Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Extracting sense from horror

Man in the fire of history through the eyes of Svetlana Alexievich
3 November, 2015 - 12:19

On October 8, 2015, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian Russian-speaking author. The grounds for choice were worded concisely and exhaustively: “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Each word here aptly renders the essence of Alexievich’s contribution to Belarusian, European, and now also world literature.

Indeed, the new laureate has artfully revealed to the world (and studied via artistic means) the image of the extremely controversial, pitiable, tormented, cowed, yet also courageous and at times even grand Soviet person. And she stood next to him. Do we need arguments in favor of how important and topical it is for today’s Ukraine?

The comments to the event varied enormously, from boorish remarks about the Belarusian author’s work as “nothing better than mediocre” to dilettantish statements like “Now the Nobel Prize is given to a ‘Soviet’ person and a Soviet writer, since the laureate herself acknowledges this” (we will cite Alexievich’s words in their precise context later) to quasi-patriotic declarations of the sort: “For the first time since 1987, the Nobel Prize is awarded to an author who writes in Russian” (as a reminder: in 1987 the prize was awarded to now late Joseph Brodsky, and before him other Russian laureates include Ivan Bunin (1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Mikhail Sholokhov (1965), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970)). Finally, there have been serious attempts to interpret Alexievich’s contribution and recognize her work as a key to understanding the core of the tragedy which the Soviet and post-Soviet person survived in the 20th century and, most importantly, keeps surviving even now.

Alexievich has an in-depth knowledge of this person, she knows him thoroughly from the inside (this is exactly what the author meant when she said that the notion of the Soviet person “includes, among others, me, my family, and my friends”). At the same time she showed the greatness and baseness, courage and misery of this person (importantly, just like any human being in general) not from the inside, but in the “reference system of eternity.” She showed how a certain individual (unique and original) behaves in the hellish fire of history, from the perspective of eternal moral laws. This is Alexievich’s contribution to the study of the eternal question: how deep can a human being sink morally, and how incredibly high can he rise.

Your author is inclined to believe that sublime literature (there’s no doubt that Alexievich’s work had belonged there long before the award) – in other words, people’s unforgettable faces, voices, eyes, thoughts, and actions – is ultimately nothing other but the highest dimension of History. The human dimension (which by no means belittles the importance of all-rounded study of facts and events of the past – but organic synthesis is probably necessary). As for Alexievich’s books, they are merely indispensable. And the best way to realize this is to give the author the floor. But first, a very brief fact file.

Alexievich’s works are already known in many countries. Here is a reminder: The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – the tragedy of woman in war, told in her own words, through her own perception and soul; The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Stories (1985) is based on her childhood memories of the war; Zinky Boys (1989) tells the story of the Afghan war in the words of mothers who lost their sons there; Enchanted with Death (1993) is prompted by a wave of suicides, triggered by the abrupt social shifts in the former USSR; Voices from Chernobyl (1997) represents oral history of the Chornobyl disaster; Second-Hand Time, or The End of the Red Man (2013) explains how the country’s history affects the minds of its citizens, in particular, the phenomenon of the “Soviet person.” The author bands together all these works into one epic documentary cycle with a surprisingly expressive title, Voices from Big Utopia. The name itself is revealing about the author’s artistic method, world perception and historiosophy. The power of utopia, the power of a totalitarian idea (even if it looks truly humane from the outside) over an individual is no less cruel and terrible than the tyranny of hitlers and stalins. But the Individual overcomes that power, rises above it, grows bigger than it (or actually, he is capable of doing that). This amazing Belarusian writer confirms this with all her work.

Now, we give the floor to the author.


“Over the recent 200 years, this person has spent almost 150 years waging wars. And he has never had a good life. Meanwhile, in the (now) post-Soviet space people were first deceived for 70 years, then robbed another 20 years, and as a result, they produced some very aggressive figures, dangerous for the whole world, human life has absolutely depreciated, while the idea of priority of state’s grandeur over the quality of life has prevailed.”


“I write books about war. I, who have never liked reading war books, although in the time of my childhood and youth it was everyone’s favorite read. All of my coevals read them. No wonder, though: we were children of the Victory. But what do I actually remember about the war? The war remained our minds’ home even after it was over. We all lived there. Everything originated from that horrible world, and our family was no exception: my Ukrainian grandfather, my Mom’s dad, was killed on the front, and my Belarusian grandmother, my Dad’s mom, died of typhus after she joined the partisans (resistance fighters), two of her sons went missing, and only one of the three came back. As children, we did not know the world without war. The war world was the only one we knew, and the people of war were the only people we knew.

“No one will perhaps say how many war books have been written all over the world. I read somewhere recently that there have been more than three thousand wars on the globe. There will be even more books. But everything we know about the war was told to us by men. We are ‘prisoners’ of male ideas and male perceptions of war. Male words. Women always keep silent, and if they suddenly choose to speak up, they tell about someone else’s war, not theirs. They adapt to a strange language. And only at home, or after a good cry among other female fellow soldiers, they recall the war which makes your heart miss a beat. Silence takes over your soul. This is not a distant past anymore: it is the knowledge and suspicions about the person, which are always necessary. Even in the gardens of paradise. Human spirit is not really all that hard and safe, it always needs support. We must find strength somewhere [this thought is very important for Alexievich. – Author]. Female stories hardly have (if they have it at all) what we always get to hear (and now we even don’t hear it anymore, we leave it out): how people heroically killed other people and won. Or lost. Female stories are different, and they have different subjects. ‘Female’ war has its own colors, smells, light, and its own space for feelings. It has its own words. There is no room for heroes and unbelievable feats, there are just people, busy with an inhuman human thing. And it is not only them, people, who suffer there: it is also the earth, birds, and trees. All this earthly world. It suffers without a word, and it makes it even more horrible.

“The first records. And the first amazement: these ladies’ military professions were medical instructor, sniper, machine gunner, commander of an antiaircraft gun, or sapper. Now they are accountants, lab assistants, tourist guides, or teachers. It is as if they spoke of other girls, not of themselves. Today they are amazed at themselves. And history takes on a human dimension right before my eyes. It seems to me that we are talking about human life rather than about war. We are reasoning about man.

“Sometimes you come across striking stories. Their lives contain pages worthy of Dostoevsky’s novels. Someone gets into such a whirlwind that she can see herself clearly from above, from the sky, and from below, from the ground. Reminiscences are rebirth of the past, it is creation. When they share them, people create, they ‘write’ their lives. Ordinary people (nurses, cooks, washerwomen) struck me as the most sincere. Their words come from within, not from newspapers and books. Only from their own suffering, and not from culture.”

Fragment from the book The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Stories, 1985:

“The entire street burned down. Old men and old women burned, and very many little children did, too, because they had not fled with the others, they thought they would be left alone. You pass a singed corps, so these are the remains of an old person. But if you spot something little and pink from far away, it would be a child. They lay pink on the coals…”

Fragment from the book Zinky Boys, 1989. The tragedy of the Afghan war:

“At war, death has no mystery for people. Killing means merely pulling the trigger. We were taught that he survives who shoots the first. This is the law of war. ‘Here you must be able to do two things: move fast and shoot sharp. I will do the thinking,’ said our commander. We shot where we were ordered to. I was trained to shoot where I am told to. I shot and had mercy for no one. I could kill a child, for everyone out there fought against us: men, women, old folks, kids. A convoy is moving across a kishlak. The engine in the front truck chokes and dies. The driver steps out, looks under the hood – and a little boy of 10 stabs him in the back. Right through the heart. The soldier lay on the engine, while the boy was instantly perforated with bullets. If we had got orders at the moment to erase the village… Everyone was trying to survive. We had no time to think. We were only 18 to 20 years old! I got used to the others’ deaths, but I feared mine. I saw a man vanish in a moment, as if he had never existed. His uniform was sent home in an empty coffin, with some Afghan soil in it, for the right weight. We had a lust for life. I have never had such a lust for life like I had back there. We cracked with laughter when we came back from missions. I have never laughed like I laughed there…”

Fragment from the book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, 1997:

“I started thinking about why Chornobyl was hushed up by our writers, why they wrote so little about it. They kept writing about the war, about the camps, but here they were silent. Do you think it’s just a coincidence? If we had overcome Chornobyl, it would be discussed and described more often. Or if we had understood it. We do not know how to extract some sense from this horror. We are incapable of it. Because it can be applied neither to our human experience nor to our human time.

“So what is better, remembering or forgetting?”

Alexievich put a quote of the outstanding Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili as an epigraph to the book: “We are air, we are not earth…”


“From a thousand voices, pieces of our everyday life and existence, words and what hides between words, I shape not a reality (reality is incomprehensible and unbounded), but an image. The image of my time. How we see it, how we imagine it. Credibility is born from the great number of cycles. I create the image of my country with the help of my contemporaries. I would like my books to become a chronicle, an encyclopedia of nearly a dozen generations whom I have seen, and with whom I go. How did they live? What did they believe in? How were they killed, and how did they kill? How did they strive to be happy and failed, because it was not their destiny?

“In retrospect, all our history, Soviet and post-Soviet, is a huge common grave, a sea of blood. An eternal dialog of executioners and victims. The eternal questions: What to do? And who is to blame? The revolution, GULAG, World War Two and the war in Afghanistan, waged behind the backs of own people, the crash of the great empire, when a gigantic socialist continent sunk, continent Utopia, and now a new, cosmic challenge, Chornobyl. This time the challenge to life itself. All this is our History. And it is the subject of my books. It is my road, and my circles of hell. From one human being to another.

“I have always been eager to understand how human a human being is. And how can this ‘human in a human’ be protected? What can we protect him with?”


“We have here a unique work, probably completed for the first time in the Soviet and post-Soviet culture: a closely-followed, documented, and interpreted through fiction life of several dozen generations, with the very reality of the 70 years of socialism, from the revolution of 1917 through the civil war, the youth and hypnosis of the great Utopia, Stalinist terror and GULAG, the World War Two and the years of the collapse of that socialist continent into our day. This is living history told by the nation self and recorded, heard, and handpicked by a talented and honest chronicler.”


“For a couple of years already I have been working on the book The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt. It is a collection of love stories, where men and women of various generations tell about themselves. I thought at some point that until now I had been writing books about people killing one another and dying. But it is not the only thing that makes up human life. Now I will write about how they loved, and still love.

“And again, I ask my questions – who are we, what sort of country do we live in – through love. Through what is perhaps our ultimate goal in this world. I want to love man. Even if it is hard to love man. It is getting increasingly harder.”


At the press conference on October 2015, on the day she was awarded the Nobel Prize, Alexievich starkly contrasted the “true, humane, kind ‘Russian world,’ the one that attracts all people (literature, ballet, great music works) and the odious, disgusting to me and the world names of Beria, Stalin, Putin, and Shoigu. Why do I have such an attitude? Because I believe that the situation in Russia had been provoked in such a way that 86 percent of the population were happy to see people in Donbas die, and mocked ‘those Khokhols.’”

And the last thing. In 2013 the author, who had lived in Western Europe for a long time, returned to her homeland, Belarus. President Lukashenko congratulated her (apparently unwillingly) with the high award, the Nobel Prize. Alexievich is the first professional journalist (she got her degree in journalism from the Belarusian State University in 1972 and subsequently worked for a district newspaper, and later for a central Belarusian news outlet) awarded a Nobel Prize in literature. Unfortunately, not all Ukrainian journalists, writers, and intellectuals are prepared today to perform the complicated, but ultra-important mission of a “collective Alexievich,” without which it is impossible to spiritually cleanse the nation and counteract the moral catastrophe which happened to society. “Conscience; remembrance; humaneness; responsibility” – these are the corner stones of Alexievich’s work, and we need them like air. The Day can claim with absolute sincerity that they are present in its each issue, on each page.