"'Women's' war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings," Svetlana Alexievich writes early on in her masterly book of nonfiction The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. "There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things. And it is not only they (people!) who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees… They suffer without words, which is still more frightening."
Alexievich's book, which will be published in English on July 25, is a powerful and deeply moving document of that suffering, giving voices to those who bravely served their country alongside their male counterparts only to have been rendered invisible, afterward, through sexist societal and bureaucratic systems. Gathered over the course of over 500 meetings ("after which I stopped counting") with Soviet veterans, The Unwomanly Face of War was the Ukraine-born former journalist's debut, going on to sell over 2 million copies in the original 1985 Russian-language edition.
The book's nearly all-female chorus of eyewitnesses relate nightmarish images from the front: a river overrun by the floating caps of dead sailors; a train station full of legless veteran amputees, hopping around on their hands; an old woman in besieged Leningrad, each day tossing scalding water from a pot so that, when the time comes, she can pour it accurately onto the heads of Nazi invaders.
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Alexievich's subjects also relate their various traumas and sorrows following the war: "It was later that they began to honour us, 30 years later," explains Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva, an anti-aircraft artillery commander. "But back then we hid, we 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. They quietly exchanged it for ordinary women's happiness." And yet, within painful dialogues like Chudaeva's, there emerges a kind of hope, or at least healing, through the redeeming power of literature, of testimony. "It's terrible to remember," she says. "But it's more terrible not to remember."
In this excerpt from the book, Alexievich (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 "for her polyphonic writings") relates the personal story of a decorated female sniper who registered 75 kills before returning home, a changed and scarred woman.
—James Yeh, culture editor
"I Don't Want to Remember..."
Klavdia Grigoryevna Krokhina
First sergeant, sniper
The first time is frightening... Very frightening...
We were in hiding, and I was the lookout. And then I noticed one German poking up a little from a trench. I clicked, and he fell. And then, you know, I started shaking all over, I heard my bones knocking. I cried. When I shot at targets it was nothing, but now: I—killed! I killed some unknown man. I knew nothing about him, but I killed him.
Then it passed. And here's how... It happened like this... We were already on the advance. We marched past a small settlement. I think it was in Ukraine. 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. I had seen those blackened little stars...
...I came back from the war gray-haired. Twenty-one years old, but my hair was completely white. I had been badly wounded, had a concussion, poor hearing in one ear. Mama met me with the words: "I believed you'd come back. I prayed for you day and night." My brother had fallen at the front.
Mama lamented: "It's all the same now—to give birth to girls or boys. But still he was a man, he had to defend the Motherland, but you're a girl. I asked one thing of God, that if they disfigure you, better let them kill you. I went to the train station all the time. To meet the trains. Once I saw a girl soldier there with a burned face... I shuddered—you! Afterward I prayed for her, too."
In the Chelyabinsk region, where I was born, they were doing some sort of mining not far from our house. As soon as the blasting began—it was always during the night for some reason—I instantly jumped out of the bed and grabbed my coat first thing—and ran, I had to run somewhere quickly. Mama would catch me, press me to her, and talk to me: "Wake up, wake up. The war is over. You're home." I would come to my senses at her words: "I'm your mama. Mama..." She spoke softly. Softly... Loud talk frightened me...
The room is warm, but Klavdia Grigoryevna wraps herself in a heavy plaid blanket—she is cold. She goes on:
We quickly turned into soldiers... You know, there was no real time to think. To dwell on our feelings...
Our scouts took a German officer prisoner, and he was extremely surprised that so many soldiers had been killed at his position, and all with shots in the head. Almost in the same spot. A simple rifleman, he insisted, would be unable to make so many hits to the head. That's certain. "Show me," he asked, "the rifleman who killed so many of my soldiers. I received a large reinforcement, but every day up to ten men fell." The commander of the regiment says: "Unfortunately, I cannot show you. It was a girl sniper, but she was killed." It was our Sasha Shliakhova. She died in a snipers' duel. And what betrayed her was her red scarf. She liked that scarf very much. But a red scarf is visible against white snow. When the German officer heard that it was a girl, he was staggered, he didn't know how to react. He was silent for a long time. At the last interrogation before he was sent to Moscow (he turned out to be a bigwig), he confessed: "I've never fought with women. You're all beautiful... And our propaganda tells us that it's hermaphrodites and not women who fight in the Red Army..." So he understood nothing. No... I can't forget...
We went in pairs. It's very hard to sit alone from sunup to sundown; your eyes get tired, watery, your hands lose their feeling, your whole body goes numb with tension. It's especially hard in spring. The snow melts under you; you spend the whole day in water. You float in it; sometimes you freeze to the ground. We started out at daybreak and came back from the front line when it got dark. For 12 hours or more we lay in the snow or climbed to the top of a tree, onto the roof of a shed or a ruined house, and there camouflaged ourselves, so that the enemy wouldn't see where we were observing them from. We tried to find a position as close as possible: seven or eight hundred, sometimes only 500 yards separated us from the trenches where the Germans sat. Early in the morning we could even hear their talk. Laughter.
"I knew nothing about him, but I killed him."
I don't know why we weren't afraid... Now I don't understand it. We were advancing, advancing very quickly... And we ran out of steam, our supplies lagged behind: we ran out of ammunition, out of provisions, and the kitchen was demolished by a shell. For three days we ate nothing but dry crusts; our tongues were so scraped we couldn't move them. My partner was killed, and I went to the front line with a "new" girl. And suddenly we saw a colt on "no man's land." Such a pretty one, with a fluffy tail... Walking about calmly, as if there wasn't any war. And I heard the Germans make some stir, having seen him. Our soldiers also started talking among themselves.
"He'll get away. Could make a nice soup..."
"You can't hit him with a submachine gun at such a distance..." They saw us.
"The snipers are coming. They'll get him straight off... Go on, girls!"
I had no time to think; out of habit I took aim and fired. The colt's legs buckled under him; he collapsed on his side. It seemed to me— maybe it was a hallucination—but it seemed to me that he gave a thin, high whinny.
Only then did it hit me: why had I done it? Such a pretty one, and I killed him, I put him into a soup! I heard someone sob behind me. I turned; it was the "new" girl.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"I'm sorry for the colt..."—and her eyes were full of tears.
"Oh, oh, what a sensitive nature! And we've gone hungry for a whole three days. You're sorry because you haven't buried anyone yet. Go and try marching twenty miles a day with a full kit, and hungry to boot. First drive Fritz out and later we can get emotional. We can feel sorry. Later... Understand, later..."
I look at the soldiers who just now had egged me on, shouted. Asked me. Just now... A few minutes ago... Nobody looks at me, as if they don't notice me; each of them drops his eyes and goes about his own business. Smokes, digs... One is sharpening something... And I can do as I like. Sit down and cry. Howl! As if I'm some sort of a butcher, who doesn't mind killing just like that. But I had loved all living creatures since childhood. We had a cow—I was already going to school—and it got sick and had to be slaughtered. I cried for two days. Couldn't calm down. And here—bang!—I shot a defenseless colt. What can I say... It was the first colt I'd seen in two years...
In the evening supper was served. The cooks: "Well, young sniper! Tonight we've got meat in the pot..." They set down the pots and left. And my girls sat and didn't touch the supper. I understood what it was about, burst into tears, and ran out of the dugout... The girls ran after me, started comforting me. Then quickly grabbed their pots and began to eat...
Yes, that's how things were... Yes... I can't forget...
At night we talked, of course. What did we talk about? Of course, about home, each told about her own mother, and the father or brothers who were fighting. And about what we would do after the war. And how we would get married, and whether our husbands would love us. Our commanding officer laughed.
"Eh, you girls! You're good all around, but after the war men will be afraid to marry you. You've got good aim; you'll fling a plate at his head and kill him."
I met my husband during the war. We were in the same regiment. He was wounded twice, had a concussion. He went through the whole war, from beginning to end, and was in the military all his life afterward. Was there any need for me to explain to him what war was? Where I had come back from? How I was? Whenever I raise my voice, he either pays no attention or holds his peace. And I forgive him, too. I've also learned. We raised two children; they've both finished university. A son and a daughter.
"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. I had seen those blackened little stars."
What else can I tell you... So I was demobilized, came to Moscow. And to get home from Moscow I had to ride and then go several miles on foot. Now there's a subway, but then it was old cherry orchards and deep ravines. One ravine was very big, and I had to cross it. It was already dark when I got to it. Of course, I was afraid to go across that ravine. I stood there, not knowing what to do: either go back and wait for dawn, or pluck up my courage and risk it. Remembering it now, it's quite funny. I had the war behind me, what hadn't I seen, corpses and all the rest—and here I was afraid to cross a ravine. I remember to this day the smell of the corpses, mingled with the smell of cheap tobacco... But then I was still a young girl. Riding on the train... We were coming home from Germany... A mouse ran out of somebody's knapsack, and all our girls jumped up; the ones on the upper bunks came tumbling down, squealing. And there was a captain traveling with us; he was surprised: "You're all decorated, and you're afraid of mice."
Luckily for me, there was a truck passing by. I thought: I'll hitch a ride.
The truck stopped.
"I need to go to Diakovskoe," I shouted.
"I'm going to Diakovskoe myself." The young fellow opened the door.
I got into the cabin, he put my suitcase into the back, and off we went. He sees I'm in uniform, with decorations. He asks: "How many Germans did you kill?"
I say to him: "75."
He says a bit mockingly: "Come on, you probably didn't lay eyes on a single one."
Then I recognized him: "Kolka Chizhov? Is it you? Remember, I helped you tie your red neckerchief?"
Before the war I had worked for a time as a Pioneer leader in my school. [Editor's note: The All-Union Pioneer Organization, for Soviet children from ten to 15 years old, was founded in 1922. It was similar to Scout organizations in the West.]
"Maruska, it's you?" "Me..."
"Really?" He stopped the truck.
"Take me home! What are you doing stopping in the middle of the road?" There were tears in my eyes. And in his, too, I could see. Such a meeting!
We drove up to my house, he ran with my suitcase to my mother, danced across the courtyard with this suitcase.
"Come quick, I've brought you your daughter!" I can't forget... O-oh... How can I forget it?
I came back, and everything had to start over from the beginning. I had to learn to wear shoes; I'd spent three years at the front wearing boots. We were used to belts, always pulled tight, and now it seemed that clothes hung baggy on us, we felt somehow awkward. I looked at skirts with horror... at dresses... We didn't wear skirts at the front, only trousers. We used to wash them in the evening and sleep on them—that counted as ironing. True, they weren't quite dry, and they would freeze stiff in the frost. How do you learn to walk in a skirt? It was like my legs got tangled. I'd go out in a civilian dress and shoes, meet an officer, and involuntarily raise my hand to salute him. We were used to rationing; everything was provided by the state, so I'd go to a bakery, take as much bread as I needed, and forget to pay. The salesgirl knew me, understood why, she was embarrassed to remind me, so I wouldn't pay, I'd take it and leave. Then I'd be ashamed of myself; the next day I'd apologize, take something else, and pay for it all together. I had to learn ordinary things over again. To remember ordinary life. Normal! Who could I confide in? I'd go running to a neighbor... To mama...
I also think this... Listen... How long was the war? Four years. Very long... I don't remember any birds or flowers. They were there, of course, but I don't remember them. Yes, yes... Strange, isn't it? Can they make a colour film about war? Everything was black. Only the blood was another color, the blood was red...
Just recently, about eight years ago, we found our Mashenka Alkhimova. The commander of the artillery division was wounded; she crawled to save him. A shell exploded right in front of her... The commander was killed, she didn't make it to him, and both her legs were so mangled that we were barely able to bandage her. We had a hard time with her... We carried her to the first-aid station, and she kept asking: "Dear girls, shoot me dead... I don't want to live like this..." She begged and pleaded... So! They sent her to the hospital, and we went on advancing. When we started looking for her... the trail was already lost. We didn't know where she was, what had become of her. For many years... We wrote everywhere, and nobody could tell us. The "pathfinders" of Moscow's School No. 73 helped us. Those boys, those girls... They found her in a veterans' home, somewhere in [the mountainous region of] Altai, 30 years after the war. So far away. All those years she had been traveling from one invalid home to another, from one hospital to another, undergoing dozens of surgeries. She didn't even tell her mother she was alive... She hid from everybody…
We brought her to our reunion. We were all bathed in tears. Then we brought her together with her mother... They met 30 years after the war... Her mother almost lost her mind. "I'm so happy that my heart didn't break from grief before now. So happy!" And Mashenka repeated: "Now I'm not afraid to meet people. I'm already old." Yes... In short... That's war...
I remember lying at night in the dugout. I am not asleep. Somewhere there is artillery fire. Our cannons are shooting... I really didn't want to die... I gave an oath, a military oath, that if need be I'd give my life, but I really didn't want to die. Even if you come home alive, your soul will hurt. Now I think: it would be better to be wounded in an arm or a leg. Then my body would hurt, not my soul... It's very painful. We were so young when we went to the front. Young girls. I even grew during the war. Mama measured me at home... I grew four inches...
Saying goodbye, she awkwardly reaches her hot arms out and embraces me:
From the book THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich, to be published on July 25, 2017, by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Svetlana Alexievich. All Rights Reserved.