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Lady With The Stalin Organ

Alone among WWII belligerents, Soviet women saw frontline action. Their voices, stifled for long by a disparaging state, speak eloquently.

Lady With The Stalin Organ
Lady With The Stalin Organ
The Unwomanly Face of War
By Svetlana Alexievich
Penguin | Pages: 384 | Rs: 599

The former USSR was perhaps the only country where women participated in the World War II directly. They numbered anywhere between 8,00,000 to a million. The colossal loss of Sov­iet soldiers in the initial period of war was one of the reasons. Another reason was, of course, the unprecedented feeling of patriotism that moved many women to enlist. They were everywhere, including on the front in direct combats along with men. But little has been written by way of a history of these women. They also provided crucial background support to front-line soldiers, but their experience has gone unnoticed. Basically, women’s memories of participation in the war has largely been part of oral history.

Red Army’s women warriors told the ‘lady with the tape-recorder’ about shattered lives, circumvented youth and missed dreams, all that was pushed to the periphery.

Post-war acknowledgement of these women’s contributions was marred by peculiar problems of not being able to settle down. Many former women soldiers felt themselves unwanted. Having earned the tag of ‘wartime field-wives’, their services were also at times degradingly termed as ‘sex services’. While bringing forth these questions, this book says that in order to continue with a ‘normal’ life, these women just learnt to keep silent about their past war experiences. In this book, Nobel-winner Svetlana Alexievich has rec­orded these ‘forgotten voices’. Her mission has been to convert the ‘personal’ into ‘societal’, the ‘unknown’ into ‘known’ and remind people about the undisclosed facts. Thus began the miles-long journey of this “lady with the tape-recorder”, as Alexievich was called, as she dove into the labyrinths of the memories of Soviet wartime women.

In one interview, Alexievich says that she “wanted her books to be eternalised as chronicles, encyclopaedias of generations whom she encountered and lived together with. How did they live? What were their beliefs? How they killed and got killed? How they yearned to be happy but could not be and why happiness eluded them?” This book happens to be one of many Alexievich wrote with the aim of chronicling a history, thus giving voices to people whose experience had been pushed to the periphery by the official narrative. This comprises stories of women retold to the writer about shattered lives, circumvented youth and missed dreams. This book was written in 1983 and published in 1985. The author says that she wrote about war, though she herself did not like to read war fiction, as children of her generation were “children of victory”. World War II has been a defining mom­ent for citizens of the former USSR, as well other Europeans even from the post-war generation. Recalling her chi­ldhood, Alexievich reminisces that war was the topic of each and every conversation, be it in school or at home; at weddings or name-giving ceremonies; during festivals or at funerals.

Thus germinated the idea of The Unwomanly Face of War. Alexievich was determined to write a book about war and for two years she only thought about this book and read a lot about the war. As there were hundreds of history books about big and small, known and unkn­own wars, Alexievich was definite that hers was not going to be another run-of-the-mill war history. She soon realised that, mostly, all the books about war were written by men and used ‘male voices’! We are still surrounded by ‘male representations’ and ‘male sensitivities’ and ‘male words’ about war. Women’s views have more often than not been shrouded by silences.

In Alexievich’s opinion, “women have other stories, about other things. They have their own colours, their smells, their own radiance and their own timbre of feelings, expressed in their own words! There is no place for heroes and improbable feats, as there are just simple people who are busy with inhuman human activities”. The writer performs a tedious task of rummaging into memories and sifting through them to rec­over memories of women after removing the layers of that what, for long, has been told to them ‘about them’ and ‘their war’.

Giving a view informed by gender dyn­amics, Alexievich emphasises the difference between the two worlds and wonders as to why women, having ass­erted and occupied their places in a men’s world, did not lay claim to their own history. As one of the interviewee remarks, “I went through a very difficult phase but where is a book, a film that could narrate what I suffered?” Ale­xievich has written not just the history of the women in the war, but also peered into the ‘soul’ of the events that shook their world.

(The author is with department of Slavonic and Finno-Ugrian studies, University of Delhi)

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