The Swedish Academy in Stockholm announced at 2 p.m. on October 8 that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to Russian-language Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich in recognition of what the academy called “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Although the list of nominees is kept secret for 50 years, she was seen as the most likely winner. Alexievich, having lived in the West for many years and only recently returned to her homeland, became the first Nobel laureate in the history of independent Belarus. Monetary equivalent of the award is eight million Swedish kronor, or about a million dollars.
Experts saw cult Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, American writer Philip Roth, and Syrian poet Adonis as contenders for the award this year. The bookmakers’ lists featured Umberto Eco, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula K. Le Guin, Milan Kundera, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and others as well.
The most famous works of the Belarusian writer include War’s Unwomanly Face, Zinky Boys, Voices from Chernobyl, and Second-Hand Time. Alexievich works in the non-fiction genre. Her books are devoted to rethinking the Soviet past through the prism of individual stories of people who witnessed wars and disasters. She calls her style “the genre of human voices” herself.
This year’s Book Arsenal saw the writer presenting the Ukrainian translation of the last volume of her pentalogy The Red Man. Voices of Utopia (see article “Putin Now Lives Inside Every Russian” in No. 32 of May 26, 2015). In the preface to the book Second-Hand Time (The End of the Red Man), which was published by Dukh i Litera Publishers, Alexievich writes: “Communism had a crazy plan to rework the ‘old’ man, ‘old Adam.’ It has succeeded... Maybe, this was its only success. The seventy-odd years spent in the laboratory of Marxism-Leninism created a separate human type, which is known as homo sovieticus. Some believe that it is a tragic character, while some disparagingly call it sovok. I think I know this kind, I am well acquainted with them, I have lived side by side with them for many years. They are me, my acquaintances, friends, parents.”
While talking to Ukrainian readers, the writer admitted that she had high hopes for our country. “In Ukraine, whenever you speak of a hope, there is a real force behind your words,” Alexievich said. “Unless what Napoleon said happens (‘a bureaucrat can devour any revolution,’ which, incidentally, happened more than once), you will make your way up. Belarusians have not yet had this level of reflection, have not identified themselves as citizens, as a nation. The Revolution of Dignity was a deed by thousands of people. Not all of them were poor. In your case, all kinds of people came out, everyone broke up pavement to use as missiles, both ordinary women and mink-coated ladies. It is a mythological picture of sorts. (...) 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 have this feeling of belonging, they have faith. The future is already in the air.”
Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948 in Stanislav (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine). Her father was Belarusian, while mother was Ukrainian. After her Soviet officer father retired from the army, the family moved to Belarus. “I have a distinct memory of the blossoming orchards, apple and pear trees, and soft soil, where your feet were sinking deep,” the writer said recalling her childhood in postwar Ukraine. “I also remember the markets and the smell of poverty: lard and bread. I remember the beautiful language and my granny in a white blouse whitewashing the house. This is where my interest in people stems from. I remember long talks, the sobriety of life, and the trust towards life. Therefore, you will find no bombast in my books: because I remembered the intonation my grandma and other farm women spoke with. Endless pain and endless sorrow. My grandma was a woman of very modest means. I remember we were pushing a wheel cart with a bag of cereals, wheat, and sugar. Ridiculously little, compared to how much she had worked for it. No one sold anything to Soviet officers. At the age of two I nearly starved to death: there was no food for me. Then my father went to a nunnery to ask for food. His colleagues helped him over the fence (he might not enter through the front door), and he went straight to the abbess. He tried to touch her: ‘You serve God. You may kill me, you may do whatever you want, but a child is dying…’ She said to him: ‘Get lost, I do not want to ever again set my eyes on you. But your wife may come. For two months I will give her half a liter milk a day.’ I was fed that goat’s milk, and so I survived. When the Japanese made a movie after my books, they wanted to film that convent. We went there only to find a seminary. Of course, the abbess was long gone...”
After high school, Alexievich worked as kindergarten teacher, school teacher of history and German language, newspaper reporter. She graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of the Belarusian State University in 1972 and continued to work in the press, coming to head journalism and essay department at Belarusian literary, artistic, and public affairs magazine Neman in 1976-84. Soviet “literature officials” harshly criticized the writer’s work, accusing her of “pacifism, naturalism, and slandering the image of the heroic Soviet woman.”
Alexievich lived in Italy, France, and Germany starting in the early 2000s, and returned to Belarus only two years ago. She is open about her attitude to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko and condemns the Russian aggression against Ukraine. “We have lost a lot of time. We could have created a state, national philosophy, history,” the author said when discussing the situation in Belarus in an interview for The Day. “But we were a hundred years too late. Who is there to do this titanic work? Today the milieu of patriotic-minded individuals is like a ghetto. There are a few intellectuals, although young people often join in. But as the young grow up, they take to the streets in protest actions (we are Belarusian!), then they are kicked out of the university, and then they emigrate to Europe. This cycle is well calculated. Lukashenko has committed this crime three times. And we are again waiting for the next generation, but the story repeats. Belarus needs experts. And I do not know who will work on Belarusian self-identity. The older generation of writers is passing away. This is a big question.”
The Belarusian was seen as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 2013, but the award went to Canadian Alice Munro then.