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.’”
One reason for this is that it has been hard to find her work. In her home country of Belarus, to which she returned in 2013, her books were once smuggled in from Russia. The five-volume Russian-language set is hard to get; English translations have been done piecemeal by small presses. But now a coherent English-language canon is coming together. In April, Penguin brought out a new translation by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait of Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future, Alexievich’s account of life near the nuclear power station written after the 1986 disaster. Penguin will also have new translations this October of Boys in Zinc (about the Soviet war in Afghanistan) and War’s Unwomanly Face (Alexievich’s first book, on women in the Second World War) and finally—appearing for the first time in English—Last Witnesses (on the legacy of the Second World War), due in September 2017. Meanwhile, her most recent work, Second-Hand Time—a searing examination of ordinary lives from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the chaotic 1990s and the rise of Putin—was published in May with Fitzcarraldo Editions, in a translation by Bela Shayevich.
Alexievich doesn’t naturally seek attention—even when she writes her authorial voice is hushed. She grew up in a village with few men (she cites the women’s stories she heard as a model for her work). Her parents were schoolteachers; her father also served in the Red Army, and she could never persuade him from his Communist beliefs. Alexievich was of the Perestroika generation, one of the kitchen liberals—she now calls them “romantics”—who longed for the Soviet Union’s demise and afterwards wondered what was left. After her sister died of cancer, as some Belarusians did after Chernobyl, she raised her sister’s child.
Alexievich’s extraordinary retellings of true Soviet stories are not for the squeamish. At the beginning of Second-Hand Time, she sets the stage: “People who have come out of socialism… have a special relationship with death. The stories people tell me are full of jarring terms: ‘shoot,’ ‘execute,’ ‘liquidate.’” We hear about a woman watching her firefighter husband die of radiation sickness after Chernobyl, a Romeo and Juliet couple divided for years by ethnic bloodshed and a young man listening in horror to his fiancée’s grandfather boasting about the killings he carried out under Stalin. She takes you close to stories you might be more comfortable never knowing.
Here is the future grandfather-in-law, an eminent retired officer: “You can’t eat beforehand… I couldn’t… I was always thirsty. Water! Water! Just like when you’re hung over… Shit…!!! Toward the end of our shifts, they would bring us two buckets: a bucket of vodka and a bucket of cologne. They’d bring the vodka in after the shift was over, not before… We’d wash ourselves with cologne from the waist up. Blood is pungent, it’s a special kind of smell… a little like the smell of semen… I had a German Shepherd and it wouldn’t go near me after work. Shit…!!! What are you sitting there all silent for? You’re still green, you haven’t seen anything yet… My wife didn’t know anything about what I did. It was top secret, important work—that’s all she knew. I married for love.”
Other images are equally disturbing. There is obsessive talk of salami—the Soviet measure of plenty—recalled in today’s anxiety over whether you are better off in a capitalist society where there are 100 varieties rather than just one. The present is not necessarily less frightening than the past. Under Stalin imprisonment hollowed out your personality. Nowadays you have the brutality of gangster capitalism. Alexievich’s people talk about the profit others make from your pain: the men who steal your flat and leave you to starve in the street, or the jaded oligarchs said to go in for “death tourism”—hunting hobos for a thrill. When it all becomes unbearable, there’s suicide. Second-Hand Time is an encyclopedia of suicides.
Love is a fragile hope. “There was a time when I thought love was greater than death,” says one mother. She no longer believes this since her 13-year-old son, a poet, killed himself. For the lucky ones, love turns out to be greater than death. A man who returns from the Gulag answers the question, “How did you make it out of there?” by saying, “my parents loved me a lot when I was little.” For his new wife, this shows the triumph of love: “We’re saved by the amount of love we get, it’s our safety net. Yes, only love can save us. Love is a vitamin that humans can’t live without—the blood curdles, the heart stops.”
Still, love has to struggle endlessly with death, the glamour of war and the urge to heroism—often the soldiers who were called on to sacrifice themselves for the state. “At heart, we’re built for war. We’ve never known anything else—hence our wartime psychology,” as Alexievich puts it. Or, as one angry son returning from war comments about his father: “Oh! How Papa dreamed of throwing us under a tank. He wanted us to hurry up and grow up so we could volunteer to fight in a war. He needed us to be heroes! … Papa belonged to the Idea. He wasn’t really a human.”
Through such painful individual stories, you can glimpse bigger historical currents. For instance, you come to understand how the Soviet authorities’ slapdash response to Chernobyl led to a new questioning of the regime and, five years later, to its collapse. For one engineer at a nearby factory, the first clue was the alarm of visiting German experts. The Germans demanded doctors and radiation meters.
“And how did we view their behaviour? Oh, just look at those Germans, they’re hysterical! What clowns! Look at our men, they’re real men! That’s Russians for you! Daredevils! Battling the reactor! Not afraid for their own skin! (Becomes pensive). But that is a kind of barbarism too, the lack of a sense of self-preservation. We always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. ‘We will show what Soviet heroism is!’ but then what about me? I don’t want to die either. I’m frightened. After Chernobyl, that happened automatically. We began learning to say ‘I’.”
Alexievich’s books, with their high moral purpose, are in a different universe from the playful post-modern work of Russian authors such as Victor Pelevin or Boris Akunin’s witty detective stories that lifted Russian publishing out of the doldrums after the Soviet collapse. Her writing harks back to an older, more serious tradition of truth-tellers and defenders of the powerless. “I am drawn to that small space called a human being… a single individual. In reality, that is where everything happens.” She cites as an influence the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, whose collective memoir of the 1941-44 siege of Leningrad was built on multiple testimonies from ordinary people. She quotes him as believing “that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is.”
At first, her interviews seem like a documentary stream of reality. This is why, while the Slavic world winced at a “non-writer” getting the Nobel Prize, the reaction in the west was excitement that the prize had gone to a non-fiction writer. Alexievich praised the flexibility of the Stockholm judges for recognising that writing changes depending on the needs of readers. Speaking on the Today programme, she said: “The 20th century, which might be called the barbarian century, has undermined our trust in fiction because the reality proved much more unexpected, horrifying and fantastic than fiction. And that is why real life, the genuine experience, is more in demand today.”
Her stories might not be fiction but the vignettes are highly wrought. She strips away the journalist’s who, what, where, why, when. Often the speaker has no name and no description. There’s just a voice. In her Nobel address, she called her work “novels in voices.”
“Alexievich’s high moral purpose is in a different universe from the playful post-modernism of many current Russian authors”
Her interviews go on for hours. She goes back for more. She transcribes. She discards three-quarters of her material. She polishes. She takes pains to convey the cadence of a person’s words. It shows. The distilled work goes deep into the subject. She is after the ephemeral; the emotion behind written history; the “history of the soul.” Here, she believes, is where the truth lies.
That these are distillations becomes even clearer when you look at the “poetic” chapter titles taken from her subjects’ words—“On the beauty of dictatorship and the mystery of butterflies crushed against the pavement”; or “Monologue on Cartesian philosophy and on eating a radioactive sandwich with someone so as not to be ashamed.”
It also becomes clear that the vignettes are grouped deliberately. One theme is the need for repentance—the insight of Varlam Shalamov, whom she calls the greatest writer of the 20th century. He defiantly memorialised his 17 years in the Gulag in Kolyma Tales, writing both about guards destroying prisoners, and prisoners destroying each other. “We were all permanently poisoned by the north, and we knew it,” he realised. Those who came out of the camps would always be both victims and culprits. Yet Second-Hand Time is full of victims who won’t see how their actions have damaged others. The colleague who betrayed an interviewee’s uncle, then after his return from the camps, went on sitting next to him in the office, never apologised.
Is this why Russians find it so hard to leave their past behind, wonders the man who’s listened to the confession of his future grandfather-in-law. “Don’t make things up about what our people are like, saying that Russians are so good at heart,” he says bitterly. “No one is prepared to repent. It’s hard… and really people only ever feel sorry for themselves.” Soon after this interview he moved to Canada.
Today many young people in Russia are nostalgic for Stalin and his lost “great country.” It saddens Alexievich that she and they haven’t learned from history. “When you ask the young ‘what do you mean by great?’ nobody mentions the dignity or well-being of the people, just ‘we want everybody to be afraid of us’.”
She is far from being a political ideologue masquerading as an artist, as alleged by Moscow. She has explicitly stated in the New Yorker that “revolutions are dangerous, barricades are… intellectual traps. I needed to free myself of this.” Instead she represents the little man tragically ignored in the Red utopia.
You feel her struggle. How difficult to be a truth-seeker when there is no agreed version of the truth? Is polyphony just what you get when society breaks down—when everyone talks but no one listens?
Yet her authorial presence offers hope. Although she mostly effaces herself from her books—she even left out her own family’s Chernobyl story—you can sense her fellow-feeling. Towards the end of Second-Hand Time is the story of a woman who has suffered for love but not been believed. “I believe you!” says Alexievich and they weep together. Something of the author is reflected in her final sketch of a 60-year-old “Everywoman” who doesn’t have much in life, but still has hope. This woman wants someone to talk to, “about other things… About how I don’t feel like getting old. I have no desire to get old at all. It’ll be too bad when it comes time to die. Have you seen my lilacs? I go out at night to look at them—they glow. I’ll just stand there admiring them. Here, let me cut you a bouquet.”
The next book Svetlana Alexievich is working on is about love. This is not, she told me at an event in the UK, because she believes Communism is dead—she thinks its agony will last a lot longer—but simply because she has said everything she has to say about the Red empire and doesn’t want to be “just a chronicler of Putin’s madness.” She wants to explore whether Russians can do without the “super-ideas” that underpinned the Soviet past. “Besides, love, as everyone knows from their own experience, is extremely interesting. It may be the most interesting thing that happens to us.”