It’s not easy to get strangers to tell you things they wouldn’t tell their children and grandchildren. Some people open up to perfect strangers easily, but talking to a journalist means that one’s confession could make it to print, if anonymously. Some of Svetlana Alexievich’s interviewees felt that certain memories should be left unspoken, to pass away with their generation. A man who first killed a Nazi soldier at ten (after the Nazis had killed his mother, grandmother and grandfather) says he wanted his son to have a childhood so he read him fairy tales at bedtime and changed the subject when the boy asked about the war. Now (some time in the 1980s) the son is a grown-up man but the father is still unsure whether to share his experience.
Contrary to Timothy Snyder’s puzzling claim that War’s Unwomanly Face could not be published in the USSR before Gorbachev, the first version of the book was published in Oktyabr’, a literary journal, early in 1984, and received several Soviet literary awards in 1984-85. In 1981-84, a Belarus director called Vasily Dashuk made seven short documentaries based on Alexievich’s interviews, under the same title. They were all shown on Soviet Belarusian TV shortly after production.
By the end of the 1980s, about two million copies of Alexievich’s first book had been printed. Don’t believe people who say Alexievich is a complete unknown in the Russian-speaking world. She is not a household name, and her recent work is probably less known that her books from the 1980s and the 1990s but she is hardly an unknown. If she turns out more respected than read: here is Michele Berdy quoting Alexander Minkin, a veteran Moscow journalist: “They are really difficult books. They are hard to read. It’s like taking care of someone who is extremely ill – duty makes you do it, but there is no pleasure in it.”
Why did the Soviets allow such literature, as well as grim realist fiction by Alexievich’s mentors, Vasil’ Bykov and Ales’ Adamovich, to be published (some of Bykov’s stories and novels were recommended high-school reading)? One possible reason is that some of the Soviet propaganda bosses realized that victimhood could be an asset. However, all war-related fiction and non-fiction was subjected to strict censorship and a wide range of relevant subjects was suppressed. The grim realities of guerrilla warfare could not be revealed, only hinted at: definitely not the inevitable costs to rural civilians and the intractable ethical issues. The killing of Jews was to be subsumed within the suffering of the Soviet people in general, although the Nazis’ murderous anti-Semitism was not to be denied, either. A whole range of real-life detail was to be suppressed as unhealthy and potentially libelous “naturalism”: for one, women had no periods when in the army and pregnancies did not happen. Anything suggesting that war in general is hell was excised as pacifistic. No wonder, as the USSR fought its own war in Afghanistan in 1979-89.