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Nobel Winner Alexievich Pessimistic On Political Change In Post-Soviet Space

Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich does not expect political change soon in Belarus, Russia, or other post-Soviet states.
Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich does not expect political change soon in Belarus, Russia, or other post-Soviet states.

WASHINGTON -- Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian author awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last year, says the prospects of steering Belarus and neighboring Russia away from authoritarianism in the near future remain dim but urged those who desire political change to persevere.

Alexievich told an audience in Washington on June 17 that those in her generation who had hoped for a democratic future in the post-Soviet world "suffered a defeat" in the 1990s and failed to prevent the ascendance of strongman leaders with a Soviet mind-set.

"The degree of faith that people had in the 1990s, their eyes shining -- I don't think we'll see that in our area of the world again soon," she said at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Alexievich, 68, has deployed her journalistic skills to explore major tragedies that impacted Belarus throughout the 20th century, including the Nazi occupation, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Swedish Academy awarding the Nobel Prize praised her "polyphonic writings" and described her work as "a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Alexievich, who writes in Russian, has been a tenacious critic of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Her most recent book, Second-Hand Time, examines the post-Soviet mentality two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She said at the June 17 event that Putin displays a clear Soviet mentality and is relying on "hysteria" and a "fortress" mentality to shore up his rule.

The social and economic upheaval following the Soviet collapse left people feeling "deceived and robbed, and, of course, this is another aspect of Putinism, which found a substitute for this aggressive energy that has accumulated in society," Alexievich said.

Putin "pumped this energy back to this familiar area, namely: 'We are great. They humiliate us. We are a besieged fortress surrounded by enemies," she said.

Alexievich said she saw herself as an artist rather than a political figure, but she was prepared to take to the streets if she is needed there."It would be very hard for me to urge other people to do so," however, she said.

"I'm not a fan of revolutions, because we have the memory of revolution in our genes. What is revolution? In general it’s blood and death," she said.

Alexievich said she did not see any reason to expect either Putin or Lukashenka to be unseated anytime soon, but "this is no reason to abandon our cause and do nothing."

She told of a demonstration she attended in Belarus at which she was approached by a police officer who helped break up the rally.

"He said: 'You know, I understand everything. I read your books...and I agree with you completely. But as long as there's 1,000 of you, I’m going to disperse you. When there's a half-million of you, I'll be with you,'" Alexievich recalled.

Responding to a question about political trends in the United States, Alexievich appealed to American voters to refrain from voting for the “new political personality” -- an apparent reference to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Trump, a wealthy businessman and reality TV star, has stirred controversy on a range of policy fronts, including with his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. His presumptive Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has accused him of a fondness for authoritarian leaders, including Putin, who has spoken positively of Trump.

"Your new political personality surprises us," Alexievich said, eliciting laughter from the audience. "Belarus is in the situation where at first we placed our hopes in Russia, and we got the Putin that we have now. We're placing our hopes in America. Please don't bring us any surprises."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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