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 … Read More