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Svetlana Aleksievich – chronicler of the Soviet Union’s ‘unknown face’

Ben Denham, Overdub Waveform, 2015, 100x70cm, 445nm laser on paper. Courtesy of the artist. Part of the exhibition Standing Wave at William Wright Artist Projects until 24 October 2015.

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In March 1942 I received my call-up notice… I wanted to become an artillery loader. Actually, this was regarded as men’s work only: You had to lift 16-kilogram shells and fire a salvo every five seconds.  I hadn’t worked as a forger for nothing … From the intense fire the gun barrel glowed red hot and it became dangerous to shoot… I was a tough, strong young woman, but I know that I was capable of more in war than in peacetime, even physically. From somewhere arose unknown strength.

This is the recollection of Klavdiya Konvalova, a second world war anti-aircraft gun commander in Stalin’s Red Army, as recorded three decades on by Svetlana Aleksievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Before Aleksievich nobody had heard of Konvalova. And before she won the Nobel Prize, few English-language readers had heard of the Belarusian journalist Aleksievich. But more than a few Soviet citizens had. Two million of them bought her first book published in 1985, right at the beginning of Communist Party Secretary Gorbachev’s liberalising perestroika reforms: U voiny – ne zhenskoe litso, usually translated as War’s Unwomanly Face.

Aleksievich has won the prize ‘for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’. It comes as a surprise. She is not a fiction writer, nor is she an ‘oral historian’, as some commentators have claimed, in the sense of writing history based on oral sources. ‘I do not write about war but about the individual in war’, she argues. ‘I do not write the history of war, but the history of feelings.’ A journalist by training, she is not an ‘investigative journalist’ in the sense of exposing elite crime and corruption. Aleksievich is a chronicler of Soviet everyday lives past and present, in their own words. Doing so, in her words, is an act of ‘creativity’:

Memories are not an ardent or dispassionate restating of a reality that has happened and disappeared, but a re-birth of the past… In speaking, people create, “write” their lives.

Critical historians would agree with this: memory is not history. She has anticipated their concerns: ‘Undoubtedly, some will raise doubts: “Recollections are not history. Nor are they literature.”’ Nevertheless, what Aleksievich has achieved over nearly four decades and in five books is to unveil the hidden lives and recollections of ordinary Soviet and post-Soviet people by interviewing thousands of them, inter alia: Red Army women veterans; Afghan war veterans; veterans of the Chernobyl’ nuclear disaster; and most recently, post-Soviet memories of a deceased world. The five volumes constitute a ‘cycle’ that she calls The Voice of Utopia; an oeuvre the Swedish academy has deemed a ‘new literary genre’, which goes beyond the bounds of regular journalism.

In the closely policed Soviet intellectual context, Aleksievich’s interviews with Red Army women veterans were path-breaking and challenging, both in method and content; it certainly provided a rich, preliminary source for my own co-authored study of this unprecedented phenomenon of mass female participation in war: Soviet Women on the Frontline (2012).  Up until her publication, interviews had rarely been conducted or used as sources by Soviet historians. More controversially, her interviews were intended to give voice to the some one million, forgotten, women who served with the Red Army; stifled by the hegemonic, heroic, masculinist, master narrative of the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

The Russian title U voiny – ne zhenskoe litso could be literally translated as The War does not have a Woman’s Face. Ungainly as it is, it would more accurately reflect the book’s objectives in two senses: Firstly, to resurrect the role of Soviet military women in the Great Patriotic War; they had been written out of the official, highly censored history of this titanic, ultimately victorious, war against a genocidal Nazi enemy that took the lives of 27 million Soviet citizens. Secondly, she believed that war was no place for women. They are born ‘to give life’ not ‘to kill’, as both she and many of the women she interviewed maintained. But Aleksievich was determined to expose the horrors of war and their consequences for the human personality, which had afflicted her entire life. Belarus had experienced the most savage repression in all of occupied Europe: 2.2 million dead, 20 per cent of its population. ‘We were children of the Victory’, she writes in the second, 2004 edition of U voiny. ‘War and the post-war were the home of our souls. Everybody lived there…’

Her interviews, prefaced by her own reflections and commentaries that set the interview scene, exposed the shocking reality of the Eastern Front for Soviet military women confronting a lethally misogynist enemy:

The Germans took no women military prisoners … Shot them immediately. They paraded them before their soldiers: “See, these are monsters, not women. Russian fanatics!” We always saved the last bullet for ourselves. Better to die than be captured alive.

One of our nurses was captured. A day later, after retaking the village, we found her: eyes gouged out, breast cut off … impaled on a stake … There was frost; she was white as white, her hair completely grey. She was only 19. And very beautiful…

Little wonder that at least one of Aleksievich’s interviewees, a former pilot, refused to meet with her declaring: ‘I do not want to remember. For three years I was at war… Three years in which I was not a woman. My body was numbed; no menstruation or womanly desires. But I was beautiful’. This was a war of unprecedented ferocity, in which ‘even blood burns’, one anonymous respondent recalled. U voiny is a litany of death and suffering: maiming, torture, suicide, hunger, cold – but it is also testimony to a range of human emotions and frailties: bravery, fear, hatred, patriotism, and love, of the ‘Motherland’ and other people, among them.

But in U voiny this maelstrom is uniquely ‘voiced in women’s language’, according to Aleksievich. Unlike men, ‘seized’ by ‘war action’, women are motivated by ‘feelings’; and an entirely different sensibility for ‘smell, colour, and the minutiae of existence’. Aleksievich wanted to capture not the big picture of ‘the Victory’ over fascism but ‘the petty details’ of military women’s experiences, including the worst: the shame of menstruation, sex before battle, pregnancy and murdered unwanted babies, cannibalism, madness, suicide, torture, retribution and rape. In doing so, she was piercing the carapace of Soviet romanticised war heroism, which for her was ‘sterile’. When not constrained by ‘self-censorship’ she fell foul of the Soviet censor for whom, like thousands of veterans, the Great Patriotic War was ‘sacred’, written in blood. Accused of ‘demeaning women-heroines’, reducing them to ‘animals’, depicting ‘the filth of war’, and outright ‘lies’ about the Soviet soldiery and people, nightmare revelations like those above were expunged from the first, 1985, edition of U voiny.

Three decades on, Aleksievich’s Nobel Prize has not been much better received by Belarusian and Russian authorities and commentators alike. Minsk and Moscow have been virtually silent; the commentators scathing. Among their accusations, that she is a journalist not a creative writer, and that the prize is a political gesture directed against a resurgent Russia, asserting itself in Ukraine and now Syria. They have a point.

The Nobel Prize for literature has a reputation for being politicised, particularly when it comes to Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was incensed when the Russian literary giants Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, were awarded the prize in 1958 and 1970 respectively on the grounds of their outstanding contribution to Russian literature. It is doubtful the same can be said of Svetlana Aleksievich. But she has certainly politicised the prize. Asked about Russian president Vladimir Putin and Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko at her press conference that followed announcement of the prize she immediately denounced the ‘collaborationist culture that totalitarian leaders count on so much’. Like so many post-Soviet liberal intellectuals she views the world in simple binary oppositions: ‘freedom’ versus ‘totalitarianism’. Certainly her own work, recording the voices of ordinary individuals caught up in catastrophic events, is a response to the dominant, monochromatic, patriotic, culture that for so long has stifled any popular ‘polyphony’. Whether that is worthy of a Nobel Prize for Literature is debatable; but if you want a sense of how ordinary Soviet people understood their world, Aleksievich’s work is a good place to start.

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