Svetlana Alexievich Gets Literature Nobel for Dark, Emotional Chronicles of Soviet Life

Svetlana Alexievich. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Svetlana Alexievich. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich (67) has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for literature. Alexievich is known for writing the emotional history of the Soviet empire in the style of literary non-fiction since her early years as a journalist in Minsk, a city she had to leave in 2000 after being persecuted by the Alexander Lukashenko regime. Drawing on thousands of interviews, her most notable accomplishment has been to characterise the post-Soviet person, a lonely figure in the history of human conflicts, with an identity marked by the scars of state socialism and an ontological desolation. In fact, Alexievich insists that survivors of the Soviet system are different from the children of other revolutions.

As the German publication Der Spiegel quotes from her book Second-Hand Time (2013), “We have our own ideas about good and evil, about heroes and victims. We are full of hate and prejudice. We all come from the place that was once the home of gulags and of collectivisation, or Dekulakization, the forced resettlement of entire populations. It was socialism, but it was also our lives.”

Among her acclaimed works is Voices from Chernobyl (2005), an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 that she has called a “challenge of cosmic dimensions”, and in which she makes a black comedy of the ensuing social chaos in nearby Pripyat. Another famous work is War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), which documented the role of female soldiers who participated in the Second World War. This is what she wrote in her introduction to the book:

“All that we know about Woman is best described by the word “compassion”. There are other words, too-sister, wife, friend and, the noblest of all, mother. But isn’t compassion a part of all these concepts, their very substance, their purpose and their ultimate meaning? A woman is the giver of life, she safeguards life, so “Woman” and “life” are synonyms.

“But during the most terrible war of the 20th century a woman had to become a soldier. She not only rescued and bandaged the wounded; she also fired a sniper’s rifle, dropped bombs, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering, and captured identification prisoners. A woman killed. She killed the enemy who, with unprecedented cruelty, was attacking her land, her home, her children. One of the heroines of the book, trying to convey all the horror and the cruel necessity of what had happened, says: “Woman was never destined to kill.” Another woman wrote the following on the wall of the Reichstag: “I, Sofia Kuntsevich, came to Berlin to kill war.” Woman thus made tremendous sacrifices to bring about Victory and at the same time they accomplished an immortal feat whose magnitude we can grasp only gradually in time of peace…”

Both War’s Unwomanly Face and Voices from Chernobyl draw extensively from multiple voices – in the case of Chernobyl, voices collected over 10 years – and are in effect chronicles. In all, Alexievich’s writing is identified by gloomy, grotesque, almost hellish undertones that she has on occasion associated with what she found life to be like under the Soviet regime and which in hindsight she calls “a huge common grave”.

The literature prize’s citation praises her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. The announcement is appropriately timed, too: while Alexievich’s writing has often addressed the land as a source of wealth and well-being, and its destruction as emotional plunder, the lands of Syria and Ukraine have now been transformed into proxy battlegrounds for a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. While her criticism is motivated by Russia’s historical struggles for influence in foreign lands, it castigates not the politics as much as the top-heavy system’s callous, invisible toll on the minds of young people.

Unsurprisingly, she is a vocal critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin as well, and has accused him of plunging Russia into its past. A translation of an opinion piece she wrote in Le Monde in 2014 reads, “We’re choosing war instead of peace. We’re choosing the past instead of the future. The phone rang while I was finishing this piece. “I’ve read your books and your articles. I’ve seen how you drag Russia through the mud,” said a voice. “You people are a ‘fifth column!’ Traitors! We’ll remember each and everyone of you. Your hour will come soon!” I hung up and went to the window. My impression was that what the person said was already starting.”

Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that is responsible for awarding the literature prize, praised Alexievich for her “extraordinary” writing that effectively pieced together thousands of human experiences in an “emotional”, timeless literature. Darius picked out War’s Unwomanly Face as the first book by the author to read, adding: “It’s an exploration of the Second World War from a perspective that was, before that book, almost completely unknown … Almost one million Soviet women participated in the war, and it’s a largely unknown history. It was a huge success in the Soviet Union union when published, and sold more than two million copies. It’s a touching document and at the same time brings you very close to every individual, and in a few years they all will be gone.”

Even before the announcement, Alexievich was a frontrunner to receive the prize, alongside Japan’s Haruki Murakami and the Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were reports that she had been nominated in 2014 by the Ural Federal University, although this can’t be known for sure as nominations are sealed by the Nobel Foundation for 50 years.