The Belarusian investigative journalist has written about Russia's darkest momentsby Sameer Rahim / October 8, 2015 / Leave a comment
Now read about the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize
Who is Svetlana Alexievich?
Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ukraine on 31st May 1948 to a Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father. Her family moved to Belarus, which was then a Soviet republic, when she was a child, and her parents worked as teachers. She studied journalism at the University of Minsk between 1967 and 1972. She published her first book War’s Unwomanly Face in 1985. This was the opening work in a series she entitled “Voices of Utopia,” which investigate the worst tragedies of Russian history in the 20th century. She writes in Russian but describes herself as a Belarusian writer. Unusually for a literature Nobel Prize-winner, she is not a novelist or poet, but an investigative journalist.
Was her Nobel win a surprise?
Alexievich is not a household name in the west. But among those interested in Eastern Europe and Russia, she is a highly respected author. Before last year’s award, Philip Gourevitch blogged in the New Yorker that he hoped she would win the prize. Although she uses techniques borrowed from fiction, her bases her work on hundreds of interviews with witnesses of and participants in the events she describes. In an interview she once said: “Art may lie but document never does.” The Nobel committee praised Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
What should I read?
War’s Unwomanly Face (translated into English 1988). During the Second World War, more than a million women fought for the Soviet Union, as pilots, tank-drivers and snipers as well as nurses and doctors. But their story was written out of official history. In Alexievich’s words: “Men stole the victory from the women.” This work seeks to correct that wrong.
Boys in Zinc (translated into English 1992). The Soviet War in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 to 1989. For this work, Alexievich interviewed more than a hundred officers and soldiers who took part in what she called an “incomprehensible” war. An extract appeared in Granta magazine in 1990, and also in a Russian journal—which led to her receiving death threats. It has become even more relevant in the post-9/11 era, especially with Russia’s current military intervention in Syria.
Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (translated into English 1999). The American writer Keith Gessen re-translated this work into English in 2005. In his introduction to the book, Gessen describes this as a “quasi-Gogolian” work that details the darkly farcical attempts by the authorities to stop the damage spreading after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. This was personal for Alexievich. Although the nuclear site was not in Belarusia, one fifth of the country’s land was contaminated after the meltdown.
What’s the politics behind this award?
While the Nobel Prize is supposed to be neutral, there is often a political subtext to who is given the award and when. (The 2006 prize for Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was an expression of support while he was standing trial for “insulting Turkishness.”) One person likely to be unhappy about Alexievich’s award is Vladimir Putin. She is a fierce critic of the Russian president’s intervention in Ukraine. After returning from Kiev in May this year, she told an interviewer: “Putin is not a politician. Putin is a KGB officer. What he does is provocations, which are usually organised by the KGB.” She also described her own country Belarusia “as a mixture of a mafia-style and Soviet state.”
Is it deserved?
The Nobel Prize is not really about rewarding the “best” writer in the world—however you define that. At its best, it highlights someone whose work is vitally important but who does not have the mainstream attention they deserve. In that sense, the award is fully deserved. Dalkey Archive Press, which published Gessen’s translation of Voices from Chernobyl, will be rightly delighted. Her new book about post-Soviet Russia, Second-Hand Time, will be published next year by Fitzcarraldo Editions.