It’s World Book Day on March 7th and International Women’s Day on March 8th (so unofficially the end of this year’s painting and modelling challenge #FEMbruary 2019).
To mark these dates I thought that I would review this fascinating military oral history book about Russian women in WW2. It is possibly one of the freshest and most interesting military or social history books that I have read about WW2 for several years since The Taste of War: WW2 and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham (2011).
One of the downsides of reading many WW2 books is having to (skim) read the same material over and over again in different books, which makes finding new material or insights all the more interesting.
The author Svetlana Alexievich interviewed many Russian servicewomen in the 1970s and 1980s about their war experiences in WW2. She used the same ‘polyphonic’ oral history approach in her other work such as Boys in Zinc (1991) about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which I have not yet read.
The Unwomanly Face of War was published first in Russian in 1985, then translated into English in Moscow in 1988. The book was rejected by several Russian publishers as ‘unsuitable’ history. When this book was first written and the oral histories recorded, Russia was still the old USSR then. Glasnost and Perestroika were still several years away.
Svetlana Alexievich returned to the subject of the book in the early 2002-2004 and added or restored more material, presumably as some forms of Soviet 1980s censorship had changed by then. This is what is featured in this recent translation published by Penguin in 2017 / 2018.
There are some updated or presumably new sections in the preface – “what the censors threw out”, “from a conversation with a censor” and “what I threw out” – that are interesting to read in light of this self censorship and official censorship of what is suitable national history.
Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her well curated “polyphonic” oral histories on Chernobyl, the Russian war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the break up of the USSR, children in WW2 and this unusual book on Russian women at war in WW2.
Why am I reading this book?
I began reading this book as part of my 2019 FEMbruary figure challenge to paint or celebrate your believable female gaming or model miniatures.
The recent 28mm Women of WW2 Bad Squiddo Miniatures range by Annie Norman had not only female soldiers, tank crews and snipers but also a command group of medics and radio operators, which I chose to paint. They are almost complete as of the end of #FEMbruary.
This FEMbruary blogpost also links to some interesting Guardian interviews with Svetlana Alexievich.
Fellow FEMbruary challenge acceptor Marvin at Suburban Militarism chose the Female sniper and spotter pair.
What makes the book unusual and fascinating is that it is skilfully curated directly from the words of the women themselves, presumably transcribed from tape recordings or letters. Their job roles go beyond the somewhat known – female snipers, the first female fighter pilots – and into the less well known but more stereotypically ‘feminine’ jobs. Surgeon. Nurse. Medical Assistants to infantry or Army Regiments – armed Combat Medics.
There were plenty of women who worked with or fought with the Partisans. Other women served on the front line as sappers, engineers, mechanics, radio and telegraph engineers.
Even more surprising were the oral histories from women proud of their patriotic service as Laundrywomen. Mobile bath units. Cooks. Bakers. You forget that someone had to clean and repair uniforms. Cook the bread. Boil the water for soldiers to have a hot bath.
These women are the equivalent to the unromantic duties of the ATS women in Britain who cooked, cleaned, baked and repaired for the war effort – but often in the war in Russia these jobs took women well into the combat zone and front line.
A quick scan through of the ranks listed after each woman’s name shows everything from Private and Partisan fighter through junior officers (“Lieutenant, Political Commissar of a Field Laundry Unit” was one of the most unusual) up to high ranking posts such as airforce officers and a rare, almost accidental female Naval Commander post!
The range of jobs listed by the interviewees is fascinating:
Factory Labour Front Worker
Partisan Underground Fighter / Liaison / Medic
Commander MG Platoon
Field Bath and Laundry Unit, Laundress
Construction Unit, Engineer / Sapper / Miner (land mines?)
Logistics / Driver / Traffic Controller
Postal Worker / Communications
Telegrapher / Telephone Operator
Nurse / Nurse Aide / Matron through to Surgeon
Paramedic and Private, Motorised infantry
(Front line) Medical Assistant to an Army Company or Cavalry Squadron
Airplane Mechanic / Car Mechanic
Pilot / Airforce Captain
Naval Fleet Commander
Some jobs I had never heard of such as an Aerostat Operator – I had to look this up. Surprsingly such odd or old fashioned sounding jobs are still advertised today! An aerostat (from Greek aer (air) + statos (standing) via French) is a “lighter than air aircraft that gains its lift through the use of a buoyant gas. Aerostats include unpowered balloons and powered airships. Especially with airships, the gasbags are often protected by an outer envelope.” (Wikipedia)
Maybe these aerostat operators are the equivalent of the WAAF girls who handled Barrage Balloons in Britain. These Aerostat balloons were known as ‘Pigs’ not just because of their shape but also stubbornly annoying “temperament”. Such balloon girls were immortalised in paint by British war artist Laura Knight. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/15503
The Unwomanly Face of War sadly has no such illustrations, aside from the striking cover image of Natalya Kravtsova, commander of the 46th Guards Air Regiment, well decorated ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’. It would have been interesting to have seen wartime photos of these women at work or when they were interviewed in the 1970s and 1980s. However I’m sure a trawl through Soviet wartime art would reveal many Laura Knight style, realist/ Soviet heroic style portrait paintings of Russian servicewomen. Pinterest has many ‘recoloured’ portrait photos of Russian servicewomen, decorated, famous or otherwise.
It is not a pleasant read in parts, dealing plainly with frontline combat, injury and also the atrocities inflicted on Russian civilians.
There is also however friendship, romance, patriotic pride, occasional humour, stoic self sacrifice, postwar denial and a relief at finally being able to tell or record these stories and experiences many years later.
The end of my FEMbruary challenge 2019?
I am not sure what use this book would be to wargamers or tabletop gamers who focus on the Eastern Front in WW2 or what they would make of this book.
As I have no intention of gaming the Eastern Front in 28mm, I bought these Bad Squiddo figures more for diorama or vignette purposes. They could potentially be converted to female troops of other nationalities.
Annie Norman at Bad Squiddo Miniatures has a widening range of varied Soviet / Russian Military Women https://badsquiddogames.com/shop#!/WW2
There is an interview about this range with Annie Norman on the Meeples and Miniatures podcast about this Women of the Red Army range with Annie’s further book recommendations: https://meeples.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/meeples-miniatures-episode-168-bad-squiddo-games-women-of-the-red-army/
Just as many of the roles undertaken in wartime in Russia were mirrored in some ways in Britain in WW2, there’s a Bad Squiddo British Women of WW2 range. I have also painted some more of Annie Norman’s Land Girls from her Bad Squiddo Women of WW2 range as my challenge for FEMbruary 2019. https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/back-to-the-land-for-fembruary-2019
Blogposted for International Women’s Day (8th) and World Book Day (7th) March 2019 by Mark, Man of TIN blog.