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||Svetlana Alexievich (b. 1948)|
Belarusian writer and investigative journalist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time". Since Winston Churchill (awarded in 1953), Svetlana Alexievich is the first Nobel laureate writing mostly nonfiction. She has published meticulously reseached chonicles of modern history, such as the Soviet war in Afghanistan, fall of the Soviet Empire, and Chernobyl disaster. Her books are characterized by the use of multiple voices that record the emotional experience during the course of social upheavals. Alexievich writes in Russian.
"I don't know what I should talk about – about death or about love? Or are they the same? Which one should I talk about?" (from Voices from Chermobyl, 1997)
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Stanislav (now
Ivano-Frankivsk) in western Ukraine. Her father was a Belarusian and
mother a Ukrainian. Both of her parents were teachers. The village
where she grew up was mostly populated by women ‒ about every fourth
man had been killed in the resistance during the war. Alexievich's
father lost his two brothers.
writing while still at school. Like most children, she was a member of
the Little Octobrists from age seven to nine, she then joined the Young
Pioneers and the Komsomol, the youth division of the Communist Party.
Like her comrades, she believed that her generation can do anything. "At heart, we were built for war," she wrote in Second-hand
(2013). "We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We've
never known anything else ‒ hence our wartime psychology."
Disillusionment came later.
After working as a teacher in a rural
school, Alexievich entered the University of Minsk, where she studied
journalism and graduated in 1972. She was employed as a
journalist in Beresa and then in Minsk. For a period she was a
correspondent for the literary magazine Neman, before becoming the head of
the section for non-fiction. In
Minsk she lived in a nine-story concrete apartment bloc, located in the
central city; her address was well known to the secret police. All the
important conversations she held in the small kitchen.
Her first book, I've Left
My Village, was labelled anti-Communist and destroyed. In 1983
she completed War’s Unwomanly Face,
which consisted of testimonies of hundreds of female WWII veterans. The
book came out two years later, during the celebration of the 40th
anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. President
Mikhail Gorbatshov referred to it in a speech, which lifted the ban on
the subject. Although the book was censored with many cuts, is was a
bestseller, selling more than 2 million copies, but not all
of Alexiyecich's works have been commercial successes. A new
edition, in which Alexievich added some new material and restored the
censored parts was published by the Palmira publishing house (Moscow)
twenty years later.
Face was the first in her "factional" chronicle entitled Voices
of Utopia (Golosa Utopii). Its companion volume, Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II
(1985) was a documentary history of the war from the perspective of the
children. The original title of this heartbreaking collection of memoirs (Poslednie
svideteli: Sto nedetskikh kolybelnykh) translates as "Last Witnesses: A
Hundred of Unchildlike Lullabys." One of the interviewed persons, an
architect who was four years old when the war began, gives a short summary of the
experience of his generation: "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." (Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II, 1985, p. 33)
ways, Alexiyevich's chronicles has continued and developed further the
"documentary novel" or "narrative nonfiction". This multilayered form
of fiction has engaged a number of prominent writers from all
over the world ‒ its masters include Ibuse Masuji
Mailer (1923-2007), Truman
Capote, (1924-1984), Paavo Rintala
(1930-1999), Joan Didion (b. 1934), and
Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005).
about the Soviet-Afghan war, which contributed to the fall of the
Soviet empire, drew on interviews of officers, soldiers, wives, mothers
and widows. The title refers to the sealed zinc coffins in which the
Sovied dead were shipped back. "I don't want to hear any talk about a
OK? Give me my legs back if it was really a mistake," says one of the
had decided not to write about war again in 1986, but meeting a crying
mother who had just lost her son in Afghanistan and an army officer
escorting a private soldier who had gone mad in Kabul changed her mind.
After the publication of the work, the KGB and military
authorities organized a campaign of persecution against Alexievich. In
1993 the mothers of two veterans sued her for slandering the Soviet
Army. The court confiscated all her tapes and files as evidence.
has been described as a writer of "literary
reportage". Her working process is heavily research led. For each
of her books, she has interviewed hundreds of people, building up the
work from fragments of memories, images, fears, and hopes.
Although her his interviewers speak for themselves and are alone, their
resonate together and reveal a kind of emotional history. It usually
takes her three or four years to complete a book.
With Voices from Chernobyl,
an oral history of the largest technologicl disaster of the twentieth
century, Alexievich spent more than ten years. In the final version she
included 107 interviews out of 500. There
is a re-settler who thinks that "there was any Chernobyl, they made it
up. They tricked people. My sister left with her husband. Not far from
here, twenty kilometers. They lived there two months, and the neighbor
comes running: 'Your cow sent radiation to my cow! She's falling down.'
'How'd she send it?' 'Through the air, that's how, like dust. It
flies.' Just fairy tales! Stories and more stories." The author
herself, who was not satisfied with the reporting of the disaster in
the media, says in her own monologue that "I often thought that the
simple fact, the mechanical fact, no closer to the truth than a vague
feeling, rumor, vision."
Following President Lukashenko's increasing harassment of the opposition, she left her home country in 2000. Her works were not published in Belarus, but with the help of the Soros Foundation, Russian editions have found their way to libraries. Before returning in 2011 to Minsk, she lived in Paris and Gothenburg and in Berlin as a guest of the "Berlin Artists-in-Residence programme". Alexievich writes in Russian, but she do not call herself a Russian or Belarusian writer. "I would say I’m a writer of that epoch, the Soviet utopia, writing the history of that utopia in each of my books," Alexievich has concluded. She sees that Belarusian language, which was revived at the end of 1980s, will never have the upper hand in competition with the Russian language.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Alexievich's many awards include the
Herder Prize (1999), the
National Book Critics Circle Award (2005) for Voices from Chernobyl,
the Swedish PEN prize (2007) for her "courage and dignity as a writer,"
the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (2013), and the Prix Médicis
essai (2013). After the announcement of the Nobel Prize, President
Alexander Lukashenko sent his greetings to Alexievich, stating that "I
strongly hope that this prize will serve the Belarusian state and the
nation." A few days later Lukashenko, called Europe's last dictator,
won a fifth term in office. Alexievich boycotted the elections, saying
"we know who will win". Her provocative statement, that the Belarussian
language is "rural and literarily unripe" made her a
controversial figure for Belarussian nationalists. Russian
critics have complained that she portrays the Soviet past in an
unfavourable light, or that she even acts as a Western political agent.
Belarussian authorities pretend that I don't exist. My books are not
published. I can't speak anywhere, at leat on Belarussian television,"
she said after receiving the Nobel Prize. ('When Autocracies Have No Respect for the Nobel Prize' by Ina Shakhrai, in The Journal of Belarusian Studies, Volume 8, Number 1, 2016, p. 35)
In July 2014 Alexievich wrote in Le Monde, that the annexion of Crimea to Russia revealed the country's return to fundamentalism, to the dream of being a great empire and inspire fear. "Empty shelves in stores and long lines for toilet papers may be things of the past in Russia, but affluence never led to democracy in Russia. It only helped an imperialistic mindset resurface." At a discussion in Warsaw, held on the publication of the Polish translation of Vremia sekond khend (Second-hand Time), about social-political processes in Russia during the last twenty years, Alexievich said that, "My book is not hopeless. It describes the strength of the human spirit. But I cannot find an answer to one question. Why do our sufferings, our grandfathers' sufferings not convert into freedom?" Second-hand Time was published in English in 2016.
Alexievich's books have been translated into more than forty
has revealed that the subject of his next book will be love, in "every
combination possible". Along with 30 other writers, she left the
Russian PEN in January 2017 as a protest after the journalist and
activist Sergey Parkhomenko had been excluded from the organization.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she said that
Lukashenko's decision to support President Vladimir Putin and allow
Belarusian territory to be used by Russian troops was "a crime."
"Ukrainians will fight to the end. We must follow the example of
Ukraine." (Belsat TV, 03.08.2022)
For further reading: Environmental Cultures in Soviet East Europe: Literature, History and Memory by Anna Barcz (2021); 'Learning from One’s Inner Thucydides: Reflections on Translating Svetlana Alexievich' by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky, in Translation Review, Volume 97: Number 1 (2017); Literary Journalism across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences, ed. by John S. Bak and Bill Reynolds (2011); 'The Problem of Narration and Reconciliation in Svetlana Aleksievich’s Testimony Voices from Chernobyl’' by Johanna Lindbladh, in The Poetics of Memory in Post-Totalitarian Narration, ed. by Johanna Lindbladh (2008); 'Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices from Chernobyl', in The Russian Review, Vol 65, Number 2 (2006); 'Translator's Preface' by Keith Gessen, in Voices from Chernobyl (2005); 'Introduction' by Larry Heineman, in Zinky Boys (1992)