October 18, 2015 by AK
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.