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Literature / The Unwomanly Face of War

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The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II is a collection of first-person accounts of women enlisted in the Red Army (or among the partisans) during World War II, written by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her usual style. It was first published in Russian in 1985, when the Glanost note  allowed her to publish a book which did not portray the Great Patriotic War as glorious.

The accounts were collected from hundreds of women who served in the Red Army in various positions: medical personnel, but also as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members, and partisans, as well as in auxiliary roles. They are presented as "monologues" of different lengths with occasional notes from the author. The witnesses are listed with their names and role in the army, while many others stayed anonymous.

The narrative wants to subvert the usual trope that depicts the epicity of war times and collected personal stories from an intimate point of view, which the Soviet censorship would not allow as it was too unpatriotic. The book does not shy away from the ugliest details, so expect lots of Nightmare Fuel and Tear Jerker.

Beginning in 2019, it received a manga adaptation done by Keito Koume.

The unwomanly face of these tropes:

  • Action Girl: The girls who served in the front line as pilots, snipers machine gunners, tank crew members and partisans, who were about an half of the women enlisted.
  • America Won World War II: Averted. The book focuses entirely on the Soviet-German War, which was the deadliest battlefront in the war and shows the tremendous price paid by soldiers and civilians.
  • Amusing Injuries: Deconstructed. Young nurse Zinaida Korzh was her buttocks. She was too embarrassed to ask for help and stayed silent. Unfortunately, any untreated wound can become a serious problem and in a few days she passed out from blood loss.
  • Anyone Can Die: The war didn't spare anyone it could get its hands on. Children, women, elderly people could and had died. Many people lost their children who were soldiers to war, or saw them permanently maimed if they ever made it back home.
  • Badass Family:
    • The Knyazevs. The father was already called in the army, while the wife and five daughters all volunteered for the frontline during the Siege of Stalingrad.
    • Also family Korzh. The father and the two eldest daughters were enlisted in the army. The youngest son was too young to join, but drove a tractor in a kolkhoz where they desperately needed arms. At age 13.
  • Battle Couple: Aleksandra Boiko appears as one of the narrators. She and her husband Ivan asked and obtained from Stalin to employ their savings into the construction of a tank. Then they went to the frontline, Aleksandra as the tank commander and Ivan as the engineer. They survived until the fall of Berlin and were both awarded.
  • Child Soldier:
    • Some of the German POWs who are deported to the Soviet Union were young boys recruited in the last days. A Russian mother sees them and curses the folly of enlisting children as Cannon Fodder:
      "Let your mothers go blind for having allowed you to go to the front!"
    • Some recruits were as young as 14, but pretended to be older and there was no sure way to know their real age.
  • Death of a Child: Many children in the narration are either killed by hunger, the Germans, or even their desperate parents.
  • Determinator: The Red Army as a whole. There clearly wasn't the possibility of losing the war and still being safe. They had to win, no matter what.
  • Double Standard: While communism on paper supports gender equality, Soviet women faced their share of sexism on the frontline and once back home. Several of them became outcasts in their hometowns because only "loose women" would spend several years dressing and living among men. An unnamed female soldier comes back home from Berlin and her mother quietly shows her the door, justifying that she has two younger daughters and no one will want to marry them with their older sister's past.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Several women note that on the frontline male camarade would risk (and loose) their lives for the female recruits.
  • Fatal Family Photo: In 1942, a dying German soldier asks Lilya Butko, surgery nurse, to bring a family photo to his address. Yes, in 1942 that man was already convinced that the Russians would eventually get to Germany. Butko meant to keep the promise, but unfortunately she lost the photo in the last days of war.
  • A Father to His Men: Or in this case, a father to his women. Many rookies were not even twenty years old, while their superiors were several decades older. There could form very warm bonds between these veterans who were old enough to be their fathers and the young recruits.
  • The Famine:
    • An unnamed account remembers her friend Oksana, who survived the Holodomor in Ukraine while her whole family died. That's because she would secretly sneak in her kolkhoz's stable and eat the frozen dung of their horses (since apparently they weren't allowed to eat the horses themselves).
    • During the Siege of Leningrad the army was guaranteed meals, but the civilians not. They would however try to feed some children. By the time it was winter, all the dogs, cats and sparrows in the city had already disappeared and the population was starting to boil leather shoes or belts to get the closest thing to a meal.
  • Kill It with Fire: Some of the Belarusian partisans who narrate remember that many villages were wiped out by the Einsatzgruppen by gathering the locals in the school or church and then setting the building on fire.
  • Last Request:
    • A dying German soldier asked Lilya Butko, surgery nurse, to bring a family photo to his address, acknowledging that the Russians would eventually get to Germany. Butko tried to keep the promise.
    • A young female nurse gets one who is both embarrassing and heartbreaking. A dying officer asks to see her bare breast, because he hasn't seen his wife for years, and missed the intimacy. The nurse leaves his side in utter embarrassment, and the man passes away alone.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The original title of the book is "У войны не женское лицо" note , the first line of a novel written by Belarusian author Ales Adamovich, a former partisan. Incidentally Adamovich was the writer of the source book for the haunting Soviet war film Come and See.
  • No Guy Wants an Amazon: There were many a Wartime Wedding, but unfortunately many other guys didn't want to go out with former female recruits because of this trope. To elaborate, many of them saw the female soldiers as their sisters so how could they marry their own siblings? There was also the fact that the male soldiers suffered trauma from the war so they all want to search for normal, civilian women whom they saw as beautiful and pure, unlike their blood-stained female comrades that kept reminding them of the battlefield.
  • No Party Like a Donner Party: A female partisan mentions an episode of cannibalism occurred in a group who escaped from a gulag. The modus operandi was bringing in the group a young, naive boy, who was to be sacrificed when the fugitives would inevitably start to starve. The female narrator did have someone like that in her group but she's grateful beyond speech that they are saved before they seriously start to starve.
  • Offing the Offspring: There are reports of desperate civilian parents who kill their children either to spare them from starvation or because they've gone mad. One particularly horrific account from a female partisan recalls that another woman in the partisan group had an infant son, who screamed for hunger while they were chased by Germans and the child would give away their hiding place, leading to a very Cruel and Unusual Death if they were caught. She ended up smothering her child to save the group.
  • The Power of Hate: Many women invoked this trope to deal with the trauma that they were knowingly killing other human beings. Of course, there were also people naturally who joined the war effort to get revenge for their loved ones that died at the hands of the Germans.
  • Rape as Drama:
    • A rare interview with a male veteran recalls that many, many women in Germany were raped in the final days of the war (Truth in Television). The veteran blames it on the toll years of atrocities took on the male soldiers and too many years without women. He then expresses shock and shame of having participated to the mass rapes, since he was not that kind of person before the war.
    • A female soldier became her commander's mistress so she wouldn't have to live with the constant fear of being raped.
  • La RĂ©sistance: Some accounts come from women who joined the partisans in Alexievich's native Belarus. Many of them died, many others were not even rewarded for their efforts.
  • The Siege: Among the narrators there are many survivors of the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted almost 2 years and killed over 2 million of people between soldiers of both sides and civilians.
  • Wartime Wedding: Many female soldiers got married to their fellow male soldiers.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • A dying German soldier asks the Soviet nurse to bring a photo to his family, acknowledging that the Soviets are going to win the war.
    • A captured German officer asked to meet the sniper who put out so many of his soldiers, and express admiration for his skills. It turns out it was a girl named Sasha who lost a sniper duel not long before.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Many women returned home only to find people there, even their own families, rejecting them due to them either being soldiers as that was seen as "loose" women or not normal. Or because they were disfigured so no one wanted to marry them. Of course, PTSD also prevented them from fully integrating back into their old lives.