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Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich: 'Kill Ideas, Not People'

  • Robert Coalson

PRAGUE -- Like much of the rest of the world, Svetlana Alexievich is watching the unfolding war in Syria with horror.

"For an artist, this is an unbearable spectacle," says Alexievich of Belarus, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015.

Alexievich, 68, spoke with RFE/RL in the run-up to next week’s expected announcement of the 2016 prize. She won the prize last year for her "polyphonic writings" exploring the traumas of the Soviet Union since World War II. Her writings, the Nobel Committee said, are "a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Now, however, she is particularly alarmed to see Russians cheering their government’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies.

"We have a militaristic culture," she said. "We are people of war. We don't have any other history. Either we were preparing for war or we were fighting one. And so all of this militarism has pushed all of our psychological buttons at once."

Hatred Will Not Save Us: The Words Of Svetlana Alexievich

Russia’s 2014 forcible annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its open support of the separatist campaign in eastern Ukraine, Alexievich said, is understandable because "without Ukraine, Russia doesn’t exist in that imperial sense that it hasn’t cast off."

The author’s own view of "the war with Ukraine" is unambiguous: "I am on Ukraine’s side; it is occupation, pure and simple."

Syria, however, "is somewhere far off and people absolutely don’t understand it," she said.

"It is incomprehensible even to me, a person who has read [Leo] Tolstoy and [Fyodor] Dostoevsky and also [Erich Maria] Remarque and who follows politics and who has been studying Soviet people and their history for 30 years," she said. "Even for me, it is incomprehensible what we are doing there."

"Now in Russia it is terrifying to turn on the television," she said. "Either you see some new navy ship being launched or they are showing a new tank or a new airplane."

She sees a sharp difference between Ukraine and Russia today. Ukraine, she says, "is looking toward the future." Russia, on the contrary, is floundering around in its past.

Historically, Russians have longed for an "overarching idea" that distracts from their poverty and decline and makes them feel like part of something greater than themselves, Alexievich said. The search for such an overarching idea is driving Russia now, and that is dangerous.

"It is very important that the entire world accepts the idea that you need to kill ideas and not people," she said. "I have hope and I always say that hatred will not save us. Only love. Only by talking with one another."

Love is very much on Alexievich's mind these days.

"Now I am working on two books," she said. "One is about love, in which men and women talk about love. And a book about old age and death. When a person is leaving this life, what does he think about? These things interest me now."

Based on interviews conducted by Current Time TV correspondent Timur Olevsky and RFE/RL Belarus Service Director Alexander Lukashuk
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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