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Svetlana Alexievich's great gift to Russian speakers A literary critic explains what the latest Nobel Prize in literature means for the Russian language

Source: Meduza
Photo: Magnus Hallgren / DN / Scanpix

On October 8, Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Alexievich is a Belarusian investigative journalist and prose writer, writing in Russian. In a special piece for Meduza, literary critic Galina Yuzefovich comments on Alexievich's Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize in literature awarded to the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich is Russian-language culture's first such award since 1987. As with all previous decisions by the Nobel committee, this award to Alexievich has prompted a lively debate about the political motives for choosing her. When it comes to politics, however, things are rather transparent here. First, giving the award to Alexievich—a woman of liberal, anti-Soviet, and anti-revanchist views—unambiguously signals that the world community is not particularly enthusiastic about the imperialist ambitions that have flourished in the former Soviet Union over the past 18 months.

Second, by selecting an author who writes in Russian, but lives outside Russia, the committee acknowledges that the Russian language, despite being a bit lost lately, is still a global, international tongue.

Third and finally, honoring the achievements of a writer in Belarus known to be a strong opponent of Alexander Lukashenko's regime, which she unceasingly criticizes, is paradoxically a form of tacit encouragement to the Lukashenko regime itself. You might say Lukashenko has received a certain symbolic award for displaying a relative tolerance of dissent and a readiness to distance Belarus somewhat from Russia's current political path.

Apart from the political component of this story—which no one will deny is inevitable with every Nobel Prize for literature—there is also the enormous and deeply significant literary element. Though the award is never handed out for purely artistic reasons, there hasn't been an untalented or merely unimportant writer among the Nobel Prize winners for more than twenty years. And this is where the selection of Svetlana Alexievich raises real questions, at least in Russian-speaking society.

The first and biggest question concerns whether opinion journalism (and all Alexievich's books belong precisely to this genre) deserves to be considered high literature, and, if so, should it be accordingly supported, awarded, and promoted. Here, perhaps, it's appropriate to remember the exact language the Nobel selection committee used to explain its decision. Breaking with past habits, the committee's statement was extremely straightforward this time and comprehensible without any expositions on hermeneutics: Alexievich was selected "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time." Translated into plain English, this means Alexievich got the Prize as an author who, for the first time in the framework of the Russian literary tradition, has systematically preserved and recorded the oral history of the Soviet people, albeit with a focus on its more painful aspects.

Instead of discussing what Alexievich hasn't done (she hasn't authored any great novels, she hasn't revolutionized ideas about modern literature, or created her own unique style—and so the list could continue, however one likes), it makes far more sense to focus on the things she has accomplished, if only because the Nobel committee's decision is final and irreversible. 

And it so happens that Alexievich has achieved a great deal, meticulously taking the smallest fragments, isolated stories, and personal testimonies and transforming them into comprehensive and complete presentations of issues that are still central and hotly debated today. For her book "Tsinkovie Mal'chiki" (Zinc-Covered Boys), Alexievich spoke with hundreds of wives, mothers, and girlfriends of soldiers and officers who never returned home from the Afghan war. In "Vremia Sekond Khend" (Second-Hand Time), Alexievich methodically collected and imaginatively reprocessed a huge number of memoirs by people who lived through the 1990s. In her most famous book, "U Voyni Ne Zhenskoe Litso" (War’s Unwomanly Face), she recorded and thus rescued from oblivion the personal stories of Soviet women who survived the Second World War. Put simply, Russian culture has plenty of reasons to thank Svetlana Alexievich.

But even if we ignore the artistic merits and demerits of her prose, that the Nobel Prize in literature went to a Russian-language author is wonderful news for everyone who reads and writes in Russian. Competing for the Nobel Prize in literature is a team sport, and winning this award alongside Alexievich is Russian literature as a whole. 

In recent times, Russian literature has rapidly become marginalized both domestically and particularly in the outside world. This marginalization is bad above all because it has the potential to get worse over time. The fewer people there are who read authors in Russian, the fewer authors there will be writing in Russian, leading to a spiraling of fewer and fewer readers and writers in the language. 

Now, thanks to Svetlana Alexievich and her Nobel Prize, modern Russian literature has for a time returned to the world spotlight, perhaps triggering a new leap in its development. 

And one more thing: Russian literature now boasts a very important, authoritative, world-renown figure with a firm, sensible position on the most pressing issues of the day. It's not just a pleasant thing to have such an arbiter of cultural, political, and social debates—it's also a very useful thing.

In short, there's no reason not to welcome the news of Alexievich's award. Even those who aren't fans of her work should rejoice. However you look at it, we're all winners.

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