Svetlana Alexievich's extraordinary work records Russia's lost voices, says Vanora Bennettby Vanora Bennett / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait (Penguin, £16.99)
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £14.99)
In the autumn, the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her works exploring Soviet and post-Soviet history through the testimonies of thousands of people. The citation from the Stockholm judges praised her “polyphonic writings” as “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
The response from Moscow was vitriolic. “Alexievich is a classic anti-Soviet… a traitor,” wrote one critic in the cultural weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta; the author Zakhar Prilepin wrote in Izvestiya that Alexievich had been given the Nobel for opposing the Kremlin and was “not a writer”; President Vladimir Putin kept his counsel. The reaction was not surprising. Out of the five Russian-language writers to have won the Nobel Prize for literature, four have been given to dissidents—Ivan Bunin (1933), Boris Pasternak (1958), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970) and Joseph Brodsky (1987). Like those authors, one of Alexievich’s major themes is the abuse of power. Even though she writes in Russian, she is not an insider on the Moscow literary scene, or even “properly” Russian—her father is Belarusian, her mother Ukrainian. As the conflict in Ukraine rumbles on, relations between Russia and the west are at a low ebb. It should be no surprise that Moscow sees Alexievich’s Nobel as a slap in the face.
Seen from the west, however, things looked less clear-cut. Alexievich was not a household name when the announcement was made, even if she had won the United States’ National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005 and the French Prix Médicis in 2013. When she won there was a certain amount of bewilderment, even among London pundits who follow Russia. During the media’s search for experts, one shamefaced Facebook conversation among authors, journalists and academics went like this: “‘Admit it you hadn’t heard of her’; ‘Zero clue who she was up until this morning. (This is a safe space, right?)’; ‘I suspect I’m not the only person who had to turn down a request to write a piece on her on grounds of total ignorance.’”