1. “Our life here is just so much absurdity.” – Svetlana Alexievich
When Svetlana Alexievich and I sat down to speak in Kyiv earlier this year, I felt I’d seen this woman — all five-foot-nothing of her — before. Every day, there she is: solid as an axe handle, unyielding as a work of monumentalist sculpture. It was someone like this who tutored me in the bloodsport of Saturday morning marketing among Kyiv’s senior set. Aggression, but no violence, she might counsel. There’s one butcher we trust. If you plan to get in on his veal, show up early and show resolve. Lean in, with elbows.
I’ve also seen someone like this at my church in her tightly wrapped fleur-de-lis headscarf, weeping in front of the icon of Our Lady of Pirogoscha. The image attends silently to her supplications concerning her family — the husband drinking again and the son-in-law conscripted, sent east to the Front. She prays long and turns to leave, her hands hang limp at her sides. What solace will the semper virgine bring?
On this day, though, I know her name: she’s Svetlana Alexievich, of Minsk, Belarus, and she is the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature. A cat-eyed neighborhood sergeant-at-arms, with her purposeful walk and her pricey Italian boots — as incongruous as they are pristine, what with the rain we’ve been having, the April dark, and the grimy adventure of negotiating sidewalks in post-Soviet cities.
2.“Russian books are not read in decent homes.” – Ivan Turgenev
Alexievich is a writer whose métier is surpassed perhaps only by her method in the level of righteous alarm it invokes among the Russian literati. The child of a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father, Svetlana is not ethnically Russian; raised in the political realities of Russification, of Sovietification, she has always written in the dominant language of the region. This, in light of the subject matter she addresses, has resulted in a somewhat awkward recognition of her contribution to the fabled Russkiy Mir of refined culture. Russian writers from across the talent spectrum have chimed in to declare her “not one of us.” Until very recently, her books were — if not banned — reserved from sale in her home country. A 2005 National Book Critics Circle win for Voices from Chernobyl and the 2013 French Prix Médicis Essai for Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets did little to assuage the miffed nativism of local critics, but it was the awarding of the Nobel Prize that effectively flipped the datestamp on the Russian critical response back to 1938, or 1953, or 1970.
Despite a set of remarkably brief and sanitized media reports about Nobel’s recognition of the velik i magooch russkiy yazyk (the grand and mighty Russian language), the award resulted in a more sustained series of denunciations of her work and person from major state-sponsored media. In language that would not feel out of place in a pulp fiction spy novel, Oleg Pukhnavtsev, writing for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, summed up the attitude well: “Alexievich is a classic anti-Soviet…a traitor.”
Still other publications invoked obscure World War II metaphors to underscore Alexievich’s bad behavior, even calling on long-time fellow traveler and Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa, who checked in from Rome, publishing a scathing condemnation in KULTURA, “the newspaper of Eurasian Russia’s Spiritual, Intellectual Realm:” “Ms. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for statements that have no basis in reality. The award is a manipulation — an attack on Russia and Putin. A political act that has nothing to do with literature.” Lesser critics lifted the exact wording from reports published in 1970 to denounce Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel, hinting at gross fabrications of sources and citations.
I have read five of Alexievich’s books. The revelations of criminality, brutality, bestiality, and degeneracy offered up by “ordinary people” and recorded by Alexievich are not for the squeamish, and the onslaught beggars credulity.
In the production of a book, Alexievich interviews up to 500 people, of which perhaps a quarter of the recorded remarks — whole or in part — will make it into the published volume. When she does identify the source of a citation, she often does so with a minimum of information — a job title, military rank, or family relationship. One may conclude, reasonably, that she is, strictly speaking, operating outside the realm of peer review and libel. Ranging from subtle to outright, condemnations of the Soviet regime out of the mouths of her subjects in her reporting are not infrequent, and are suspiciously pitch-perfect. Workshopped diatribes whose ear for Soviet stereotype would make a Ronald Reagan speechwriter blush. In Voices From Chernobyl, a widow describes in stoic terms her husband’s life and death as a Chernobyl “evacuator” (hazard containment and salvage). Note the critique, and the Russian “answer to everything.”
I got one thing out of him: ‘It’s the same there as it is here’…they’d serve the ordinary workers noodles and canned foods on the first floor…and the bosses and generals would be served fruit, red wine, mineral water on the second. Up there they have clean tablecloths, and a dosimeter for every man…ordinary workers didn’t get a single dosimeter for a whole brigade.
Another time the nurse from the nearby clinic comes, she just stands in the hallway and refuses to come in.‘Oh, I can’t!’ she says. And I can? I can do anything. What can I think of? How can I save him? He’s yelling, he’s in pain, all day he’s yelling. Finally, I found a way: I filled a syringe with vodka and put that in him. He’d turn off…
3. “Forget the past, lose an eye. Dwell on the past, lose both.” – Russian proverb
Alexievich and I met several times over the last year and spoke about her work. Perhaps the Russian critics aren’t off — she has axes to grind. Prize money to earn. She offers a wealth of biographical detail — born after the War into the family of a Soviet Army officer; not unsympathetic to the merits of the Soviet System; proudly listed among the ranks of those educated to engineer the Evil Empire, to heal it, to keep its books.
Viewed from book-distance, Alexievich could easily have continued to satisfy my expectations of the Nobel laureate, viz: political ideologue posing as writer publishing in any language as long as it is not English. Had time and fate not conspired to allow me to meet her in person, she also could have easily persisted as the very template of the honorable Soviet subject betrayed by history. The former stolnik of the regime now conscripted via American political manipulations into the role of the fitfully content democrat, one reconciled provisionally to the advantages of democracy that accompany the advent of discretionary income.
In the end, it is the 24 years that I have lived in the post-Soviet space that helps to convince me of Alexievich’s veracity. Those 24 years combined with the hours spent with her books, and now, the hours spent in her presence. This is no drone. No fictional cipher. No useful idiot. No soulless minion or Cold War rhetoric made flesh. The surest evidence is the body of work she has assembled and spread across seven books written over these last thirty years. Books that give voice to the historically voiceless. She has traveled across a territory with the land surface of the planet Mars, on trips that have resulted in the preservation of thousands of first-person testimonies of human history at its most brutal. Hardly an effort born of servility, ideology, or deceit.
I ask her about repentance — a word that repeats throughout the books that she describes as her “History of Red Civilization.” “Who needs to repent?” I ask. “And to whom?”
You know, I was a part of that. Invested in that superstition of the time and place, that colossal error, and it’s a very difficult thing to free yourself of. That’s why people were so ready to talk to me. I didn’t make myself out to be somebody with answers about what had gone wrong or what was coming next. We had no idea how it could all fall apart so quickly, or how quickly it would all come back to life. The idea itself, of real, substantive equality, is eternal. It’s beautiful. But somehow, in the Russian application of it, it always ends in a river of blood. So they talk to me.
I’d been a believer in it, just the same as they were. But I don’t know if I’d call what we’re doing ‘repentance.’ It’s more like reconsideration. We’re just talking to understand ourselves. American oversight played a big role in Germany coming to an understanding of its past, and we didn’t have that advantage. Didn’t have what was needed…the moral strength, the understanding, the intellectual elite, so many things. We’ve had to come to grips with our history as a people on our own. And so I set out to write that ‘why.’ That history of Red Civilization — Russian style.
Alexievich offers another word to describe herself:
I’m an accomplice. When glasnost came I was with everybody else running around the square shouting ‘Freedom! Freedom!,’ even if we didn’t have any idea what that meant. And when freedom showed up, and Yeltsin quickly transformed into Tsar Boris, and the oligarchs into his boyars, we understood soon enough that all we really wanted was a better life. I was part of that — past and present. And because of that disconnect, that ‘freedom’ looked shockingly similar to what we were trying to get rid of, that’s what interested me.
Not more utopia. We’d had that. We had books filled with lofty thoughts of literary types and what they had to say about the big questions of freedom and dignity. But I wanted to know what were the little people thinking. What was down in the shit? The dust. What did they want? Did they manage to get it? And the more I talked to them, the more frightening it became. The more pitiable. And it begins to occur to me at some point that Shalamov [Varlam Shalamov was a Russian writer whose work focuses on the Gulag] was on the right track in Kolyma Tales when he said that they were all poisoned by the North. That he came out of the camp as much victim as executioner. But the rest of us, the ones who made it work, we weren’t ready to make that distinction. To say who was who. We still aren’t.
4. “In Russian lit, someone is always required to suffer: the characters or the reader.” – Russian joke
In a 2009 report, the International Federation of Journalists reported that in the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, 313 Russian journalists had disappeared or been killed in suspicious circumstances — 124 of those in murders linked irrefutably to their investigative work. Another phrase that describes Alexievich: exceptio probat regulam. She is one journalist who wasn’t shot, despite publishing three decades’ worth of indictment of the Soviet regime.
She spent the better part of the 2000s living away from Belarus in Western Europe, an existence made possible by a string of writing fellowships and the occasional prize money. But Svetlana Alexievich’s heart was bent on home. “Apart from my source, I couldn’t write. I had to go back.”
Now that she has, and despite Belarus’s retrograde take on freedom of expression, she does not worry about personal repression.
It’s funny in an odd way, you know. These great, powerful, dominating men who are so tender when you criticize them. He’s in a bit of a spot now, Lukashenko, [Belarus’s president since 1994]; he’s started cozying up to the European Union now with the money that used to come in from Moscow being spent on the war in Ukraine. So, yes, I’m still persona non grata, but he can’t pretend I don’t exist, and the books, my books, are being published and shipped in from Russia. They’re outrageously expensive, but there’s been a real raising of consciousness. People are learning who they are. What they’ve come through. When they recognize me on the street, they just come straight up for a hug. Maybe a photo. They’re worn down by living in this degraded system. They feel their complaint has been heard.
If Flaubert was ‘a man of the quill,’ then perhaps I am ‘a woman of the ear.’ My interviews aren’t interviews as such. Just talks. We just talk and my role is to listen. Listening was difficult at first because of the cognitive dissonance I experienced. All that we’d believed in.
I’ve talked about my father before. He was a beautiful man. He lived life well, and until the day he died he was a Communist. He believed in that idea, real justice, particularly for those who can’t defend themselves. But I had just come back from Afghanistan, and I ran up to him and I said, ‘Papa, we’re murdering them. That’s not what you stand for.’ He never questioned that his faith was well-placed.
Communists come in all sizes. And the idea itself — if the idea is about justice — isn’t going anywhere. I argued with university students in France and they insist that our generation got it all wrong when it followed Lenin instead of Trotsky. It’s astounding, but they’re reading Trotsky and insisting they’re not going to make the same mistake as we did. I’d been traveling to Siberia — Omsk, Tomsk — for Secondhand Time and if you think Marxism is gone out of fashion except in American universities, think again. Dostoevsky said you’ll always find these inquiring young men gathering at the watering hole dreaming about revolution, about how to make the world better. In Russia, now, their motivation is homegrown. It’s Putin. These students read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky — you can hardly believe it — and they’re putting the current regime to the test.
You know, there was all this noise about how surprised the West is that Putin has turned into this retrograde leader. That we couldn’t predict what he’d turn into today. Nonsense. Anyone who was paying attention from the first months after he came to power knew what was coming. Suddenly, the TV was filled with all those films again about the heroic NKVD and the KGB, and about the partisans, and the songs about the ‘core principals.’ All those books about Stalin. One after the other, about the women he loved, and the cigarettes he smoked, all that personal interest stuff. There were very public, State-led efforts to clear Beria’s name, turn him into some sort of social reformer. And now they’re opening a new Stalin museum and over in Perm they fired the old staff at the ‘Victims of the Gulag Museum’ and it’s been renamed ‘Workers of the Gulag Museum.’
Republicans, democrats, communists. Good ones and not-so-good. I just know I can’t fight that fight any longer. And feel no prerogative to convince anyone that there can be such a thing as a good and decent Communist. There were, in their own right. They worked for the public good. Compare them with what we’ve got going now. You have to think for yourself.
I also cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them, to listen to them about love. But this is hard for us. It’s not how our culture is built. We don’t connect to the concept of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ so easily. And the result is that every story about love — about when you first met, when you looked into each other’s eyes — inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture. Not defined by a Protestant ethic — make a family and raise a family. But I will finish this book about love, though it might be not what you expect.
5. “Along with the whole world, I revere Russia humane and splendid…but I have no love for the Russia of Beria, Stalin, and Putin…” – Svetlana Alexievich
We sit in the great hall of what was once the Shoemakers’ Union Cultural Center. The wind is howling outside, a spring front coming through. In two weeks in Kyiv we will be commemorating 30 years since Chernobyl exploded and poisoned the land. And across from me sits this woman with a Nobel Prize and who wrote about the disaster. But her answers to the questions raised have been long, conditional, occasionally contradictory, enigmatic, riddling. As if every voice she’s heard would now say its part.
I want to go home. Watch Friends or anything that isn’t about murder, betrayal, brutality, or in Russian. Those immaculate leather boots. I cannot unsee her as the grandma who taught me to stand my ground in the market. The one who shoos the drunks out of the lobby of my building. Or those I saw on Maidan, soup pots defiantly on their heads after the president issued his emergency order to outlaw the public wearing of helmets, and threatened to arrest anyone caught wearing one.
This seemingly familiar woman who speaks with a tiny, delightful lateral lisp that turns the word oskarblennie (insult) into birch leaves rattling in a spring breeze. In a corner of the world as glamour-obsessed as Ukraine, she doesn’t stand out. Yet she is ready to probe the cancer of the world.
The Nobel Committee, prone to miscalculation, overstatement, and the conflation of literature with something else, insists that Svetlana Alexievich has unveiled a new genre of serious literature — a claim that Studs Terkel could have summarily dismantled. It is fair to say, however, that Alexievich has used her time of grace to produce a body of work that resembles little else in the literary firmament. A body of work in which — to the limits that her critics are correct — she does, indeed, write very little. But in doing so, she has managed to unleash the power of the collective memoir. Her authorial pose resembles something far more ancient, and far less drama-laden than the usual soviet dissident fare. As a writer she is very nearly invisible.
Invisible, but no longer unknown.
In a global political environment oriented less and less toward seeking elegant solutions to emerging political complexities, the work of Svetlana Alexievich serves as worthy admonition of the real danger of leaders who stop listening to their people. But talk to her about her importance as a public intellectual and she scoffs. She’s not interested in becoming the high counselor, seeking consensus, or striving to convince. She is content just to listen, and then to write down what she hears, that it not be lost.
Image Credit: Aleksandr Kupnyi.