On Thursday Svetlana Alexievich won the Noble Prize in Literature, the first in Belarus’ history. Her books are not sale in Belarus and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko did not call to congratulate her. Meanwhile Russian officials and pundits were quick to slam her receiving the award as propaganda meant to embarrass Russia. Those reactions make you wonder why she bothers them so much.
The answer is what she writes about and how she does it. Alexiyevich is a journalist and writes non-fiction. She is a champion of oral history, going out and collecting thousands of ordinary people’s stories and giving them a voice. She has documented the greatest tragedies of the Soviet Union in their human cost: World War II, the Afghan War, the Chernobyl disaster. The stories are painful.
The english-language translator of Alexievich, Bela Shayevich, puts it this way: “I must tell these stories in the first person, taking on the voices of trauma. It is a lonely task, putting anguish into words while not being able to help the people speaking. ” That is the feeling Alexievich brings across while writing about the Soviet’s Union’s greatest tragedies. It is hardly the effect Soviet Union-idealizing Lukashenko and Putin go for.
When Alexievich’s first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” came out telling the story of the suffering and rape of Soviet women during World War II, she faced her first attacks. Perestroika made the publication possible, but it was slammed by Soviet reviewers for desecrating the memory of those who fought in World War II. Under Stalin and later Brezhnev had built up a cult around World War II that recognizes statistical loss, but emphasized victory and grand ideas to come, and not harm inflicted by the state on individuals. Being a great power is only appealing if the terrible cost is obscured.
More generally Alexievich sees a worrying trend of the Soviet Union’s rhetorical arsenal being grave robbed to suit the needs of its post Soviet authoritarian rulers. “The Stalinist vocabulary has been completely re-instated: traitors, defectors, accomplices of the fascists,” she wrote in an op-ed piece for the German Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “The only difference is that the Stalinists are now Orthodox.”
After it was announced she had received the prize Alexievich sat surrounded by journalists and once again took the opportunity to emphasize Soviet and post-Soviet continuity in tragedy. “We had Afghan veterans, we had Chechen veterans, and now we’ll have Syrian veterans,” she said.
For her unbending position in face of authoritarian regimes Alexievich has had to pay a price more than once. She has been persecuted by Lukashenko’s regime and made to leave Belarus for a decade before retuning to Minsk in 2011.
On Sunday Belarus will have its presidential election. Lukashenko, who has strict control over the media and voting box, is expect to win and continue serving as president as he has done since 1994. Alexievich also spoke to the journalists about the election, saying ‘in our time, it is difficult to be an honest person. There is no need to give in to the compromise that totalitarian regimes always count on.” Those views and her ability to give voice to the anguish caused by totalitarianism is doubtlessly what makes her such a frightening force.
Ian Bateson is a foreign correspondent in Kiev, Ukraine. He has written for Reuters, VICE, Al Jazeera, and die Zeit Online. Follow him on Twitter @ianbateson