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True Stories

city Mike Solovyanov
Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexiyevich is no stranger to controversy. When her provocative first book, "War's Unwomanly Face," was published during perestroika, Soviet reviewers accused her of desecrating the memory of those who fought in World War II. Since then, Alexiyevich has written a series of books exploring contentious topics like the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chernobyl disaster. Her books have won international acclaim -- "War's Unwomanly Face" has been translated into 20 languages, including English. But they are unavailable in her native Belarus, where Alexiyevich faces censorship because of her opposition to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Alexiyevich ruffled feathers from the very start. "War's Unwomanly Face" tells the stories of hundreds of Soviet women who participated in World War II. The stories include graphic accounts of rapes and atrocities committed by both sides, along with ordinary people driven to desperate acts under hostile conditions. By challenging the official Soviet history of wartime heroism, Alexiyevich aroused the wrath of government censors. In a recently released edition from the publishing house Palmira, the 55-year-old author recalls a conversation she had with a censor.

"It was difficult for us to achieve our Victory, but you have to find heroic examples," the censor said. "There are hundreds of them. And you show the mud from this war. The dirty laundry. According to you, our Victory was frightening. What are you striving for?"

"The truth," Alexiyevich replied.

Nonetheless, the book was published under Mikhail Gorbachev and it became a major success, its print run reaching two million copies.

The new edition of "War's Unwomanly Face" is the first Russian edition containing all of the passages originally censored. In one of these passages, a young mother hiding with the partisans drowns her crying baby to avoid being captured by the Germans. In another passage, a seriously wounded officer asks a nurse for a final request -- to reveal her breasts. She refuses, and the officer dies.

To research the book, Alexiyevich interviewed hundreds of women between 1978 and 1983. All of them had participated in the Soviet war effort, and not just in the traditional role of nurses, but as drivers, pilots, partisans and snipers. In all, about one million women assisted the Soviet Army during World War II.

Alexiyevich was originally attracted to the material because of stories she heard growing up in a Belarussian village. The stories, told by village women, were about the gritty reality of the war. They stood in sharp contrast to the polished official histories -- invariably written by men -- that were constantly repeated in Soviet books and schools.

"This wasn't what they wrote about in books," Alexiyevich said in an interview after a speaking engagement two weeks ago in Moscow. "This was a completely different war."

By exploring the stories of women at war, Alexiyevich hoped to challenge the narrative of World War II -- and, in doing so, to attack the idea of war itself. Alexiyevich calls herself an "absolute pacifist," and her antiwar views are closely intertwined with feminism.

"The female perspective adds something to our understanding of the world," said Alexiyevich. "It opens certain spiritual horizons, which I think we all need."

After writing two books about World War II, Alexiyevich turned her attention to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. "Zinky Boys" was published in 1991 after being banned for nearly 10 years. The title refers to the zinc coffins in which dead soldiers were shipped home, always arriving at night so that the authorities could conceal the growing number of casualties.

Widely praised and swiftly published in France, Germany, Japan and the United States, "Zinky Boys" drew a furious reaction from the Belarussian military establishment. In 1992, despite the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Belarus sued Alexiyevich for defaming the war effort in Afghanistan. The suit was dismissed only after the Belarussian intelligentsia and international human rights organizations rose to her defense.

But political repression continues for Alexiyevich. After Lukashenko came to power and systematically squelched the opposition, Alexiyevich could no longer be published in her home country. The state-controlled press even accused her of being a CIA agent. They charged that Western spies had paid her to criticize the government -- an allegation that Alexiyevich laughs off.

"I would like to be able to find this money," she joked. For the past three years, Alexiyevich has been living in self-imposed exile in France and Italy. European audiences have long since recognized her; she has won the Erich Maria Remarque peace award in Germany, as well as several other continental prizes. Indeed, by censoring her books, the Belarussian government deprived its own people of one of the country's most innovative, critically acclaimed writers.

Alexiyevich is virtually unique among post-Soviet authors because she works in a genre that lies between journalism and fiction. A former student of journalism at the University of Minsk, she calls this genre a "novel of voices." Her technique is to interview several hundred people and to construct the book around their personal stories. The result can be called nonfiction, but it is also distinctly literary.

"I don't know another person who does this," commented Helena Goscilo, professor of Russian literature at the University of Pittsburgh.

Goscilo explained that Alexiyevich uses direct quotes like a journalist, but that her selection of material is highly subjective; she focuses on stories that are unexpected and make a strong impression on the reader. Searching for an equivalent among English-language authors, Goscilo mentioned Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, the authors who established the genre of the "nonfiction novel" and also often focus on dark subject matter.

According to Alexiyevich, her books are connected by the overarching theme of individuals caught in the grip of Soviet socialism, or, as she dubs it, "The Small Person in a Big Utopia." Alexiyevich envisions this theme as a seven-book project. So far, she has already written five of them. In addition to her three books about war, she has written "Enchanted With Death," a study of people who committed suicide following the collapse of communism, and "Voices of Chernobyl," about the legacy of the 1986 nuclear disaster. To write her Chernobyl book, which has been translated into English, Alexiyevich spent four years interviewing the last residents of the radioactive zone near the closed power plant.

The last two books will be about people trying to lead private lives in the shadow of socialism, from Stalin's era to the present day. Alexiyevich has already completed one of them, which, she said, is about love. For an author best-known as a chronicler of history's darker chapters, this might seem an unusual subject. But Alexiyevich sees a clear connection.

"Love is also an extreme situation," she said.

In fact, love is a theme that goes back to Alexiyevich's earliest works. In "War's Unwomanly Face," she tells the story of a woman who works as a pilot throughout World War II. For three years, this woman does not menstruate or experience sexual feelings. Finally, after the battle of Berlin in 1945, a male friend proposes to her in front of the Reichstag. The woman unexpectedly gets angry, and thinks: "Marriage? Now? Don't you see what I look like? What I am? Make me a woman first -- buy me flowers, take care of me, say beautiful words. I want it so badly." Then, she sees a tear running down the man's cheek. She instantly changes her mind and agrees to marry him.

"I couldn't think up something like that," Alexiyevich said. "Only God and life could come up with such a story."

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