‘For her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,’ these words accompanied the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer, originally born in Ukraine, who writes in Russian.
The days since have witnessed heated discussion in the media and social media. How should we define Alexievich’s work, is it literature or journalism? Who is Alexievich, a Russian or Belarusian writer? Does this prize signal a moment to move away from the Soviet past? For those of us who associate ourselves with the Soviet past, post-Soviet present or both, this event has already gone far beyond the confines of a purely ‘literary event’. The international recognition of Alexievich’s literary contribution tells us much about what kind of historical moment the former Soviet Union is currently experiencing.
Literature and/or journalism?
I was born in 1975 in the country known then as Belorussia (the Soviet name for Belarus), and I am yet to meet a person of my generation who hasn’t at least heard of Alexievich’s work. Alexievich’s first novel War’s unwomanly face (1985) was published in large numbers, at least by today’s standards—after all, her potential audience back then covered the whole USSR. So it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that most people who were born before perestroika (and who speak Russian) are familiar with Alexievich’s work.
But in the discussions that have followed, Alexievich’s genre has become a particular source of debate. Many English-language media modestly define Alexievich’s form as ‘non-fiction’. This term doesn’t accurately reflect her method, its uniqueness.
Светлана Алексиевич, октября 2015. (c) Viktor Tolochko / VisualRIAN.Alexievich builds her narratives of life in the Soviet experiment with a single instrument—the voices of real people, recorded in hundreds of interviews. And if you ask someone who grew up in the Soviet Union why Alexievich’s work deserves recognition, they may well answer: ‘Because she writes the cruel truth about our lives, and it doesn’t follow the “official point of view”.’
The works of Alexievich, woven from the voices of ‘ordinary’ Soviet and post-Soviet people, document that reality—the one that didn’t, and doesn’t, match the heroic Soviet meta-narrative, which so effectively excluded the contradictions and range of individual experience. Thirty years ago, War’s unwomanly face became a sensation not only because of its generic innovation, but because it was the first large-scale attempt to show the experience of the Great Patriotic War through the lives of Soviet women.
In the context of Soviet popular history, Alexievich’s first novel was an unprecedented attempt to present an alternative vision to the state narrative. For Alexievich, ‘victory’ was achieved not only through the efforts of the canonical male soldier, beyond reproach. Soviet women, whose roles were, at least in public conscious, confined to the home front or, at most, served as medical personnel at the front, were also soldiers. They saved the wounded, they killed their enemies. They feared death and fell in love with their comrades at the front. They missed their mothers and children, and tried to make the unbearable reality of war more human.
Alexievich’s other work published in 1985, The Last Witnesses: 100 Non-Children Stories, demonstrates the writer’s capacity for listening and channeling unexpressed human pain—this collection gathers childhood memories of people who grew up during the war. Open to others’ suffering, Alexievich gains access to those experiences, which even her interlocutors want to hide from themselves. These stories don’t contain any moral judgments on what happened. Alexievich’s interviewees speak as adults. Instead, the bare details of extreme suffering allow the reader to merge with the pain, and we can hear love and hope amidst the horror too.
Later works, such as Zinky Boys (1989) and Voices from Chernobyl (1997), presents the experience of Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, and the people involved in the clean-up operation at Chernobyl. Alexevich’s 2013 novel, Secondhand Time (due to be published in English in 2016), depicts the fundamental paradigm shift of Soviet collapse on the level of individuals.
With every book, Alexievich creates a space for experiences that are often told in a whisper, for experiences that you can’t read in history textbooks or the newspaper. Hence the paradox and uniqueness of Alexievich’s work: the Soviet-era novels were published widely in the Soviet Union despite containing potential criticism of the Soviet state and its ideology. Of course, in the Soviet period, Alexievich was criticised for ‘extreme naturalism of narrative’, for ‘subverting Soviet history’s heroic pathos’ and ‘distorting the heroic image of the Soviet people—despite the fact that all of her novels were are built from the direct speech of people who were there.
Though Alexievich hardly ever includes her own voice in her works, you can still feel the presence of the author: the choice of subject matter, certain fragments of interviews, the composition of the novels, which have a certain logic. And it was this invisible authorial presence that gave ground for criticism in the post-Soviet period. Several critics accused Alexievich of prejudice and a ‘subjective view’—the author’s political position can be seen in the spaces between the monologues of her interviewees. This ambiguity, the simultaneous presence and absence of the author, is what gives the opportunity for broad interpretations of intention.
But Alexievich never concealed her ‘civic’ position. In the post-Soviet period, at least, she has often criticised Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. The state print runs in Belarus have fallen as a result.
Trauma and the meaning of suffering
For sociologist Elena Gapova, Alexievich’s books are a model of moral philosophy, a way into discussing the process of finding meaning in suffering, in which both the Soviet and post-Soviet individual are engaged.
According to Gapova, Alexievich began to record the stories of ‘Soviet man’ at an important moment when society, having exhausted certain aims and ideas, found itself faced with answering the questions of ‘why?’ and ‘what next?’ Alexievich began writing her novels at that time when Soviet society finally loses its enthusiasm for its declared aim, tried to find a new one and failed to do so.
As Gapova explains, suffering, deprivation and horror only ‘have meaning’ in War’s unwomanly face because her interlocutors take active steps, and their acts are a source of pride. In the books that followed, suffering is the consequence of misfortune, catastrophe, human cruelty, the crimes of a state committing violence—suffering is meaningless here. Nowadays, there is ‘neither blessing, nor heroism’.
The new ‘losers’, Soviet people have felt shame, a loss of honour and meaning in the ‘transition’ years since 1991. Alexievich’s project gives voice to a specific Soviet subjectivity, a loyalty to collective ideals and the common goal of building an equal society, and one that hasn’t disappeared for everyone.
Whose prize is it anyway?
Naturally, this Nobel Prize has provoked a series of discussions on the rise of independent nationhood projects on Soviet territory. Several Russian writers have claimed that Alexievich is continuing the high traditions of Russian literature and journalism, engendering a reaction from Belarusian writers indignant at ‘Russia’s attempt to colonise Belarus’ literary heritage’.
Indeed, the fact that a Russian-language writer from Belarus has received the Nobel has also come in for criticism: in its own country, the Belarusian language is frequently marginalised.
But Alexievich says that, with her Belarusian and Ukrainian roots, she belongs to the generation of people formed in the Soviet era who have experienced life in the ‘near abroad’, the belt of countries surrounding the Russian Federation. She considers herself a cosmopolitan, and writes her books in the language of the epoch in which she was born.
For me, this ‘cosmopolitanism’ is where the complexities of the current historical moment for the ‘people of transition’, as we might call them, coalesce. As part of global political and cultural processes, the transformations of the post-Soviet period course through individual lives, and this has led to a complex new form of subjectivity. In the post-Soviet era, people belong to more than one national space. Each of those ‘belongings’ has its own worth.