male Soviet sol­diers dur­ing World War II, there is a scene where a group of fe­male fight­ers ar­rives at the front. Wear­ing army shirts and for­age caps — shorn of the long braids they once felt proud of — they are crack grad­u­ates of a women’s sniper school, as­signed to the 62nd Ri­fle­man’s Di­vi­sion. Their com­man­der is not happy to see them. “They’ve foisted girls on me,” he com­plains.

The com­man­der orders them to prove they can shoot and per­form other key tasks such as cam­ou­flag­ing them­selves in the field. Skep­ti­cally watch­ing their train­ing ex­er­cise, he steps on a hum­mock and is taken aback when the ground below him speaks. “You’re too heavy,” the hum­mock tells him. It is a fe­male sniper, em­bed­ded in the land­scape. “I take back my words,” the com­man­der ad­mits amid their laugh­ter.

The woman re­count­ing that anec­dote killed 75 men in the years that fol­lowed, re­ceiv­ing 11 com­bat dec­o­ra­tions and be­com­ing renowned for her skill at pick­ing off Nazis. She and her com­pan­ions were among some 1 mil­lion women who fought in the Soviet army, help­ing re­pel the Ger­mans dur­ing four bloody years of siege, oc­cu­pa­tion and com­bat. For many Al­lied coun­tries, World War II was the wa­ter­shed con­flict that brought women into the mil­i­tary (and in­tel­li­gence) in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers; with fight­ing tak­ing place in so many quar­ters, it proved im­pos­si­ble to staff a global war us­ing only men. But the Sovi­ets de­ployed theirs most fully. At the out­set of Amer­i­can in­volve­ment, U.S. of­fi­cials dithered over whether to ad­mit women even in non­com­bat ca­pac­i­ties — it was feared that they might be­come hys­ter­i­cal if per­mit­ted to work as, say, air traf­fic con­trollers. Soviet women, in con­trast, served as fighter pi­lots, tank driv­ers, in­fantry­men, an­ti­air­craft gun­ners. “The Un­wom­anly Face of War” tells the story of these for­got­ten women, and its great achieve­ment is that it gives credit to their con­tri­bu­tion but also to the hell they en­dured.

“At nine­teen I had a medal ‘For Courage,’ ” says one. “At nine­teen my hair was gray. At nine­teen in my last bat­tle I was shot through both lungs.”

Alex­ievich, a Be­laru­sian jour­nal­ist and au­thor, in 2015 re­ceived the No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture. She has been saluted for writ­ing in­tri­cately braided oral his­to­ries that give col­lec­tive voice to the suf­fer­ing caused by cat­a­clysmic events in­clud­ing the Ch­er­nobyl dis­as­ter and the oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan.

“The Un­wom­anly Face of War” be­gan in the late 1970s, af­ter she read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about a fe­male ac­coun­tant re­tir­ing from a Minsk auto fac­tory. The ar­ti­cle men­tioned that the ac­coun­tant had been a sniper — the one with 75 kills. Alex­ievich sought her out; one in­ter­view led to hun­dreds. Soviet pub­lish­ers at first re­jected the book as overly nat­u­ral­is­tic and in­suf­fi­ciently ad­mir­ing of the Com­mu­nist Party. Per­e­stroika was more re­cep­tive. Two mil­lion copies were printed in 1985.

The English trans­la­tion ar­rives at a time when women in com­bat re­main a fraught topic. Any­one who thinks that a fe­male sol­dier can­not carry a wounded man off the field of bat­tle — a fre­quent ar­gu­ment and a wrong one — need only read this book. One medic hauled 481 men from un­der fire. “I my­self find it hard to be­lieve,” she re­flects.

Dur­ing the book’s jour­ney to pub­li­ca­tion, a cen­sor urged Alex­ievich to tell heroic sto­ries. But, grow­ing up, she had heard enough of those. Men start wars, she holds, and glo­rify them. She wanted to write a book “that would make war sick­en­ing.” She suc­ceeded. There is the ra­dio op­er­a­tor who drowns her baby so its cry­ing won’t give away par­ti­san fight­ers hid­ing neck-deep in wa­ter. There is the medic — 16 when she joined — crawl­ing to res­cue a man whose blasted arm is hang­ing by a few sinews; lack­ing scis­sors, she “bit his flesh off” so he could be ban­daged.

Start­ing out, Alex­ievich wanted to un­der­stand why “the girls of 1941” came for­ward. “How is it they de­cided to take up arms on a par with men? To shoot, mine, blow up, bomb — kill?”

In part, the an­swer lay in the gen­der egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of their com­mu­nist education. “Girls — at the wheel of the trac­tors!” one re­calls be­ing taught. “Girls — at the con­trols of a plane!” But it’s also be­cause the loss of men was so swift and mas­sive. Af­ter Hitler’s 1941 in­va­sion, “mil­lions of sol­diers and of­fi­cers were cap­tured,” as one man re­calls. “In six weeks Hitler was al­ready near Moscow . . . . And girls were ea­ger to get to the front vol­un­tar­ily . . . . Those were brave, ex­tra­or­di­nary girls.”

Many ad­mired Stalin and be­lieved in Soviet power. The “front­line girls” were full of fer­vor, feted by their neigh­bors, ea­ger to de­fend the Mother­land. One danced while wait­ing for her troop train. No­body ever thinks a war will be long. But there were other rea­sons. “We were starv­ing,” re­called a lathe op­er­a­tor who be­came a sub­ma­chine-gun pla­toon com­man­der. She yearned for the front be­cause there “would be ra­tions there. Rusks and tea with su­gar.”

The girls were un­be­liev­ably young. One en­listed af­ter the sev­enth grade. A sap­per con­tracted a fever and re­al­ized that her wis­dom teeth were com­ing in.

Some had not yet started men­stru­at­ing. Those who had of­ten stopped. “We were so over­worked we ceased to be women,” said an ar­morer. The loss of fem­i­nin­ity both­ered them. They hated wear­ing men’s un­der­wear, feared look­ing ugly in death. They strug­gled to keep their legs out of cater­pil­lar treads while pulling men out of burn­ing tanks. No­body would marry a leg­less woman. The dif­fi­culty rec­on­cil­ing con­ven­tional fem­i­nin­ity with killing and fight­ing is at the heart of this book. One gun­ner con­fided that those she killed — “my dead” — still came to her in her sleep.

The as­sault on their fem­i­nin­ity got worse; af­ter the war, front-line girls found that their ser­vice marked them, and not in a good way. “Ev­ery­body knows you spent four years at the front, with men,” a girl was told by her mother. “‘Army whores . . . . Mil­i­tary bitches . . . .’ They in­sulted us in all pos­si­ble ways . . . . The Rus­sian vo­cab­u­lary is rich,” re­called another. In the United States, mil­i­tary women also faced slan­der­ous ac­cu­sa­tions of im­moral­ity, though not to the same de­gree. So the front-line girls were well-ad­vised not to talk about their ser­vice. There is another rea­son their story was buried: Peo­ple ev­ery­where wanted to put the war be­hind them and re­turn to nor­mal life, but in the Soviet Union, for­get­ting be­came cru­cial.

That’s be­cause any­body could be branded an en­emy of the peo­ple for say­ing the wrong thing. As one woman puts it, af­ter all the sac­ri­fice — some 20 mil­lion war dead, mil­i­tary and civil­ian — “Stalin still didn’t trust the peo­ple.” One fighter lost her highly dec­o­rated hus­band to 10 years of forced la­bor when an in­former turned him in for re­mark­ing that heaps of Rus­sian corpses blunted his sense of tri­umph. “Af­ter the Vic­tory ev­ery­body be­came silent,” the au­thor writes. “Silent and afraid.”

Alex­ievich did an enor­mous ser­vice, re­cov­er­ing these sto­ries. The out­size Soviet role in de­feat­ing the Nazi army and lib­er­at­ing Europe is of­ten ne­glected. If men who fought on the eastern front have got­ten short shrift, how much truer of the women. As a fe­male ri­fle­man scrawled in char­coal on the Re­ich­stag: “You were de­feated by a Rus­sian girl from Sara­tov.” That may be an over­state­ment, but it is not al­to­gether un­true.

Liza Mundy, a fel­low at New Amer­ica, is the au­thor of “Code Girls: The Un­told Story of the Amer­i­can Women Code­break­ers of World War II,” which will be pub­lished in Oc­to­ber.


Bella Res­nikova, then 94, is pic­tured in 2015. She was among 1 mil­lion women to fight in the Soviet army dur­ing World War II.

THE UN­WOM­ANLY FACE OF WAR An Oral His­tory of Women in World War II By Svet­lana Alex­ievich Trans­lated by Richard Pe­vear and Larissa Volokhon­sky Ran­dom House. 331 pp. $30

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