My Review of The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

the unwomanly


It is only recently that women in the UK have been able to take up frontline roles in the armed forces but in liberation struggles across the world from Northern Ireland to present day Northern Iraq there are plenty of women who have taken up guns to defend their country.



YPG women in N.Iraq

In this newly published book, it came out in the Soviet Union in 1985 but was heavily censored,  The Unwomanly Face of War, we learn about the motivations of women during the Great Patriotic War  ( aka Second World War)  who decided that they wanted to fight for their country and way of life.

The author, Svetlana Alexievich, has  a track record in producing books that challenge the orthodoxy of the Soviet Union and present day Russia. In previous books she has covered the war in Afghanistan and the disaster of Chernobyl.

But her books are not just exposes of state criminality but they start from the point of view of the individuals concerned. They are oral histories of how women, men and children felt about the circumstances of their times. She was born into the Soviet Union in 1948 and much of her analysis is about the massive changes that have taken place in the post Soviet Union era and how it has affected  individuals.

This is a deeply personal book. Svetlana is not one for objectivity nor laboured intellectual analysis. The book begins with her challenging herself about the times she grew up in and the way in which the Soviet involvement in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) was a constant theme of her childhood and youth.

“The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes.”  Not surprising when you consider that half of the country was occupied by the Nazis and 20 million people died over 4 years. As she says; “We were the children of Victory.”

Challenging this orthodoxy, particularly the role of Soviet women, was not easy and in this new edition she includes the conversations she had with the Soviet censor. When Svetlana exposes the barbarism of war, the fear of the women, she is told; “Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism.  Heroic women. You dethrone them.”

woman and rifle


The power of this book is the testimonies of the 200 individual women and the way in which they lay bare their joy, fear, hatred and despair in their individual stories- told only in a way that women do expose their lives to other women. “We’ll eat pies. I’ve been fussing about since morning….  the hostess greets me cheerfully on the threshold. “We can talk later. And weep our fill…”

For Svetlana her research took over her life. “With it began a search that went on for seven years, seven extraordinary and tormenting years, during which I was to discover for myself the world of war, a world the meaning of which we cannot fully fathom.”

A million women took part in the Great Patriotic War. From doctors and engineers to snipers and partisans. Many of them were very young; some as young as fourteen.  One young woman commented that her preparations to go to the front included packing a suitcase full of candy and her class picture.

Many of them went with a determination to defend their motherland and that is a constant theme in their stories. Even children of political prisoners and victims of Stalin,  wanted to go to war. One young woman said; “The grown-ups wept, but we weren’t afraid; we assured each other that within a month we’d “beat the fascists’ brains out.”

soviet women snipers

Women snipers

For some women the war came to them as the Nazis occupied their villages. Women joined the underground, one had a small baby.  “I used to go on missions with her. The commissar would send me off, and weep himself.”

women partisans in Ukraine

women partisans in the Ukraine

Running alongside all these harrowing stories is Svetlana’s personal response to them and how the women’s stories did not fit in with the story of victory that the government had promoted. She did not want the story of what happens in a war but she did want to know; “What happened to human beings? What did human beings see and understand there? About life and death in general? About themselves?…. I am writing a history of the soul…the history of small human beings, thrown out of ordinary life into the epic depths of an enormous event. Into great History.”

This is not just a great history book but is a template for future oral histories of women and working class lives. War has not gone away and the experiences of women in this book can be mirrored in many conflicts across the world today.


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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in book review, Communism, education, feminism, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to My Review of The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

  1. Pia says:

    I haven’t read Svetlana Alexievich’s book yet. But I certainly will, following your review, especially as there are so few women’s own accounts of their armed resistance.
    But I’d like to suggest that she may have had more arguments with the censor than she told. Calling the Soviet Union’s participation in the Second World War (after June 1941- before then, the USSR had actively benefitted from a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany) “A Great Patriotic War” may have been a concession to the censors.
    I think it reflects a reactionary revision of history – perpetrated by the Stalinist regime in its later days but supported by Putin and his kleptocracy, now. It seeks to downplay the active anti-fascist, socialist feelings and motivations of many Soviet citizens at the time and later. I think we should be carefull of adopting their way of describing historical events.
    I have 2 personal experiences to back this up.
    When I visited St. Peterburg in early May 1989, I saw the community preparations for the commemoration of the end of the seige of Leningrad, in which many women actively participated. The cementary where many of the 1,000s of people who died in that seige are buried, was full of young local people, laying wreaths at the graves of what they termed their “anti-fascist heroes and heroines” who had defended them and the “socialist regime” with their lives.
    Very elderly men and women travelled from all over the (still-then) Soviet Union to march in the big procession – their “May Day”, wearing their medals for participating in what they called “the fight against fascism”, in fighting the seige of Leningrad and making the strategic turn in WWII, that led to the “End of the War in Europe”. There were lots of patriotic slogans too but amongst a strong representation of anti-fascist banners, too.
    My second experience is in the personal history of my father and his brother. They, jewish members of the defeated Polish army, were released from a Sovet prisoner of war camp in the Circle Arctic, in the summer of 1941. They, along with about 1000 others,were supposed to join the Polish army, re-grouping in Central Soviet Asia. This was part of the agreement between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.
    However, when they arrived at the re-grouping point, the Polish army officials wouldn’t recognise these jewish service men as Polish (just one example of the rampant anti-semitism of pre-war Poland) and refused to let them join the Polish army ranks. It was only the intervention of Soviet Army sergeants, who took it upon themselves to challenge the anti-semitism of the Polish Army officials, seeing them all being involved in a fight against fascism.
    This incident was told to me by father, no supporter of the Soviet Union or socialism. I think it reveals the conscious anti-fascism of ordinary Soviet citizens, as a motivation for fighting in what we, in the West, call WWII.
    In solidarity

  2. Jill Woodward says:

    I read the review in the paper so very interested to come across Bernie’s review and your observations and family experiences.

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