Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

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A Year in Reading: Mauro Javier Cardenas


A footnote alerted me to the existence of Douglas Porpora’s How Holocausts Happens: The United States in Central America, which I will be rerereading for years. Porpora demonstrates how easy it is for citizens to shirk responsibility for horrendous acts enacted by their government and asks whether the United States became a party to a genocide-like event in Central America (the answer is yes).

Everything that is happening to us in Central America, Óscar Martínez writes in A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America, is tangled up with the United States. In this collection, Martinez, a journalist whose acerbic prose enlivens its dire subjects, covers stories that illuminate why so many Central Americans are willing to risk their lives to cross the border to the United States (and why, instead of calling them illegal or undocumented, we should be calling them refugees).

I’ve been reading Tony Tulathimutte and Karan Mahajan for years, and like any decent fan, I’ve been waiting for the so-called general public to catch on. Tony’s a prose stylist who, because he does not have (to paraphrase from a Latin American saying) hairs on his tongue, gleefully pierces through the varieties of American hypocrisy, as he does in Private Citizens, his first novel, although he isn’t after satire, but after character, which of course could be described as a summation of hypocrisies.

When I think of Karan I think of Saul Bellow, and when I think of Karan’s The Association of Small Bombs I think of the richness of his moment by moment narration, as in, for instance, the sequence of disorientation of Mansoor, who, after surviving a detonation, flees the bomb scene (his friends were dead in any case), runs away from someone who offers to help (what if he’s a kidnapper!), and chides himself for not asking a woman for help instead (safer).

In Seeing Red, Lina Meruane’s propulsive prose doesn’t just pursue her rage against the onset of her blindness, but its undercurrents as well. I’m being devoured by a delicate, carnivorous flower, she says. I’ve come to tell you that I need you, she says, and I don’t want to need you ever again.

A Nobel Prize winner doesn’t need my shoutout, but Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, an oral history of Russia after the end of communism, which contains sections that resemble the ensemble of voices in JR by William Gaddis, is so extraordinary that it made me want to spend the next 10 years recording monologues by my fellow Americans.

Another master of other people’s monologues is Rachel Cusk. In Outline and Transit, the first two novels of her trilogy, a narrator who has been astonished into silence by the loss that comes with adult relationships explores the confounding landscape of being alone/not alone through the monologues of acquaintances, former lovers, people in planes, students. One day literature professors will map out the intricate interconnectedness of her monologues.

I’ll conclude my incomplete 2016 list (where’s The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai? I’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos?) with a random passage from Transit: “I had started to desire power, because what I now realized was that other people had it all along, and that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will.”

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Composed of Living Breath: On Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time’

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It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference:

Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull — no — no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure…and when I think of my calling I do not fear life.

Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke.

Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two?

But what tack to follow when one encounters literature — celebrated literature — that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction?

“We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.”

So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe?

When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.”

This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation).

Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters — dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss — but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny.

This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch.

‘The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.’ — ‘I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.’ — ‘I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.’ — ‘There’s only one way out for us — we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.’ — ‘Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna…’

These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist — and Fulbright hopeful — theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major…

Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering — to the patient reader — insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it.

Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich’s five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject — Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War — results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories.

Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice — their own.

Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens — Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians — at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train.

And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________…

Svetlana Alexievich Is No Useful Idiot

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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.

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