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Nobel Winner Alexievich: What She's Written And What She's Said

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich visits the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk in November 2014.
Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich visits the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk in November 2014.

The Swedish Academy announced its decision to award the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature to Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich for her writings as "a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Some of her most notable works have included testimonials from victims of some of the 20th century's most tragic events: Nazi occupation, the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Alexievich's works and outspoken criticism have made her an enemy of the authoritarian government of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. She has been vocal in defense of her genre, interviewing "real people" in an effort to "capture and preserve" reality. Her goal, she says, is "writing a history of human feelings."

What follows are some of Alexievich's writings and remarks in her self-described "search for eternal man."

What She's Written:

Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster (Translated by Keith Gessen)
Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of deceased fireman Vastly Ignatenko: "They dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear, too, because they couldn't get it on him, there wasn't a whole body to put it on. It was all wounds. The last two days in the hospital, I'd lift his arm, and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body had gone away from it. Pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I'd wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff.... My love. They couldn't get a single pair of shoes to fit him. They buried him barefoot."

Ignatenko: "I gave birth to a boy, Andrei. Andreika. My friends tried to stop me. 'You can't have a baby.' And the doctors tried to scare me: 'Your body won't be able to handle it.' Then, later -- later they told me that he'd be missing an arm. His right arm. The instrument showed it. 'Well, so what?' I thought. 'I'll teach him to write with his left hand.' But he came out fine. A beautiful boy. He's in school now, he gets good grades. Now I have someone -- I can live and breathe him. He's the light in my life. He understands everything perfectly."

The Last Witnesses: The Book Of Unchildlike Stories
"On the morning of the twenty-second June, 1941, on one of the streets in Brest, lay a dead little girl with small unplaited pigtails and her doll. Many people remembered this girl. They remembered her forever."

"Some time later our wonderful mother was the first to pass away, then our father. And we sensed, felt straight away, realized that we were the last of our kind…. We were the very last standing by the fateful brink. Today we have to speak…. We are the very last witnesses."

From Zinky Boys
"One day we gave a lift to a young girl. She's been to Minsk to do some food shopping for her mother. She had a big bag with chicken heads sticking out, I remember, and a shopping-net full of bread, which we put in the boot.
"Her mother was waiting for her in the village. Or rather, standing at her garden gate, wailing.
"'Mama!' The little girl ran up to her.
"'Oh, my baby. We've had a letter. Our Andrey in Afghanistan. Ohhh... They're sending him home, like they did Ivan Fedorinov. A little child needs a little grave, isn't that what they say? But my Andrey was as big as an oak and over six foot. 'Be proud of me Mum, I'm in the Paras now,' he wrote to us. Oh, why? ...Why? Can anyone tell me? Why?'"

"What are people talking about at this moment, seven years in to the war? What are they writing about in the press? About our trade deficit and such geopolitical issues as our imperial interests and our southern borders. We do hear whispered rumors about those letters being sent to jerry-built flats in towns and to picturesque peasant cottages in the villages...followed, a little later, by the zinc coffins themselves, too big to fit into those rabbit-hutches they built in the 1960s. (Khrushchevki, they call them.) Mothers, prostrate with grief over the cold metal coffins, are expected to pull themselves together and give speeches in their collectives, even in schools, exhorting other boys to 'do their patriotic duty.' Newspaper reports with any mention of our casualties are ruthlessly censored."

What She's Said:

On Patriotism
Question: We have a ritual. If our writer is printed in the West that means the writer works for the West, that he is not a patriot. Can you say something about your nonpatriotism?

Alexievich: [Russian poet Aleksandr] Pushkin once said that I can dislike my motherland but I don't like it when a foreigner says anything bad about it. I don't think that it is good not to love your motherland, but I don't understand why a human life costs nothing. I don't understand why our people have never lived their own lives, lives for themselves, for homes, for families. In Soviet times we had a cult of asceticism, readiness to serve. All that life as described by Chekhov was humiliated, laughed at, and spat on. I remember when I was a schoolgirl they told us that we have to be ready to give our lives for the motherland. Nobody told us that people must be happy, that life has some other meanings, goals,... at least surely not a goal to die somewhere in Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] or on the roof of the Chornobyl reactor.

On Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka:
"He is a psychopath to me, and all his actions are pathological. But there are two truths there. The truth of the intelligentsia [is that] we have promising ideas and we want an independent and civilized Belarus. And there's the other, more simple truth: the truth of the majority. For people living in the villages, freedom means sausage. Lukashenka understands them. He is a political animal. He does what they want."

Of her book Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History Of A Nuclear Disaster
"Since the Chornobyl [nuclear] disaster we have been living in a different world. In fact, two catastrophes happened at almost the same time -- one of cosmic dimensions in Chornobyl, and the [second the] social catastrophe when the huge socialist mainland went under. The second crash overshadowed the first one because it was of more immediate concern to us and more understandable. What happened in Chornobyl was the first such catastrophe and we are the first to experience it. We are now living with it, something is happening to us: the blood formula and the genetic codes change, familiar landscapes disappear. But to fully comprehend what is happening we would need different human experience and a different inner instrument, which does not exist yet. Our vision and nose do not yet sense the new enemy, one that is coming from the future -- radiation. Even our words and feelings are not adjusted to what had happened and our whole experience of suffering, underlying our history, is of little use to us now. Our measure of horror is the same -- war. Our consciousness does not move deeper than that, it stands still at the threshold. What happened in Chornobyl is much worse than the gulags and the Holocaust."

On the Ukraine crisis (February 2015)
"People learned how to kill, people got used to killing, and they find ways to justify it. I am afraid that it [the crisis] will last for a long time. I would like to believe in the best outcome. But when I see the level of hatred and brutality with which they are killing each other, when I see what a human being can do to another human, how quickly that inferno can spread, you know, there is not much hope. But I still hope."

"It seems to me that it [the conflict in Ukraine] will last a long time. Even if some [truce] document is signed, there is a threat of a guerrilla war there. I am afraid there will be a big war. We are living very close to the conflict zone. The more I talk to Belarusians, the more concerned they are: World War II swept violently across Belarus, a quarter of the population was killed, and generations remember that. People have very grim misgivings. On the other hand, I like the reasonable sense expressed by European politicians, the careful approach to the situation demonstrated by [U.S. President] Barack Obama. It is clear that Europeans do not want to die, are not ready to die; while here we have people who are ready to go there and die for 15,000 [rubles] a month, not even for ideas but for a desire to 'be a real man' for some time -- but in fact to be an animal rather than a man."

On Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko, who is facing trial in Russia (February 2015)

"I always think about the culture we are living in. It is a patriarchal culture; it is not a modern European culture in which a man and a woman are partners. It is some sort of 'machismo.' On the other hand, our women always play some kind of secondary role. So in light of what we have, our upbringing, our mentality, I'd say it is a shame to fight against a woman. A shame! It is a shame to humiliate her, first of all. It is a shame not to feel pity for her. It is a shame not to be a real man. And now the bargaining is under way, the bargaining for Savchenko, her name, her symbol. It is a sort of trump card that politicians are trying, in a very vulgar way, to have."

On post-Soviet society (May 2015)
"Our post-Soviet culture exists in an isolated form. We did not go out into the world, and we did not allow that world inside. Being in that isolated status means we have been unable to establish ties with the young generation; young people belong to that other world. And the isolated state of culture creates the same absolutely closed and isolated books, which are not interesting to either the outer world or to young people."

"The most complicated problem we inherited from the Soviet time is, of course, our mentality. The authorities, the elite, the society failed to create a new state, to generate new ideas, similar to the way our neighbors -- the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, or Poland were able to do; the elites there are doing their work, generating new ideas. One Polish film director told me: 'Your elite have run to pick up leftovers from oligarchs' tables, while our oligarchs want to get invited to our table.' Artists are occupying completely different niches in these two worlds."

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