Last Witnesses, like all of her books, works by accretion. There are more than a hundred accounts of childhood, each told with a familiar, blunt poignancy. Recollections of unimaginable terror – of the bombing and desolation that left 15 million civilians dead – are told in a kind of relentless clamour, each voice given its due. There are stories of Volodia Korshuk, son of a partisan, later a professor of history, who at seven witnessed his mother murdered by the Nazis; or of Varya Vyrko, later a weaver, who recalls how they were forced to bury their grandfather in the garden; or Volodia Ampilogov, later a locksmith, who was rounded up for a concentration camp, but escaped the train when it was bombed; or Maria Puzan, who witnessed her parents burned in barn, and who recalls being given a lovely orange frock with pockets at the orphanage she was sent to and saying: “If I die, please bury me in this dress.”...Her only preface here is a pointed quote from Dostoevsky asking if ideology, revolution, war, ever justifies the tears of even one child. Alexievich’s life’s work, as an attentive listener to all the collected sorrows and stubborn survival of her homeland, quietly, unflinchingly and unforgettably serves to answer that question in the negative.
Last Witnesses consists of about 100 accounts by men and women who were children when the Nazis invaded. Without preface or context of any kind, their voices rise off the page — hesitant, desperate, terrified, matter of fact, poetic, bewildered. Their ellipses are loud with choked tears and still-raw fear. All we are told is the speaker’s name, age in 1941, and occupation when he or she talked to Alexievich; many admit that this is the first time they have spoken of these horrors, or even thought of them, since the war:... In creating her ‘novel-choruses’ or ‘collective novels’, she is open about the fact that she uses a degree of poetic licence to edit her interviews. All history is, after all, selection, even when written by such an exceptionally modest and self-effacing author as Alexievich. Absolute reality, in the end, does remain unfathomable. And still the voices — so many of them — float out of her pages, across time, bearing layer upon layer of truth directly to our hearts.
What counts is that Alexievich has refused to allow Soviet history to be written without the voices of the people who endured the wars, calamities, famines, poverty and political persecutions that filled the 20th century. However grim and repetitive her books are, the cumulative effect, not least of Lost Witnesses, is extremely powerful. This is for the most part because her own views – that war is atrocious, and that the poor, the powerless, minorities and dissidents, and even people who simply happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, are readily disposed of by those in power – are explicit in her choice of excerpts and the craft with which she shapes them. Few people have ever conjured better the pain of loss.
Now, 34 years after its initial publication, comes the English arrival of “Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II.” A chilling, enchanted naturalism fills the book’s pages: Beloved horses are fed to unsuspecting orphans, cats become mute along with their child companions. Linden trees refuse to blossom on streets where houses have been burned to the ground. In a 2007 interview Alexievich stated that she wanted to capture the child’s perspective because “a child is a completely free and innocent person. He is not yet involved in the system … and can return us to more normal sight.” In “Last Witnesses” Alexievich offers a war narrative that hues closer to the Brothers Grimm than to Homer. The book’s gift is to allow the child’s malleable perception to flash alongside the adult’s somber recollections...How adroitly Alexievich sticks her landings should warn readers against treating these interviews as journalistic records of raw testimony. In form and spirit they are closer to prose poems, sometimes even songs, built around repeating refrains. Alexievich is a master at employing the withheld detail to undercut the unfiltered sentimentalism of a narrator, or adding a poetic sting to an otherwise prosaic entry.
Like Alexievich’s debut, Last Witnesses attempts to convey “a history of human feelings” of the second World War... So is Last Witnesses as great as its predecessor? No, it isn’t, for a number of reasons, some of which are inseparable from the subject matter, and others of which arise from Alexievich’s slightly but crucially altered formal approach in her second book. In her great works, while allowing her witnesses to speak for themselves, Alexievich occasionally intervenes to comment on the challenges she underwent while composing the work, her feelings around the material, and so on. In Last Witnesses, she is entirely absent: on the first page, a voice begins to speak – an adult recalling childhood experiences of war. A few pages later, another voice takes over, and this relay continues till the end, with no particular shape to the material nor any authorial comment at all. Resultantly, there is no real structure to the book, nor much to suggest that Alexievich has sequenced the testimonies so that they might become more than the sum of their parts.
Last Witnesses, like all of Alexievich’s books, is a collage of testimonies and a work of documentary literature. Typically there is no editorial comment, as the voices are left to speak for themselves. Alexievich herself was born in 1948 into a family scarred by disaster. Close relations had been killed in the war, died of typhus or been burned alive by the Germans. Her best-known oral history, Chernobyl Prayer, a chronicle of the 1986 nuclear meltdown, served as a resource for the recent TV drama Chernobyl.
Last Witnesses is compelling reading, not only on account of the microcosms of pain it presents, but also because it captures the reflections in adulthood of the war’s survivors. Their stories force readers to contemplate the way that survivors continue to suffer from what they saw and their sense of what they lost. ‘The war is my history book,’ one man explains. ‘I missed the time of childhood, it fell out of my life. I’m a man without a childhood. Instead of a childhood, I have the war.’
This book is a relentless torrent of unspeakable horror. Memories are delivered unprocessed, unremarked. What, then, is Alexievich’s contribution? None of the words is hers. She feels that these testimonies require no editorial comment. On that she’s right. Yet her presence is still felt. She clearly has an innate ability to get people to talk, to trust her with their worst memories. They don’t want to talk, but they do. “I’ve told you about a few days,” Galina Firsova interjects, “but there were 900.”
Since the late 1990s, the cult of the Second World War has become increasingly central to the Russian state’s claim to legitimacy. It performed a similar function in the late Soviet era, yet now the war is remembered not in ideological terms, but rather as the Russian people’s great sacrifice in service to humanity. This cult has put the state at odds with other East European societies that also made great sacrifices. Some of these societies remember the war as the moment when they were subjugated to an enlarged Soviet sphere of influence. The disputed memory of the war has figured prominently in the recent propaganda battle between Russia and Ukraine. In this light, Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses is a masterly and potent reminder that the memory of loss belongs to individuals and communities, and not to the states that turn its psychic energy to other ends.