In Zinky Boys, numerous people quoted complained that the temperature was 70 degrees Celsius. In fact, so far, everyone who mentioned an exact temperature gave that as the number. Why was that?

  • 2
    Especially given that they wouldn't have complained, as they would be dead at that temperature.
    – Mary
    Sep 15, 2021 at 23:03

1 Answer 1


YouTube has a short video of a man going through the park with his thermometer, moving from the shadows into the light. What he wants us to understand is that real temperature (“in the shade”) is not the same as the temperature felt.

How hot was in Afghanistan? Rodric Braithwaite in Afgantsy mentions 40 °C in the shade (with some inevitable faintings). Wikipedia gives the temperature record (with all usual caveats like only officially measured etc.) for Afghanistan to be 49.9 °C.

So 40+ °C in the shade for some periods of the war seems plausible. According to “folk meteorology” from city-data forum 20 °C difference between “in the shade” and “in the sun” temperatures is not impossible. And if we round it up:

“40+” => “60+” in the sun => appr. 70

So 70°C is the highest number you can claim to convey/highlight your “out of this world” experience. Note that the first person who mentions 70C is the guy threatening Alexievich on the phone, so he’s somewhat emotionally invested.

I searched for the word “degrees” in the e-copy of Russian 2007 edition:

  • One person claims 30°C – it’s the author herself
  • Two people say 40°C – a nurse and a reconnaissance soldier (mostly working by nights)
  • A captain of artillery and a private soldier mention 50°C
  • One servicewoman says 60°C
  • A private soldier (victim of Dedovshchina) says 70°C too

It looks like those who worked mostly indoors or in the night make lower estimates, and those who fought in the mountains make higher.

So objectively it is two people saying 70 °C. Right?

Google Books have new revised edition of the book (Новая авторская редакция, 2014). How many people say 70°C? No one! The phone guy now claims 50°C, and the soldier settles on more moderate 60. OK, why nobody says 70°C then? Isn’t it verbatim?

To what extent nonfictional are the later Alexievich’s nonfictions is an open question (I don’t know much about it). See, for example, Witness Tampering in The New Republic (quite hostile, proceed with caution!). Text and names are changing from one edition to another.

Alexievich treats her interviews not as fixed historical documents, but as raw material for her own artistic and political project

Alexievich says

In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian.

It seems that the author dialed back some of the claims that looked fantastic. On one hand, objectivity is important for communication and journalism. On the other hand, a pile of facts doesn’t make a book. A set of disparate physical experiences is not a life in the fullest sense of the word.

I think that to create a sense of meaning and personal experience one needs to see things in the light of certain interpretation. So people say they went through 70 degrees heat (because it felt extremely hard), and authors make decisions based on artistic choices. “In the shade” is not always enough.

  • Thanks, this is a superb answer. I'm also duly impressed that you're able to read the Russian edition - wish I could say the same :) Sep 28, 2021 at 20:28

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