Many of the Soviet women who went to war were in their mid to late teens. They weren’t conscripted. They wrote letters to the army and pleaded with their parents to be allowed to go, then lied about their age to persuade disbelieving male officers. If the parents refused, they often ran away to the front anyway.

Some wanted to avenge slain fathers and brothers, or pay back the Germans for killing and torturing women and children: putting out people’s eyes, cutting off their breasts, impaling them on stakes and burning them alive in razed villages. Russian children were sometimes thrown down wells by Germans or crushed by their tanks.

Those Russian women who did fight saw it as a national duty, even though they weren’t called up – in a 12th-century Slav poem Princess Yaroslavna climbed a rampart and poured melted pitch on the heads of the enemy.

In the late 1970s, Svetlana Alexievich (born 1948) set out to write “The Unwomanly Face of War” when she realised that she had grown up in Belarus surrounded by women who had fought in the Great Patriotic War but whose stories were absent from official narratives.
"Why”, she asked herself, “having stood up for and held their own place in a once absolutely male world, have women not stood up for their history? Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown ... I want to write the history of that war. A women's history."

Most war chronicles were men writing about men. So, travelling thousands of kilometres, Alexievich spent years interviewing hundreds of Soviet women – captains, tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, partisans, foot soldiers, nurses and doctors – who had experienced the sheer terror of the bitter fighting. She collected monologues of women speaking about their experiences that had never been collated before.

After completing the manuscript in 1983, Alexievich was not allowed to publish it by the Soviet authorities because it went against the state-sanctioned history of the war. 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.”

And: “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?”

The truth, responds the author. Terrible wounds, endless blood and constant death. Filth, lice, starvation and perhaps occasional cannibalism. Depravity intermingled with heroism. Some love, compassion and bravery among the horror, but mainly horror.

With the dawn of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, a heavily censored edition of the book came out in 1985. Even though bowdlerised, it was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies in the Soviet Union in five years. Now, minus censorship and translated, English readers have this full in-depth oral history, in straight transcripts.

Klavdia Ivanova Terekhova, Air Force Captain: “We flew fighters. The altitude itself was a terrible strain on a woman’s whole body. Sometimes your stomach was pressed right against your spine. But our girls flew and shot down aces … “

Nina Vladimirovna Kovelenova, Sergeant Major, Medical Assistant in an Infantry Company: “Hand-to-hand combat … It all happened before my eyes … Men stabbing each other. Finishing each other off. Breaking bones. Sticking a bayonet in the mouth, in the eye … In the heart, in the stomach.”

The stories continue – the heaviness of amputated limbs as they were carried to a tub full of them behind the makeshift operating table. A broken-down train station with sailors hopping about the platform on their hands. They had no legs or crutches. Russian and German dead bodies on blood-red ice floating down the Volga as the river thawed in spring.

Behind the fighting stood the retreat-blocking detachments enforcing Stalin’s Order No. 227: “Not a step back!” If you did, you were shot on the spot.

Post-war, many of the women’s stories remained untold because where once they had been afraid of death, now they became afraid of life. Readjustment was difficult after up to four years in men’s rags and too-big boots, their hair braids cut off, carrying heavy machine-guns and rifles that with bayonets fixed were bigger than themselves.

They had to learn to be tender again. Sometimes neighbours taunted them: “Tell us how you whored around there with the men.” It could be better to be silent than to talk about it.

The censor again: “This is a lie! This is slander against our soldiers, who liberated half of Europe. Against our partisans. Against our heroic people. We don’t need your little history, we need the big history. The history of the Victory. You don’t love our heroes! You don’t love our great ideas. The ideas of Marx and Lenin.”

Alexievich: “True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being … “

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