Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich[1] (born 31 May 1948) is a Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian who writes in Russian. She was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time".[2][3][4][5] She is the first writer from Belarus to receive the award.[6][7]

Born in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislav (since 1962 Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother,[8] Svetlana Alexievich grew up in Belarus. After finishing school she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers before graduating from Belarusian State University (1972) and becoming a correspondent for the literary magazine Nyoman in Minsk (1976).[9]

During her career in journalism, Alexievich specialised in crafting narratives based on witness testimonies. In the process, she wrote artfully constructed oral histories[10] of several dramatic events in Soviet history: the Second World War,[11] the Afghan War,[12] the fall of the Soviet Union,[11] and the Chernobyl disaster.[11][13]

In 1989 Alexievich's book Zinky Boy, about the fallen soldiers who had returned in zinc coffins from the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 – 1985, was the subject of controversy and she was accused of "defamation" and "desecration of the soldiers’ honor". Alexievich was tried a number of times between 1992 and 1996. After political persecution by the Lukashenko administration,[14] she left Belarus in 2000.[15] The International Cities of Refuge Network offered her sanctuary and during the following decade she lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin. In 2011, Alexievich moved back to Minsk.[16][17]

Alexievich's books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual through carefully constructed collages of interviews.[18] According to Russian writer and critic Dmitry Bykov, her books owe much to the ideas of Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses.[19] Belarusian poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew called Adamovich "her literary godfather". He also named the documentary novel I'm From Fire Village (Belarusian: Я з вогненнай вёскі) by Ales Adamovich, Janka Bryl and Uladzimir Kalesnik, about the villages burned by the German troops during the occupation of Belarus, as the main single book that has influenced Alexievich's attitude to literature.[20] Alexievich has confirmed the influence of Adamovich and Belarusian writer Vasil Bykaŭ, among others.[21] She regards Varlam Shalamov as the best writer of the 20th century.[22]

Her most notable works in English translation include a collection of first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War)[23] and an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl).[24] Alexievich describes the theme of her works this way:

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet–Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.[25]

Her first book, War's Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies.[23] The book was finished in 1983 and published (in short edition) in Oktyabr, a Soviet monthly literary magazine, in February 1984.[26] In 1985, the book was published by several publishers, and the number of printed copies reached 2,000,000 in the next five years.[27] This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before.[23] Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, describes personal memories of children during wartime. The war seen through women's and children's eyes revealed a new world of feelings.[28] In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted and completed suicides due to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order surely and the newly interpreted history.[29]

Her books were not published by Belarusian state-owned publishing houses after 1993, while private publishers in Belarus have only published two of her books: Chernobyl Prayer in 1999 and Second-hand Time in 2013, both translated into Belarusian.[30] As a result, Alexievich has been better known in the rest of world than in Belarus.[31]

She has been described as the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.[32] She herself rejects the notion that she is a journalist, and, in fact, Alexievich’s chosen genre is sometimes called "documentary literature": an artistic rendering of real events, with a degree of poetic license.[10] In her own words:

I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.

26 October 2019 Alexievich was elected chairman of the Belarusian PEN Center.[33]

During the 2020 Belarusian protests Alexievich became a member of the Coordination Council of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.[34]

On 20 August, Alexander Konyuk, the Prosecutor-General of Belarus, initiated criminal proceedings against the members of the Coordination Council under Article 361 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, on the grounds of attempting to seize state power and harming national security.[35][36]

On 26 August, Alexievich was questioned by Belarusian authorities about her involvement in the council.[37]

On 9 September 2020, Alexievich alerted the press that "men in black masks" were trying to enter her apartment in central Minsk. "I have no friends and companions left in the Coordinating Council. All are in prison or have been forcibly sent into exile," she wrote in a statement. "First they kidnapped the country; now it's the turn of the best among us. But hundreds more will replace those who have been torn from our ranks. It is not the Coordinating Council that has rebelled. It is the country."[38] Diplomats from Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden began to keep a round-the-clock watch on Alexievich's home to prevent her abduction by security services.[39][40]

On 28 September 2020, Alexievich left Belarus for Germany, promising to return depending on political conditions in Belarus. She was the last member of the Coordination Council who was not in exile or under arrest prior to her departure.[41]

Alexievich is a member of the advisory committee of the Lettre Ulysses Award. She will give the inaugeral Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Lecture at the British Library on 9 October 2019.[59] The lecture is an international platform to amplify the voices of women journalists and human rights defenders working in war and conflict zones.