Briefly on Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich has been a major presence in Soviet and post-Soviet letters since 1984, when a censored version of War’s Face Is Not Female was first published. She has authored six documentary books: two on WWII, one on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, one on Chernobyl and two on the post-Communist transition, the 1990s and the early 2000s.

War’s Face Is Not Female (or War’s Unwomanly Face, 1984-5; uncensored edition, 2012) consists of recollections by women who served in WWII, as soldiers or medical personnel, or joined guerrilla (“partisan”) units.

The Last Witnesses (1985) is a hundred true stories by aging men and women who were children in Belarus when the war began.

Zinc Boys (1989; revised edition, 2006) is a collection of memoirs by soldiers who served in the 1979-89 Afghan war and by parents, widows and other relatives of servicemen killed there.

Enchanted by Death (1993) is composed of confessions by suicides or their relatives, friends and acquaintances. The time setting is the early transition period: Perestroika and its immediate aftermath.

A Chernobyl Prayer (1997; revised edition 2006) is likewise a book of memoirs, by relatives of Chernobyl firemen, residents of the polluted areas, and other victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which heavily affected the south of Belarus.

Second-Hand Time. The End of Red Man (2013) is perhaps the most complex of all, a collage of stories of coping with the hardships of the post-Soviet transition, and succumbing to them, from members of the three last Soviet generations.

The only American parallel I can think of is Studs Terkel, only Alexievich’s subject matter is much, much darker and there’s little optimism behind the resilience of her informants. More Hard Times than “The Good War.”  Her work is, obviously, the opposite of easy reading.


  1. Zinky Boys was superb, and horrific in parts. What left me staggered was the sadistic cruelty the Soviet soldiers meted out to their comrades in arms, and the equally sadistic manner in which some Soviet citizens would treat the soldiers. I’ve read countless memoirs from the US experience in Vietnam and Korea, but very rarely came across stories of NCOs stealing the uniforms of new arrivals, leaving them naked and having to beg for rags. It took me a while to find that book, and finally tracked down a second hand copy on Amazon. I didn’t know she wrote others, I’ll have to see if I can find a Kindle version, or order a paper copy.

    • Dedovschina, the hazing of first-year conscripts by second-year soldiers (I’m sure you’ve read about it) was still widespread (reportedly) during the second Chechen war. There was a systemic effort by the ministry of defense to finally do away with it after the Andrei Sychev case in 2006. I’m not sure it worked but cutting the mandatory military service term down from two years to one was a good idea.

    • A true story from a relative of a relative’s friend, from 2012 or 2013: a young man graduated from a college in Moscow and was drafted into the army for just one year. He got posted to a unit stationed in the Moscow oblast. He must have been about 22, a big boy compared with the typical 18-year-old conscript. To the officers, he was a sort of a computer genius so they relied on him to fix and keep up some local network or database. Towards the end of his year of service, he went down with a cold that grew into pneumonia. They sent him to the nearest military hospital. It turned out the hospital literally had no medicine so his family had to bring him the drugs he needed. A healthy young man nearly dying of pneumonia just a hundred miles from Moscow.

      Shortly after getting discharged from the hospital, he was discharged from the army on medical grounds (if I remember correctly), a few weeks before his term expired. That is, one morning they told him, “you’re discharged,” took him outside the gate and closed it behind his back. His father picked him up an hour or two later, and when they were driving back to Moscow, one of the guy’s commanding officers called him on the mobile and asked for instructions to deal with some computer glitch. Make what you will from this bizarre story.

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Winterings in Trans-Scythia

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading