• On Svetlana Alexievich: What Can a Book Do in the Face of War?

    Rachel Seiffert Considers Last Witnesses

    “Our village was set on fire in 1943… That day we were digging potatoes.”

    “The noise came from the sky. We heard the noise: rrrrr! This is the impression that remained from the first day of the war—mama, instead of calling us gently as usual, cries, Children! My children!

    “Everything gets stamped in a child’s memory like in a photo album. As separate snapshots…”

    It is a rare thing indeed to write an iconic book—one which manages somehow to encompass the experience of a nation or a people at a given historical moment. One which resonates, and of which people say: if you want to understand that, first you have to read this. A first-hand account, perhaps, which sheds light where there was none, such as I Will Bear Witness, Victor Klemperer’s Third Reich diary, which captures like no other the German Jewish experience. Or a novel born of a place and time and person, such as Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, emblematic of the dreams and defiance of southern black women’s lives in the 1930s.

    Often—as with both Hurston and Klemperer—form is key. Only a diary kept faithfully and at great personal risk for over a decade, could possibly convey the serial degradations suffered under dictatorship, and the endurance required to survive these; only a precise ear for Floridian black vernacular as well as a precise eye for the viciousness of Floridian social conventions, could make Hurston’s novel (to paraphrase Toni Morrison) as beautiful as it is political.

    Walter Kempowski’s Echolot comes close to such formal perfection too, his compendium of German wartime letters and diary extracts deriving its power from the breadth of experiences it opens out for the reader. In Swansong, the final volume, the day of the German capitulation is described by soldiers taken captive, teenage girls in the Berlin suburbs, mayors surrendering their provincial townships, Hitler Youth in the Volkssturm, and concentration camp survivors. The 8th of May 1945: a single day, the true weight of which can only be felt when borne by the words of a multitude.

    Svetlana Alexievich has pursued form like few other writers, giving voice to little-heard multitudes in the process. While Kempowski spent decades accruing an archive from public donations, and then selecting and compiling, Alexievich works with interviews—pure and simple. She eschews context and explanation, offering neither quantification nor qualification, indeed none of the conventional academic padding of introductions and epilogues, or maps and tables.

    War—it seems—has been one of the terrible constants in human experience. What can a book do in the face of that?

    Assembling oral histories as a litany of first-hand accounts, she renders these on the page unadorned, seemingly verbatim, creating a polyphonic eye-witness chorus. It’s a form she has unquestionably mastered, producing a remarkable body of work. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) took on Soviet women’s experiences of the Great Patriotic War; Zinky Boys (1989) collated accounts of the Afghan campaigns of the 1980s from Russian soldiers and their families; Voices from Chernobyl (1997) chronicled the lives of survivors of the nuclear disaster—each volume following the same, startling approach.

    Last Witnesses (Random House, 2019) was conceived as a companion piece to her first, documenting Soviet wartime childhoods; first published in 1985, it has been extended for this new English translation. From testimonies collected between 1974 and 2008, Alexievich has selected just over one hundred. Keeping faith with the restraint of all her other works, “Instead of a Preface” she provides a question from Dostoyevsky; and even at the head of each testimony, she gives the minimum required to situate the reader: a brief excerpt to serve as a title, the name of the speaker, the age they were when the war began, and the profession they went on to enter.

    Zhenya Belkevich. Six years old. Now a worker.
    Zina Kosiak. Eight years old. Now a hairdresser.
    Misha Maiorov. Five years old. Now a doctor of agronomy.

    When war entered their lives, these children were digging potatoes, gathering mushrooms. They were at the circus, or in their schoolrooms, or watching their father shaving, “one cheek covered with lather.” The lilacs and bird cherries were flowering. War was scent and noise and incongruity: a German soldier buttering bread at the family’s kitchen table; a man seen carrying looted sugar in his hat for want of a bag; and the realization that “it’s funny, but no one laughs.”

    “The first dead I saw was a horse… Then a dead woman… That surprised me. My idea was that only men were killed in war.” (Gena Yushkevich, twelve years old. Now a journalist.)

    “I don’t remember the Germans themselves, but I do remember their technology. Big cars, big motorcycles…” (Zina Shimanskaya, eleven years old. Now a cashier.) “Black sky… Fat black airplanes… They roar down very low. Just over the earth.” (Vania Titov, five years old. Now a specialist in land reclamation.)

    These are the memories of Russians and Belarussians, Ukrainians—some as young as three or four when the Nazis invaded, others on the verge of adulthood; many were interviewed in middle age, others were reflecting at the end of their lives. Often, as children, they only understood fear through the adults around them: Zhenia Selenia recalls looking at her mother and realizing “Her eyes are big, instead of a face—just eyes…” Misha Maiorov’s narrative—one of the first—is told in flashes: a series of brief episodes, taking the reader in jump cuts from the wooden pegs she fashioned at her grandfather’s workbench, to finding German soldiers at her grandmother’s stove. From the charred Russian airman she saw led down the village street, his wrists tied with wire; to the burned remains of her childhood home: “A handful of salt… All that was left of our house.”

    Testimony follows testimony; name, age, occupation, and then wartime experience; page after page, they continue. But underpinning this apparent simplicity, this purity of form, is a rigor, of course.

    Alexievich is an editor par excellence. Reducing each interview—hours of material—to a telling page or two is a skill in itself; Alexievich’s mastery lies in what she retains. Common threads run through these accounts: partisan experiences coming to the fore, along with rural life under occupation, building a terrible familiarity with the Nazi modus operandi: blackened ruins, blackened people, retribution. “Foreign posters and leaflets appeared on the fences and posts. Foreign orders. ‘New rules’ came.” (Zina Shimanskaya again) “Something was hanging from a tree… When I realized that this something was a man, I was stunned. I closed my eyes…” (Inna Levkevich, ten years old. Now a construction engineer.)

    Often, as children, they only understood fear through the adults around them.

    Alexievich’s witnesses tell of house searches, village massacres, and dogs chasing down children. Of bombardment too. “Someone taught us that you should open your mouth so as not to be deafened. So we opened our mouths, stopped our ears, and could still hear them coming. Whining. It’s so frightening that the skin on your face and your whole body gets taut.” (Nina Yaroshevich, nine years old. Now teacher of physical education.)

    If reading these accounts can be relentless, then so was the war these children endured: it is clear Alexievich wants her reader to feel this. “I missed the time of childhood,” says Vasia Kharevsky, then a four year old, now an architect. “It fell out of my life. Instead of a childhood, I have the war.”

    But for all the horror, for all the common experiences, Alexievich’s chorus never becomes a cacophony. That each account remains distinct is testament to her astute eye for the personal, the specific. Inna Levkevich, again: “My sister Irma was seven; she carried a Primus stove and mama’s shoes. She was terribly afraid to lose those shoes. They were new, of a pale-rose colour, with a faceted heel. Mama had taken them by chance, or maybe because they were her most beautiful thing.” Rimma Pozniakova, six years old. Now a worker: “Our house burned down, our garden burned down, there were baked apples hanging on the apple trees. We gathered them and ate them.” Alexievich knows what will stick in the reader’s mind—and what will kick in the gut too. Nina Yaroshevich: “The hanged people were so frozen that, when the wind swung them, they tinkled. Tinkled like frozen trees in the forest…”

    While the interviewer’s voice is never there on the page, it must have been instrumental in the room; probing when needed, or consoling, or falling silent. The moral imperative to record and remember has evidently been a driving force for Alexievich—her life’s work has been giving voice to the voiceless, after all. “I remember the war in order to figure it out… Otherwise why do it?” says Nadia Gorbacheva, who was seven when the Germans invaded, and now works in television—perhaps a voice close to Alexievich’s own? “We are the last witnesses. Our time is ending. We must speak…” says Valya Brinskaya, her final contributor, which sounds a lot like a concluding statement. But a key strength of Alexievich’s form is that it resists drawing too much together, or asking one voice to speak for all. These hundred testimonies contain many contradictions, even refusals. “What’s better?” Oleg Boldyrev asks. “To remember or to forget? Maybe it’s better to keep quiet?” Zina Gurskaya goes further: “I can’t tell about it. I can’t, my dear. No, no!”

    Remembering is important, but often far too painful; Alexievich accepts this. It can be both imperative and impossible—and can also feel pitifully inadequate when held against lived experience. So I’ve told you…” says Leonid Sivakov. “Is that all? All that’s left of such horror? A few dozen words…” When you’ve survived the siege of Leningrad and its aftermath, can an interview, however intelligent, however sensitive, ever come close? “I’ve told you about a few days,” says Galina Firsova. “But there were nine hundred. Nine hundred days like that…”

    It is a mark of Alexievich’s courage as a writer, as a thinker, that she is willing to include such challenges and questions. War—it seems—has been one of the terrible constants in human experience. What can a book do in the face of that? And in the current climate? Must the children of Yemen bear witness too, and the children of Syria? Will the children of Iran be next?

    How to conclude about a book that provides none? I will finish with a quotation—not chosen because it summarizes, or speaks for others, rather because it spoke to me during the reading.

    It comes from Nina Shunto—then six years old, now a cook—and it says much about keeping faith, which Svetlana Alexievich does in spades:

    What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed.

    Rachel Seiffert
    Rachel Seiffert
    Rachel Seiffert's first book, The Dark Room, (2001) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and made into the feature film Lore. In 2003, she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and in 2011 she received the EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Field Study, her collection of short stories published in 2004, received an award from PEN International. Her second novel, Afterwards (2007) third novel The Walk Home (2014), and fourth novel A Boy in Winter (2017), were all longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her books have been published in 18 languages.

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