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The ‘little wickednesses and slavish conventions around us’ Meduza talks to Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich

Source: Meduza
Photo: Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

The winner of 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, is the author of popular oral history books about the Chechen war, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the experiences of Soviet women during the Second World War. While not well known in Russia, Alexievich’s works have been translated into several languages and widely published in Europe. After living in Europe for a long period of time, Ms. Alexievich returned to Belarus, where she is currently writing a new book. In an exclusive interview with Meduza, Katerina Gordeeva asks the writer about the subject of her new novel, how Europeans welcome refugees, and why an author should let her subjects speak for themselves.

Do you identify as a Soviet, Belarusian, Russian, or European writer?

As someone who writes in Russian but who was born in Ukraine into a Belarusian-Ukrainian family and then moved to Belarus soon afterwards, my fate has been rather uncommon. In my biography, as well as in my works, the European identity prevails. It so happened that I have spent more than twelve years outside of Belarus. I lived in Europe: in Italy, Germany, France, and in Sweden. I returned to Minsk two years ago.

Is "Voices From Chernobyl" still your best-selling book? [More than 4 million copies were published in the West.]

Vremia Sekond Khend (Second-Hand Time) currently generates the most interest.

And I thought that the 1990s represent only a local interest for those readers who live in post-Soviet countries.

Oh, no, it's a global thing: remembering and trying to understand the 1990s, as if trying to relive that era again. Europe also was entirely different during that decade; I already lived there in the 1990s. As I remember, we got stuck with my friend in the middle of nowhere in Germany, and we could not orient ourselves. We stopped a German couple in order to ask for directions. God, you cannot imagine what happened when they found out that we were Russians! They started hugging and kissing us. They were so happy to meet us. You know, I lived for a long time in Germany after that. And it has become unthinkable for a German to treat a stranger that way, to just start kissing a stranger on the street. Some form of madness had seized everyone during the 1990s.

Second-Hand Time

And now it is not the same?

No, now it is completely different. Europe has changed. And, let us put it this way, the vector of European interest has changed.

What troubles and excites Europe these days?

Europe's humanity is being tested today. And, it appears to me, Europe is passing this test with flying colors. I have just visited the ancient town of Mantua, where local intellectuals invited me to the “March of Barefoot Women and Men.” The first such march was organized in Venice and has spread, since then, to other Italian cities. People take off their shoes and walk barefoot around the city, in solidarity with refugees. You should have seen these people! And this is in Italy, where nationalist sentiments, to put it mildly, run high. Generally speaking, I think Europe is working its way out of this hard situation today quite honorably.

And Europe is not afraid of the consequences?

Now listen: Europe took in 3 million Russians in 1917. It accepted them, processed them, and digested them. And Europe has survived! And, since then, Europe has constantly faced no fewer than a million refugees appearing at one difficult historical moment or another. The last time, if I am not mistaken, when a similarly large influx of refugees arrived was when people fled from [the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution Ruhollah] Khomeini. And these refugees were accepted.

In France I lived in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris. And I went to the market where one woman refugee who was selling vegetables was my main source of news. She discussed everything with me, and we talked about everything for a long time, and these were the most interesting conversations.

But last winter Paris became the epicenter of the most horrifying news.

True. But Europe has withstood that, too. And it went on living. Marine Le Pen [the leader of the right-wing French political party National Front] seems to be the only one talking about the imminent end of all eternal European values at the hands of those who are looking to be rescued in Europe.

During my last trip to Italy, I stayed with my friend’s friends. I awoke in the morning to someone singing outside my window in an incredibly beautiful and, let me be honest, loud way. As it often happens, the singer outside happened to be a street cleaner. I went outside. We started talking. Among other things, he told me that he would like to host a family of refugees. He said, “I have a little house. Why not let those who are in need live there for a while?” And this mood pervades Europe. What’s essential is that these views and intentions are being translated from the cultural layer. And the society accepts them.

So you're saying that it's the educated minority—the same elites who in Russia are responsible for so many heated debates—that dictates the agenda in Europe? You really believe that? You've seen it with your own eyes?

Yes. People all over the world understood a long time ago that the rationalist path of development leads to a dead end. Enlightened Europe believes that secular humanist man is the measure of all things and will save the world. And if we turn from this, we'll be lost. And the responsibility for this future—for thinking about this future—society has placed on the cultural elite, artists, and intellectuals. And this is something we're hearing over and over these days. It's everywhere: in meetings and debates and even on television.

For example, in France, if you turn on the television, you're likely to stumble onto some talk show. And it's not like it is in Russia, where they spend ten minutes talking about something serious and then break for two hours of music and comedy. No—these shows go for hours. They talk and they unpack the issues until dawn, until everybody watching gets it.

Not only have I seen this with my own eyes, but I've also participated in such talk shows myself. For instance, not long ago I spoke in public along with the German Minister of Culture. We talked about how much hatred has accumulated in the world and what we should do about it. You should have heard him speak! He stood up and piercingly spoke about his childhood, about what he was lacking, how his rights were undermined, and how he handled his emotions. And he talked about how he works on himself every day. And what struck me was that his speech was not that of a faceless bureaucratic machine, but of a human being.

Conversations about hatred and ways to live more humanely also happen all around the world. But in Russia everyone thinks that this problem exists only in Russia, and in Belarus they think it only exists in Belarus. Is that how you see it?

Well, these are conversations that happen on different levels, after all. In our respective countries, in Russia and Belarus, the escalation of the hatred of “The Other” is nothing short of barbarity. It contradicts everything that is currently happening around the world.These countries are plunging into sheer madness. 

It's understandable that this has happened not only with Russia, but also with Germany, the US, and Japan, at other points in history. And it is an incredibly difficult process each and every time. In Germany, if you remember the first two postwar decades, the Germans were just being quiet about everything. It wasn't until President [Richard von] Weizsäcker, with the support from German intellectuals, that people started speaking up about the necessity of national repentance. And it took another 20 years for this repentance to start taking place. And they are still working on it! 

I recently spoke to a German woman and asked her, “How much longer can you continue talking about this day and night? What happened is irreversible!” And she answered, “No, our government knows our people,” meaning that it understood something broader about human nature. And they keep repeating these lessons learned endlessly. And, generally speaking, the world has helped Germany, as well as the United States, and Japan to overcome this malaise of hatred, of being poisoned by evil. I think it was the hardest for the Japanese. Because in Japan they also had the worship of the Emperor, which was embedded in old tradition. And what a double shock they experienced after the bomb. But intellectuals produced new ideas, and these have helped Japan to overcome that tragedy. And what would have happened if, after dropping the bomb, the Americans had just left, without writing the Japanese constitution? It's impossible to imagine.

And now, looking back, what do we see? What do we understand about Japan? The very same people who slaughtered half of the Asian population have also created a 21st century civilization. It's remarkable.

So, it appears to me that the time has come to talk about the responsibility of ideas. And if you are interested in my opinion, I think now is a good time for the intellectual elite. Because their ideas are in demand. And, of course, ideas produced by intellectuals aren't so dangerous.

It's no secret that decisions in Russia are made with the masses in mind. Listening to the minority—or even acknowledging its very existence—is considered improper.

I have some very strong feelings about Russia today. It's also hard to understand what minority you're talking about. I don't think the intelligentsia and Russian intellectuals see the issues today in some identical way. There's no single consensus on anything. There are no “intellectuals” as a whole. Intellectuals are divided on major issues.

And you, Svetlana Alexievich, are at odds with which intellectuals?

Well, there is me and there is Zakhar Prilepin. He is part of the elite. He is a writer. He has many followers on Facebook. They follow his every step, every thought, and that means he exercises influence.

Does having many followers on Facebook make a person an intellectual?

Well, consider another example. There is me and there is [Eurasianist] Aleksander Dugin, with whom I also have differences. But even without looking at such a drastically different figure, we can say that there's no such thing as a single liberal intelligentsia. As a matter of fact, there are fewer and fewer liberal intellectuals. Many of my liberal friends—do you know what has happened with them? They've all become statists!


Because of the Weimar syndrome. It exists. Russia cannot remain humiliated for long—it is dangerous. Years of humiliation did not pass unnoticed. It had to backfire and it backfired in this particular way. There is a lot of misunderstood Russian character in this. In my book Second-Hand Time, there is a story about love: a woman leaves her children, all that she has, and follows a prison inmate, without knowing him, but sacrifices everything for him. I was deeply struck by this story. We always imagined the country to be divided into Communists, capitalists, and socialists. In reality, we're preoccupied with entirely different things in everyday life.

You came to this understanding some time ago?

I first started thinking about this [in 1988] when I wrote War’s Unwomanly Face. I looked at the women whom I spoke to and realized that there will be no others like them. This is true in so many ways, but most importantly in the sense that they truly believed in their country and in its future and that the Russians won the war.

Svetlana Alexievich discussed her book "War’s Unwomanly Face" with one of its main characters. 1985.
Photo: Yuri Ivanov / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

It appeared to me that the stories in this book are about how one small, ordinary person—her life and death—are more important than winning the war.

Of course not. The book was written based on things women told me after saying, "there's no need to publish this sort of thing." And I had problems, at first, when I gave them excerpts from the book, built from what they told me. Then I stopped doing this, imagining what would have happened with The Gulag Archipelago had it been rewritten by its protagonists. Many of the women from my book were shocked when I shared their own stories with them and they took back their words. Because, of course, the great Soviet victory in the war was present in all their stories, but the price of victory isn't something we normally discuss. And the fact that none of this—none of this incredible suffering—was ever converted into freedom also hasn't mattered. Human life is worth nothing. The entire 20th century reduced the value of human life in Russia to zero.

But there was still some demand for change. Where did it all go? Why is it that, if we switch out 2014 for the year 1984, it looks like nothing has changed dramatically? People feel just as comfortable in the system, voting unanimously, and despising, ostracizing, or honoring collectively this, that, or the other person.

I also think about this. Russia didn't learn anything or find any reward in its suffering throughout the 1990s. There was nothing. It's a complicated issue. On the one hand, it's understandable that some mental constructs might be the reason for this–Russia's historically conditioned slave mentality, for example. On the other hand, however, it's also a consequence of life's inertia. The inertia of sticking your head in the cosy inner world and not wanting any emotional stress, not wanting to notice anything or to get involved in anything.

I used to say to my dad, “But how were you able to remain silent?” He was studying journalism in Minsk. And there was one time when he and the other students returned to class from vacation, and only two or three of the professors were still there. The rest had disappeared to camps, and the best students were also taken away. And I said to my dad, “But how did you remain silent?” And once I even saw tears in his eyes. I would not ask this idiotic question now. Because we are also silent now. And how do we remain silent? 

And that's just how it is. Everything is the same: internally there's some drive to appeasement—a readiness to join the ranks. And in the meantime the Bolotnaya activists [ni Moscow] are handed prison sentences. And [Boris] Nemtsov is gunned down. How many protesters came out?

Tens of thousands.

This is too few. It's nothing commensurate with what is happening. Yes, some people came out into the streets, others "liked" those people's photos online, and everyone found a reason to remain calm.

In my book The Second-Hand Time, I include the story of a young man who described how he was in love with his aunt, Olya. And he found out later that she reported her own brother to the authorities and the brother perished in Stalin’s camps. And this young man was tormented by this knowledge. And when he found out that his aunt was dying, he came to her and asked if she remembered 1937. And she said, “But in 1937 I was happy, I loved and I was loved.” And then he asked, “ But what about Uncle Sasha?” To which she replied: “Go and find an honest man in 1937.” The evil and wickedness in human beings isn't Stalin or Beria; it's this beautiful aunt Olya.

The banality of evil.

Indeed. How often do we see little wickednesses and slavish conventions around us, and remain silent about them? Normal people are already fleeing, thinking they will at least be able to save their children, if they change their surroundings. But these are only a few, who are especially intolerant of evil.

For my generation, perestroika was a personal affair. I am one of those who passionately supported it, helped implement it, and believed in it. And for us the especially burning question is why did it all happen in vain? Why are the people silent? They came out, they dismantled Dzerzhinsky's statue, and then they left. And that was it.

And the people aren't to blame for this relapse?

No, of course not. I am readier now to talk about our blame, about the intelligentsia’s blame for the failure of democratization in the 1990s. But it will be a very painful conversation. And a long one. And with unforeseeable consequences. 

You know, there was a day when the notable Armenian poet Silva Kaputikian, who was completely venerated in Nagorno-Karabakh, came on stage and said, “We, the intelligentsia, are to blame for the chaos, for the tragedy that's happening right now.” And that was it. When she was returning to her seat, people spat at her. At a woman. At a poet. 

In other words, we have incredibly hard work to do, when it comes to awareness about what happened in the 1990s, and accepting who's to blame. And it's not just about one decade. In Russia, the whole century is still unexamined and not understood. The 1990s were the most recent. And there are still witnesses who are alive and who can talk about that era.

Witnesses who can attest that jeans and sausage didn't turn out to be the same as freedom?

In my book, Second-Hand Time, I was shocked to realize that everything revolved around those things. But at the same time, I am sure that anti-Communist and anti-Soviet sentiments permeated Soviet society in the mid-1980s. And what happened afterwards? Sausage appeared in stores, but there was no money to buy it, and factories were shut down, and it turned out there weren't so many democrats, after all, and those there were didn't produce any productive or viable ideas. And these democrats were themselves part of it.

Part of the whole new society of sausages?

It turned out that the democrats were out for their piece of the pie, too. And the people saw it. The 1990s traumatized everyone. And nobody is working through this. The external circumstances have changed, but on a subconscious level perceptions about the social hierarchy, about the society itself, about man’s place in that society—nothing changed.

I just got back from Vologda. We were there together with a film crew from Sweden, which is filming a movie about me. We were traveling around a beautiful area, meeting wonderful people. They were intelligent and socially apt—the kind of people who develop local crafts. When you talk to them one on one, you have the most interesting conversations. But when you start talking politics, something clicks in their brains: the conversations instantly become collective, and it's no longer "I" but "we." And they don't want to think about anything. 

It is not news that the idea of socialism is beautiful but stained with blood. It has taken over and continues to take over the best of minds. We are now in captivity, and, the way things are going, it will remain this way for at least another decade. The main dictators of the post-Soviet space are around 60 now. They are in the prime of their lives. And they will not relinquish their power just like that.

Lately, I've became interested in the topic of time, getting old, and eternity. And I have discovered an amazing couple in St. Petersburg. Two elderly women who are friends and who moved in together, into one of their apartments, while the other is rented out. They travel the world, using the money they earn renting out the other apartment.

Svetlana Alexievich meets with readers after taking part in a public dialogue at Mayakovsky Library in St. Petersburg. September 26, 2015.
Photo: Anya Gruzdeva / Otkrytaya Blblioteka

Are you going to write about this?

I am currently at a crossroads. I want to write two books at once. One of them is about love. The other one is about old age, time, and the disappearance of a person from this time. This topic seems incredibly interesting to me: how does a person use the twenty extra years given to him by progress? Because now it is normal to live to 80. Not like before, when a person died at 60. But often people do not know what to do with this.

If you ask an ordinary person on the street “Who is Alexievich?” they're likely to shrug. Meanwhile, Europe, which has learned about 19th century Russia from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, is learning about Russians in the 20th and 21st centuries from Alexievich’s books. There's something odd about this.

I think the fact that I am not all that well-known in Russia has to do with the genre in which I work. Russian literature is very traditional and stands apart from the rest of the world’s. And if Russian theater is more susceptible to modernism, cinema is less so, and literature is even more rooted in local Russian tradition.

But for Europe, my method is acceptable. A "novel of testimonies"—when you've got portraits and guesswork and the stories of many people—is a single canvas. Each person captures one piercing detail, catches it and memorizes it, and this particular detail stays with that person.

And this genre fits the contemporary Western mind, so preoccupied with quick clips and snippets, where the plot is not a single story imagined by the author from the beginning to the end, but is composed of points picked out by a reader from the chorus of human voices.

Katerina Gordeeva

St. Petersburg

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