Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is known for her singular brand of oral-history collage, which the Swedish Academy called “a history of emotions … a history of the soul.” Now, her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II , originally published in 1985, has been translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who were interviewed for our Writers at Work series in 2015. We’re pleased to present an excerpt below.
A CONVERSATION WITH A HISTORIAN
—At what time in history did women first appear in the army?
—Already in the fourth century B.C. women fought in the Greek armies of Athens and Sparta. Later they took part in the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote about our ancestors: “Slavic women occasionally went to war with their fathers and husbands, not fearing death: thus during the siege of Constantinople in 626 the Greeks found many female bodies among the dead Slavs. A mother, raising her children, prepared them to be warriors.”
—And in modern times?
—For the first time in England, where from 1560 to 1650 they began to staff hospitals with women soldiers.
—What happened in the twentieth century?
—The beginning of the century … In England during World War I, women were already being taken into the Royal Air Force. A Royal Auxiliary Corps was also formed and the Women’s Legion of Motor Transport, which numbered 100,000 persons.
In Russia, Germany, and France many women went to serve in military hospitals and ambulance trains.
During World War II the world was witness to a women’s phenomenon. Women served in all branches of the military in many countries of the world: 225,000 in the British army, 450,000 to 500,000 in the American, 500,000 in the German …
About a million women fought in the Soviet army. They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones. A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words tank driver, infantryman, machine gunner, because women had never done that work. The feminine forms were born there, in the war …
Maria Ivanovna Morozova (Ivanushkina)
This will be a simple story … The story of an ordinary Russian girl, of whom there were many then …
The place where my native village, Diakovskoe, stood is now the Proletarian District of Moscow. When the war began, I was not quite eighteen. Long, long braids, down to my knees … Nobody believed the war would last, everybody expected it to end any moment. We would drive out the enemy. I worked on a kolkhoz, then finished accounting school and began to work. The war went on … My girlfriends … They tell me: “We should go to the front.” It was already in the air. We all signed up and took classes at the local recruitment office. Maybe some did it just to keep one another company, I don’t know. They taught us to shoot a combat rifle, to throw hand grenades. At first … I’ll confess, I was afraid to hold a rifle, it was unpleasant. I couldn’t imagine that I’d go and kill somebody, I just wanted to go to the front. We had forty people in our group. Four girls from our village, so we were all friends; five from our neighbors’; in short—some from each village. All of them girls … The men had all gone to the war already, the ones who could. Sometimes a messenger came in the middle of the night, gave them two hours to get ready, and they’d be carted off. They could even be taken right from the fields. (Silence.) I don’t remember now—whether we had dances; if we did, the girls danced with girls, there were no boys left. Our villages became quiet.
Soon an appeal came from the central committee of Komsomol for the young people to go and defend the Motherland, since the Germans were already near Moscow. Hitler take Moscow? We won’t allow it! I wasn’t the only one … All our girls expressed the wish to go to the front. My father was already fighting. We thought we were the only ones like that … Special ones … But we came to the recruitment office and there were lots of girls there. I just gasped! My heart was on fire, so intensely. The selection was very strict. First of all, of course, you had to have robust health. I was afraid they wouldn’t take me, because as a child I was often sick, and my frame was weak, as my mother used to say. Other children insulted me because of it when I was little. And then, if there were no other children in a household except the girl who wanted to go to the front, they also refused: a mother should not be left by herself. Ah, our darling mothers! Their tears never dried … They scolded us, they begged … But in our family there were two sisters and two brothers left—true, they were all much younger than me, but it counted anyway. There was one more thing: everybody from our kolkhoz was gone, there was nobody to work in the fields, and the chairman didn’t want to let us go. In short, they refused us. We went to the district committee of Komsomol, and there—refusal. Then we went as a delegation from our district to the regional Komsomol. There was great inspiration in all of us; our hearts were on fire. Again we were sent home. We decided, since we were in Moscow, to go to the central committee of Komsomol, to the top, to the first secretary. To carry through to the end … Who would be our spokesman? Who was brave enough? We thought we would surely be the only ones there, but it was impossible even to get into the corridor, let alone to reach the secretary. There were young people from all over the country, many of whom had been under occupation, spoiling to be revenged for the death of their near ones. From all over the Soviet Union. Yes, yes … In short, we were even taken aback for a while …
By evening we got to the secretary after all. They asked us: “So, how can you go to the front if you don’t know how to shoot?” And we said in a chorus that we had already learned to shoot … “Where? … How? … And can you apply bandages?” You know, in that group at the recruiting office our local doctor taught us to apply bandages. That shut them up, and they began to look at us more seriously. Well, we had another trump card in our hands, that we weren’t alone, there were forty of us, and we could all shoot and give first aid. They told us: “Go and wait. Your question will be decided in the affirmative.” How happy we were as we left! I’ll never forget it … Yes, yes …
And literally in a couple of days we received our call-up papers …
We came to the recruiting office; we went in one door at once and were let out another. I had such a beautiful braid, and I came out without it … Without my braid … They gave me a soldier’s haircut … They also took my dress. I had no time to send the dress or the braid to my mother … She very much wanted to have something of mine left with her … We were immediately dressed in army shirts, forage caps, given kit bags and loaded into a freight train—on straw. But fresh straw, still smelling of the field.
We were a cheerful cargo. Cocky. Full of jokes. I remember laughing a lot.
Where were we going? We didn’t know. In the end it was not so important to us what we’d be. So long as it was at the front. Everybody was fighting—and we would be, too. We arrived at the Shchelkovo station. Near it was a women’s sniper school. It turned out we were sent there. To become snipers. We all rejoiced. This was something real. We’d be shooting.
We began to study. We studied the regulations: of garrison service, of discipline, of camouflage in the field, of chemical protection. The girls all worked very hard. We learned to assemble and disassemble a sniper’s rifle with our eyes shut, to determine wind speed, the movement of the target, the distance to the target, to dig a foxhole, to crawl on our stomach—we had already mastered all that. Only so as to get to the front the sooner. In the line of fire … Yes, yes … At the end of the course I got the highest grade in the exam for combat and noncombat service. The hardest thing, I remember, was to get up at the sound of the alarm and be ready in five minutes. We chose boots one or two sizes larger, so as not to lose time getting into them. We had five minutes to dress, put our boots on, and line up. There were times when we ran out to line up in boots over bare feet. One girl almost had her feet frostbitten. The sergeant major noticed it, reprimanded her, and then taught us to use footwraps. He stood over us and droned: “How am I to make soldiers out of you, my dear girls, and not targets for Fritz?” Dear girls, dear girls … Everybody loved us and pitied us all the time. And we resented being pitied. Weren’t we soldiers like everybody else?
Well, so we got to the front. Near Orsha … The sixty-second Infantry Division … I remember like today, the commander, Colonel Borodkin, saw us and got angry: “They’ve foisted girls on me. What is this, some sort of women’s round dance?” he said. “Corps de ballet! It’s war, not a dance. A terrible war …” But then he invited us, treated us to a dinner. And we heard him ask his adjutant: “Don’t we have something sweet for tea?” Well, of course, we were offended: What does he take us for? We came to make war … And he received us not as soldiers, but as young girls. At our age we could have been his daughters. “What am I going to do with you, my dears? Where did they find you?” That’s how he treated us, that’s how he met us. And we thought we were already seasoned warriors … Yes, yes … At war!
The next day he made us show that we knew how to shoot, how to camouflage ourselves in the field. We did the shooting well, even better than the men snipers, who were called from the front for two days of training, and who were very surprised that we were doing their work. It was probably the first time in their lives they saw women snipers. After the shooting it was camouflage in the field … The colonel came, walked around looking at the clearing, then stepped on a hummock—saw nothing. Then the “hummock” under him begged: “Ow, Comrade Colonel, I can’t anymore, you’re too heavy.” How we laughed! He couldn’t believe it was possible to camouflage oneself so well. “Now,” he said, “I take back my words about young girls.” But even so he suffered … Couldn’t get used to us for a long time.
Then came the first day of our “hunting” (so snipers call it). My partner was Masha Kozlova. We camouflaged ourselves and lay there: I’m on the lookout, Masha’s holding her rifle. Suddenly Masha says: “Shoot, shoot! See—it’s a German … ”
I say to her: “I’m the lookout. You shoot!”
“While we’re sorting it out,” she says, “he’ll get away.”
But I insist: “First we have to lay out the shooting map, note the landmarks: where the shed is, where the birch tree … ”
“You want to start fooling with paperwork like at school? I’ve come to shoot, not to mess with paperwork!”
I see that Masha is already angry with me.
“Well, shoot then, why don’t you?”
We were bickering like that. And meanwhile, in fact, the German officer was giving orders to the soldiers. A wagon arrived, and the soldiers formed a chain and handed down some sort of freight. The officer stood there, gave orders, then disappeared. We’re still arguing. I see he’s already appeared twice, and if we miss him again, that will be it. We’ll lose him. And when he appeared for the third time—it was just momentary; now he’s there, now he’s gone—I decided to shoot. I decided, and suddenly a thought flashed through my mind: he’s a human being; he may be an enemy, but he’s a human being—and my hands began to tremble, I started trembling all over, I got chills. Some sort of fear … That feeling sometimes comes back to me in dreams even now … After the plywood targets, it was hard to shoot at a living person. I see him in the telescopic sight, I see him very well. As if he’s close … And something in me resists … Something doesn’t let me, I can’t make up my mind. But I got hold of myself, I pulled the trigger … He waved his arms and fell. Whether he was dead or not, I didn’t know. But after that I trembled still more, some sort of terror came over me: I killed a man?! I had to get used even to the thought of it. Yes … In short—horrible! I’ll never forget it …
When we came back, we started telling our platoon what had happened to us. They called a meeting. We had a Komsomol leader, Klava Ivanova; she reassured me: “They should be hated, not pitied … ” Her father had been killed by the fascists. We would start singing, and she would beg us: “No, don’t, dear girls. Let’s first defeat these vermin, then we’ll sing.”
And not right away … We didn’t manage right away. It’s not a woman’s task—to hate and to kill. Not for us … We had to persuade ourselves. To talk ourselves into it …
From the book The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Copyright © 2017 by Svetlana Alexievich; Translation copyright © 2017 by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. All Rights Reserved.