The Paris Review

We Were a Cheerful Cargo

Soviet women soldiers during World War II.

Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is known for her singular brand of oral-history collage, which the Swedish Academy called “a history of emotions … a history of the soul.” Now, her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II , originally published in 1985, has been translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who were interviewed for our Writers at Work series in 2015. We’re pleased to present an excerpt below.

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A CONVERSATION WITH A HISTORIAN

—At what time in history did women first appear in the army?

—Already in the fourth century B.C. women fought in the Greek armies of Athens and Sparta. Later they took part in the campaigns of Alexander the Great. The Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin wrote about our ancestors: “Slavic women occasionally went to war with their fathers and husbands, not fearing death: thus during the siege of Constantinople in 626 the Greeks found many female bodies among the dead Slavs. A mother, raising her children, prepared them to be warriors.”

—And in modern times?

—For the first time in England, where from 1560 to 1650 they began to staff hospitals with women soldiers.

—What happened in the twentieth century?

—The beginning of the century … In England during World War I, women were already being taken into the Royal Air Force. A Royal Auxiliary Corps

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