Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian author awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in October, says her generation “missed the chance” to create a country “where people can live decently” following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
"The question was posed: What kind of country should we have? A strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently?" Alexievich, who has chronicled the lives of ordinary people crushed in the tragedies of the 20th century, said in her December 7 Nobel lecture in Stockholm.
"We chose the former -- a strong country," she added. "Once again we are living in an era of power. Russians are fighting Ukrainians -- their brothers. My father is Belarusian, my mother, Ukrainian. That's the way it is for many people. Russian planes are bombing Syria."
Alexievich has used her journalistic skills to explore major tragedies that have impacted Belarus throughout the 20th century, including the Nazi occupation, the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
A vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, she alluded to a distressing return of Soviet-style authoritarianism.
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"A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is second-hand. Sometimes I am not sure that I've finished writing the history of the 'Red' man," Alexievich said, a reference to a person shaped by Communist ideology under the Soviet Union.
Alexievich, 67, was born in Soviet Ukraine to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother and writes in Russian. She has proudly described herself as part of the broader "Russian world" but not that of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and Putin.
Her works have not been published in Belarus since Lukashenka came to power in 1994, though the authoritarian leader congratulated her after she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
'Collage Of Human Voices'
"I have three homes: my Belarusian land, the homeland of my father, where I have lived my whole life; Ukraine, the homeland of my mother, where I was born; and Russia's great culture, without which I cannot imagine myself," Alexievich said. "All are very dear to me. But in this day and age it is difficult to talk about love."
In announcing the prize in October, the Swedish Academy commended her "polyphonic writings" and said that "by means of her extraordinary method -- a carefully composed collage of human voices -- Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era."
The academy's permanent secretary, Sara Danius, said in her introduction prior to Alexievich’s lecture that the author’s work tells "us something about ourselves and the people we may be, or might have been -- the people on the edge of history."
"She tells us about the history of an emotion compacted by one disaster after another; about the suffering in an individual's entire span of feelings; and especially about love -- the desperate love for those we were once close to; the children we lost; the husband or wife; the relatives; the wounded love for all the people who are no longer with us," Danius said.
Alexievich's first novel, War's Unwomanly Face, is based on previously untold stories of women who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II.
It was published in 1985 at the outset of Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev's reign after being barred from publication for years because it highlighted personal tragedies rather than the role of the Communist Party. It has since sold more than 2 million copies.
Alexievich told the audience that the ability to listen is critical to her writing. While French writer Gustave Flaubert "called himself a human pen, I would say that I am a human ear," she said.
"When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think how many novels disappear without a trace.... I love how humans talk; I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion."
Alexievich, whose novels have been published in 19 countries, has periodically lived abroad in a number of European cities but is now based in Minsk.
She is set to receive her Nobel Prize at a December 10 ceremony in Stockholm.