The Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, a winner of many international awards, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize past year and for the Ryszard Kapuscinski Prize this year, has been writing “Red Man: Voices from Big Utopia,” a cycle of books on homo sovieticus, for 35 years. The latest of the five books, Second-Hand Time: the End of Red Man, was published in Russian in 2013 and, thanks to the Dukh i Litera Publishers, in Ukrainian translation in 2014. This year the authoress herself came to the Book Arsenal to see her Ukrainian readers and tell them about the new book. Dukh i Litera director Kostiantyn Sihov and writer Oksana Zabuzhko moderated the meeting with Alexievich.
Svetlana Alexievich’s book is an attempt to understand Soviet man and Soviet mentality. The author recorded the stories of the people she mingled with as she traveled across the former USSR for many years. “Communism had a crazy plan – to reform the ‘old’ man, the ‘Old Testament’s Adam,’” the foreword says. “And they did it… Maybe, it is the only thing they did. In the 70 something years, the laboratory of Marxism-Leninism created a new human type – homo sovieticus. Some consider him a tragic character, while others call him ‘sovok.’ I think I know this man, I know him very well, I am next to him, I’ve lived for so many years shoulder-to-shoulder with him. He is me. It is my acquaintances, friends, and parents.” Addressing the readers in Kyiv, Alexievich shared her reflections on what failure to reconsider the Soviet past might lead to.
ON THE SUBSTANCE OF HATRED
“It is our common history,” Alexievich said to the readers. “This life, known as socialism, had some very difficult consequences. I went through the main events all the 35 years: World War Two, Afghanistan, Chornobyl, and the final collapse of this empire. It turned out that we had all been romantics in the 1990s. I remember very well a conversation with Gorbachev in Paris. He was just going to publish his dialog with the Dalai Lama. They were getting this book ready for so long (about 10 years) that when they finished, the world turned out to be absolutely different. It was suddenly clear that the two of them were romantics, too. And we saw the mafia instead of socialism. When I was working on my latest book, I traveled across Russia very much because it was home to the Red Empire and, secondly, because it was a place where the purest experiment was carried out.” In the authoress’s view, what is now going on in Russia is the downfall of a system with all that this implies. “When I was touring that country,” Alexievich recalled, “I could see people bubbling over with hatred. Even young people. Mindless and all-pervading hatred – towards the rich, the neighbors, the Turks, the Tajiks, and so on. Sort of a substance of hatred… It was clear that this hatred would not be confined to Russia alone – it would roll on somewhere else. And the Kremlin sensed this very well. They are Soviet people, too. They have money to burn, but the world does not recognize them. They are a pack of riffraff for the world. After all, money is not the main point in this already-regulated capitalism. There are certain moral foundations.”
RESTORING IMPERIAL KNOWLEDGE
The writer thinks the current events in Ukraine show where politicians decided to channel this hatred to. “Now we can see that Putin has never been a democrat. He is a KGB man with his own picture of the world. I recently chatted with my friends, and we were recalling the TV programs that have come up since Putin came to power. They exploit nostalgia for those times. Book markets suddenly began to sell books on Stalin, Beria, and Yezhov. Funny thing – they write about what women those butchers loved, what cigarettes they smoked, and what wine they drank. Obviously, this is an attempt to humanize the terrible past. A steppingstone was being prepared to try to restore this imperial knowledge. And we can see now, on the example of Ukraine, how tightly the empire holds its grip. It does not want to set anybody free. It is not only about Putin personally, but also about a ‘collective putin,’” she says.
Alexievich says that when she traveled across Russia, she spoke to hundreds of people, and there was a “little putin” in almost each of them. “It is for this reason that an archaic attitude and hatred managed to surmount the marginal level and become an official ideology. I, a Soviet-born person myself, live in this enormous laboratory for 40 years. In childhood, I also believed in some ideals. It was not until I saw in Afghanistan hundreds of coffins with our boys, who had been thrown into the battle immediately after school, that I got rid of this idea. In Chornobyl, I understood that we had looked into a horrible unfathomable abyss. I tried to tell all this through human stories. As Dostoevsky said, each cries out his own truth. Each wants to say that they have a truth of their own. There are communists, KGB men, and the whole Red world in this book. I had to draw a complete picture to be able to see the strength of this black magic. We must be aware of what can grow out of this terrible world. Since the first Maidan, Ukraine has already seen a generation that broke loose from the Soviet umbilical cord. Nothing of the kind has occurred so far in Belarus and Russia. So, the most dangerous thing that has remained behind after the socialist empire is man. And it is naive to think that only Putin rules the roost. Putin now lives in every Russian. This must be understood,” she says.
WHEN A DEED STANDS BEHIND WORDS
Svetlana confesses that she is pinning great hopes on our country. “In Ukraine, whenever you speak of a hope, there is a real force behind your words,” the writer said. “Unless what Napoleon said happens (‘a bureaucrat can devour any revolution,’ which, incidentally, happened more than once), you will make your way up. When I was reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s book on Maidan eyewitnesses (Eyewitnesses’ Chronicle: Nine Months of Ukrainian Resistance), I thought that Belarusians had not yet identified themselves as citizens, as a nation. I cannot imagine a book like this in Belarus because a deed stands behind the book – a deed by thousands of people. Not all of them were poor. In your case, all kinds of people came out: both ordinary women and mink-coated ladies. It is a mythological picture of sorts. But those who came out in Russia in 2011-13, were some educated well-to-do individuals. They carried slogans ‘Kremlin, you don’t know us.’ But when those people were shown a fist, they went abroad.”
ON ORTHODOX FANATICISM
All embassies in Russia are now packed with people who want to leave, Alexievich says. “Those who have remained behind are easy-to-manipulate people,” the writer says, “all the more so that such heavy artillery as Orthodoxy has intervened. This is Orthodox fanaticism. The tendency is especially pronounced in the provinces. Orthodoxy attracts the local intelligentsia and even youth. This is quite unexpected, for Russia was a secular state very recently. The church has in fact become an institution of government. It is not a church that pities the poor and the wretched, the man of Dostoevsky or Gogol. This church can only see a slave in man and always reminds the latter of this. We can only pin our hopes on time now. But we have nothing but our tiny life.” In the writer’s opinion, it is very important today not to give in to cynicism, totalitarian omnipotence, and despair, and to know how to retain adequacy. “There is a Russian saying: ‘Like wood, we can be both a cudgel and an icon.’ In the book Second-Hand Time, I tried to show how easy it is to take advantage of an individual who has lived without being free and personally responsible. In Ukraine, now that you have made this breakthrough, it is much easier. People on the streets have a different kind of eyes. They are aware of being participants, they have faith. The future is already in the air.”