“A masterpiece” (The Guardian) from the Nobel Prize–winning writer, an oral history of children’s experiences in World War II across Russia
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST
For more than three decades, Svetlana Alexievich has been the memory and conscience of the twentieth century. When the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize, it cited her for inventing “a new kind of literary genre,” describing her work as “a history of emotions . . . a history of the soul.”
Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive style, Last Witnesses is Alexievich’s collection of the memories of those who were children during World War II. They had sometimes been soldiers as well as witnesses, and their generation grew up with the trauma of the war deeply embedded—a trauma that would change the course of the Russian nation.
Collectively, this symphony of children’s stories, filled with the everyday details of life in combat, reveals an altogether unprecedented view of the war. Alexievich gives voice to those whose memories have been lost in the official narratives, uncovering a powerful, hidden history from the personal and private experiences of individuals.
Translated by the renowned Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Last Witnesses is a powerful and poignant account of the central conflict of the twentieth century, a kaleidoscopic portrait of the human side of war.
Praise for Last Witnesses
“There is a special sort of clear-eyed humility to [Alexievich’s] reporting.”—The Guardian
“A bracing reminder of the enduring power of the written word to testify to pain like no other medium. . . . Children survive, they grow up, and they do not forget. They are the first and last witnesses.”—The New Republic
“A profound triumph.”—The Big Issue
“[Alexievich] excavates and briefly gives prominence to demolished lives and eradicated communities. . . . It is impossible not to turn the page, impossible not to wonder whom we next might meet, impossible not to think differently about children caught in conflict.”—The Washington Post
In this moving work of oral history, originally published in 1985 and appearing in English for the first time, Nobel-winning journalist Alexievich collages together WWII survivors' accounts. The book brings together engrossing and frequently graphic testimonies from 101 Russians who were under the age of 15 at the time of the events described. Absent a historical timeline or, indeed, any prose in Alexievich's voice there is a subtle chronological and geographic movement; the memories move from town to town between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the Nazi surrender in May 1945. The interviewees recall the hunger not assuaged by grass or potatoes, the sounds and the smells of war, the abuse they suffered (one was used to detect mines and another, then six, suffered "nine bullet wounds"), the crushing losses ("I never found my mama and papa, I don't even know my real last name"), and the horrifying events ("Our neighbors... were hanging from the well pole," one recounts; another remembers seeing his mother shot to death in the street). This disturbing and inspiring literary monument to the human, humane spirit that survives unimaginable horror brings to life the devastation of war.