Recently Svetlana Alexievich landed in Berlin, from where she’s headed to Italy, where another literary prize awaits her. Her staff assure us that the outstanding Belarusian reporter will return home. But will the authorities want to let her in? Paulina Wilk describes the Nobel laureate’s literary and ethical strength.
As an opposition activist, Alexievich had to spend the first decade of this century abroad – in Germany, France, Italy. But when five years ago the audience at the Big Book Festival in Warsaw asked her whether she’d stay in Belarus, she gave them this assurance: “I’ve promised my granddaughter. And besides, you can only describe the difficulties of life in Belarus by living there, at home. There aren’t many people who can do that. I can, so I’m staying.”
Young Belarusians came to the meeting to ask her how they’re supposed to live in captivity; she encouraged them to try at all costs to save themselves, their privacy and their relationships. “I don’t want everybody in Belarus to go to the barricades. I want the dentists to fix people’s teeth, and the seamstresses to sew dresses.”
Alexievich owes her anti-regime status not so much to political activity as to her literary achievements. It’s hard to find a clearer symbol of opposition to the vast suffering that unfreedom and authoritarianism bring in their wake than her reportorial volumes, which comprise a great archive of the Soviet spirit and a collective testimony to the fate of Homo sovieticus in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Now Alexievich is the last leader of the Belarusian opposition who hasn’t been arrested. Brought in for questioning, she refuses to testify. Her faithful readers joke that it’s nothing unusual – Svietochka prefers to listen rather than speak.
And she knows how to listen like nobody else. She opens up souls, uncovers truth hermetically sealed by years of silence, pain and fear. And people talk to her – only her. With her, they’re not afraid. Maybe it’s because of this gentleness, her warm smile, the quiet strength that emanates from her despite her ever clearer physical fragility (she turns 72 this year). Maybe it’s because she just sits down with you at a table covered with an oilcloth, asks questions quietly, and waits. If she has to, she waits a long time. And she goes back: many times, even after a few years have passed, or more than a decade. She checks what’s happened to the person, to their fate, their suffering. She doesn’t take advantage of her interlocutors, but nor does she deceive them; she can’t free them from the pain connected with the truth, or herself from the resentment that in the future she’ll hear from her heroes. She’s been sued by the people interviewed in her books. Those who showed their darkness to her, but who themselves wanted to keep on telling a story with no rough edges, a story of heroism. She says she’s got used to this duality. The truth can be unbearable. She warns against aestheticizing evil, and against faith that art is always moral.
The nectar of human stories
From the individual voices of Soviet people (Alexievich prefers to speak of ‘the Red Man’ rather than Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, because she believes nationality is less important than membership in a single world of convictions and experiences), she has created a unique literary genre: a polyphonic reportage that has the power to blow up myths as stubborn as that of the Great Patriotic War and the heroism of the Soviets.
“I come as a friend, as a neighbour in time. It’s not an interview; we talk about life,” she says of her ‘method’. Alexievich compares her work to that of a bee, to gathering the nectar of human stories. The form she uses is radical: her books contain records of conversations, with no editorial intervention other than selection. The reporter remains present in them, but almost exclusively in the questions.
This way of working and of recording oral history has huge significance for the picture of reality, because she builds a counterweight to the propaganda version of the historical record imposed by the authorities.
In Staffan Julén’s 2017 documentary film Lyubov – Or Love In Russia, you can see how Alexievich’s conversations with the heroes of her next book look. It’s going to be a story about 100 loves. After half a century spent in conversations about war, suicides, totalitarianism, death and trauma, the author wanted to work on another aspect of life. But this book about love will also hurt. “I want to find out what happens when people live without it,” she explains when asked why she chose this subject.
The work has been going on for eight years; there’s no end in sight to the interviews. In the film, Alexievich jokes that she didn’t know what she was getting into, and this volume about love will surely be the hardest.
The scenes of visits to her interviewees look like my mum’s meetings with her friends in the last decade of communist Poland, when time seemed to stand still and everybody had plenty of it: the dregs of tea cool in tall glasses, clocks tick, cigarette smoke slowly drifts up to the ceiling, chocolates sit untouched in crystal bowls. The witnesses to these intimate conversations about dreams, professions, hopes and everyday happiness are tidied kitchens, meticulously laid out table runners, vacuumed sofa sets. Her interviewees receive Alexievich as an important guest, a loved one. But she’s in no hurry. Patience and attentiveness are the most important tools of her work. I imagine that when interrogated by the Belarusian security services, she can remain silent and wait with similar consistency.
The strength of polyphony
Each of her books took years. Born in Ukraine as the daughter of a teacher, Alexievich gained journalism experience in local Belarusian newspapers. The inspiration for her working methods included reading testimonies from the siege of Leningrad written by Ales Adamovich. She took more than a decade to collect the stories for her most important book, The Unwomanly Face of War. In the 1970s, she travelled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union with a tape recorder. In fact, still today she records conversations on cassettes, and a typist friend writes them out. Only after her comments are they put into electronic form.
The stories of Soviet women were left to mature before making their debut. The forbidden book came out only when Gorbachev and perestroika arrived. Earlier, the USSR couldn’t have handled the pressure of what the heroines – veterans of the great war – had to say.
“In Russia everyone was against this book,” Alexievich told me in an interview in 2009. “The women’s stories violated two canons of our imagination about the war: the Soviet and male. The censors asked: ‘Why do you write about menstruation? About how women wore trousers? Why not about battles and heroism?’ And one of the women, asked what was the most terrifying thing about war, answered: ‘You think it’s dying? No – it’s wearing men’s trousers for four years.’”
The book was not only a testament to the courage, the suffering, the pragmatic concerns of wartime, but also of everything that came after: the colossal mourning on the ruins, the emptiness after the collapse of ideals, the need to keep silent. Doctors advised them on how to bear children and forget, as fast as possible.
Alexievich’s later books have included the reminiscences of children – the longest-surviving witnesses to World War II (Last Witnesses); the stories of mothers mourning their sons lost on the front of the Soviet war in Afghanistan (Boys in Zinc); records of the fate of the victims of the Chernobyl economic disaster (Voices From Chernobyl). In this last volume, unusually for her, the reporter focused on Belarus alone, on the untold part of the drama of Chernobyl – the pollution and the diseases that affected the inhabitants of a small country located next to the damaged reactor. This single book also has the exceptional character of a futuristic chronicle: it rang out as a warning of what could become a nuclear war; it was a litany of the miseries and destruction of a potential nuclear conflict, a vision of war with the invisible atomic enemy.
In her newest and thus far most imposing volume, Secondhand Time, Alexievich describes the collapse of the USSR, the disintegration of a world of suddenly obsolete convictions and communist certainties – but also the disappointment that Soviet people caused themselves, being incapable of creating democracy and taking advantage of freedom, which turned out to be difficult, painful and, as one of the heroes of the book says bluntly, were as much use to them “as glasses to a monkey”. Alexievich’s last completed book provides varied, individual perspectives on the political twilight of the Soviet universe. She reminds us that while collective narratives work in the service of regimes and history writ large, they don’t convey the truth about the complexity and multiplicity of human experience. There isn’t one war, one freedom, one perestroika, the reporter reminds us, and she patiently restores to each of her interviewees their place in history, and with it: dignity.
The patient laureate
For years, Alexievich’s reportorial efforts have aroused delight and recognition around the world. They’ve been expressed in translations into more than 20 languages, and numerous literary prizes – in fact, her 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was the first ever awarded to a journalist. This distinction from the Swedish Academy was a gesture of respect for the reporter’s achievements as a chronicler, but also of the outstanding form and the new genre she created. Even President Lukashenko couldn’t ignore such a prestigious prize, and though earlier he didn’t hide his distaste for her, he did officially congratulate her for the prize. But the Nobel didn’t become a shield for Alexievich. Her status in Belarus hasn’t changed: her books are banned, readers smuggle them in from Russia in the trunks of cars.
The patient laureate has sometimes waited years for a single sentence in which an interviewee reveals the key to themselves and their most important truth. Alexievich’s calm and endurance have symbolic significance today, as Belarus waits for freedom.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino