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‘I’m a bit of a psychotherapist’ Nobel-Prize winning Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich on relationships with her protagonists, scenes from the mini-series ‘Chernobyl,’ and cultures of violence

Source: Meduza
David Levenson / Getty Images

Actors stand on the stage of the Stuttgart Opera, screaming their lines. This polyphony is part of a new project called “Boris” that weaves together Modest Mussogorsky’s classical opera “Boris Godunov” with a new piece called “Secondhand Time,” written by Russian director Sergei Nevsky based on a book by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The scenes mix together, and Musogorsky’s characters become doubles for the characters of Nevsky. Six monologues from the book have made it into the opera: three are from the 1990s, three from World War II. The memoirs of a woman who is trying to understand why her son took his own life are at the story’s center. After the premier, Meduza’s Alexey Munipov spoke with Svetlana Alexievich about how people’s narratives become the foundation for her own works, about human suffering and judgment, and about Lyudmila Ignatenko from “Chernobyl,” whose story made it into the famous mini-series about the nuclear accident.

Readers, please note: This interview was conducted in Russian in February 2020. The version below has been abridged for clarity and length.

In your Nobel Prize acceptance speech you said that throughout your whole life you listened to the chorus of voices that surrounded you. Now we are hearing these voices for the first time as an actual chorus, in an opera.

I especially liked the finale, where six of the characters are standing next to each other, and each is yelling out their own thing. Dostoyevsky said that everyone screams their own truth. This is exactly what I do, I give everyone the chance to scream to their heart’s content.

I’m often told that there’s not much of me in my books. And I always answer that any kind of text would pale in comparison to their material. No matter if you try to be smart next to [the characters], or if you bow down before them — none of this will make you an equal to them. Only by putting these different truths side by side can you create a completely new text that you wouldn’t be able to conjure up on your own… Only real life can weave these stories together.

Mattias Baus / Staatsoper Stuttgart

How do you think your protagonists would react if they saw that an opera was created from their stories? And that their biographies have made it onto the stage as a continuation of the opera “Boris Godunov?”

You know, we really must accept the fact that our people are quite profound in their suffering, but they are not always as profound in their own comprehension of this suffering. There’s nothing you can do about this. Our people are captives of the historical moment in which they find themselves, they’re captives of the culture of violence. And it is very difficult to break free from this.

I remember talking to a female tank operator in Moscow when I was working on my book, “The Unwomanly Face of War.” She spent a long time questioning me about whether I got permission to talk to her from some kind of general on the Board of Veterans. But why did I even need this permission? I had come to talk to her, not to him. When we finally sat down to have tea together, I got her to open up and she had an absolutely unbelievable story. I got others to open up, too. And after they had said their share, these women told me, “We told you all this so that you would understand what we’ve been through. But you shouldn’t write about it. Other things should be written about, like our awards, our victories.” And even though my book was comprised exclusively of their stories, after it was published many of them reacted with aggression. This was because I had shown how they had cried, how they had desired to be women. And it’s not permitted to show this kind of thing. It’s all nonsense — the most important thing is victory!

But time was on my side. The book came out during the Perestroika period, a great many copies were published. It was widely read and widely discussed, and society proved to these women that their stories are interesting and that the grand Soviet text about how Soviet women and Soviet men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fought off an aggressor is no longer relevant. It showed that this celebratory tone is slowly receding into the past.

But we have to remember that texts about people, about us, are not cast in stone. They are not everlasting. People are constantly reevaluating them. After this book came out, we spent three decades living on the broken pieces of an empire, and then these women started falling ill. They began to write letters to me. They’d say, “Look, we haven’t told you everything, there was so much that people didn’t really talk about, especially about Stalin.” As long as a person is alive, their text continues to write itself, and the person always rewrites their life. You could just be going about your life, and then suddenly you fall in love… So much so, that in your mind you rewrite fifty years of your biography. Something happens to the texts, too — the texts that exist inside every single one of us.

BORIS: Trailer | Staatsoper Stuttgart
Staatsoper Stuttgart

How often did your protagonists, upon seeing their stories in your book, tell you that they weren’t correct, that the book emphasized the wrong things and that they never said anything of the sort?

After the book “The Unwomanly Face of War” came out, I got such reactions. But it was most pronounced following the publication of “Boys in Zinc.” This book was about the War in Afghanistan, and I was even sued over it. The Council of Veterans got to the boys I’d worked with, the Council convinced them that they’d told me the wrong thing. And they threatened, especially the young men who were still serving in the army. Their mothers were also against the whole thing. There were only a few brave people who managed to transcend the times.

Then, later, something unbelievable happened. The war in Chechnya began, and for some time it was covered extensively in the news on TV, in great detail and without censorship. Something clicked in the minds of the people. I remember, once I was walking down the street and I bumped into one of the mothers who had testified in court against me. She hugged me and she said, “Svetochka, who could have thought that our children were sent to be killed and were made into murderers!” She had been shocked by something she had seen on TV: a refrigeration container with the remnants of those who had died [in Chechnya], boys who had burned, whose bodies had been found somewhere far, far away. She suddenly began to understand what was going on…

Perhaps you’ve watched the BBC interview with Lyudmila Ignatenko, the prototype for one of the main characters of the mini-series Chernobyl. She didn’t like the series and said that she “disagrees with many of the scenes” in your book “Chernobyl Prayer,” where the authors of the mini-series got her story.

I haven’t watched the interview myself, but I heard about it. My God, it’s so incredible! I read in some newspaper that a firefighter had died, and his wife wants a street to be named after him, or for him to be awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. I found her, and we talked for three days, she was terribly grateful. We helped her, and as a result a street was named after him, and even a school. And the attitudes towards firefighters really changed, specifically thanks to her story.

But then… I suppose my protagonists sometimes think that a writer has somehow made a lot of money on account of them. No one is ready to admit that they would have dissolved in the darkness and no one would have ever heard them. And this is indeed what usually happens. But these people suffered so much, how can I take any offense? Or judge them? It’s important for me to show what kinds of people we were, how we lived, how we were killed, how we died, how we almost blew up half the planet. It’s important for me to understand.

It seems to me there’s also the question of control over the text of your own life. When they told you their stories, they were the owners of them. But when the text becomes part of a book, opera, or TV series, control is lost. Your life and your story are no longer yours. And this, of course, is a difficult and painful feeling.

You know, my protagonists are not always equal to themselves. They sometimes end up being bigger than themselves in their stories. I remember how I met this Ludmila in Kyiv, she was living with her son and grandfather. They lived off the grandfather’s pension. And I heard her and this grandfather get into an argument. He said, “How could you have made your child into an invalid?! You should not have gone over there [to the hospital with the radioactivity victims]! You killed your little girl!” And she just stared vacantly at the space in front of her, and said, “But I loved Vasya! It was my husband! God brought us together!” She did not seek out any rational arguments, for her this was simply a pure way of knowing the world through feelings.

What did she do before the accident? She was a pastry-maker. And all of a sudden, she ascended to these Shakespearean heights! Her story is not only told in the famous American mini-series about Chernobyl. Almost all films and plays based on “Chernobyl Prayer” around the world use part of this story, or the whole thing.

We don’t really know how to understand this, how to think about it. Can we sacrifice that much in the name of love? Can we sacrifice our own child? Back then, no one knew anything. I saw Gorbachev myself at a meeting in Spain, he said in a very confused way, “I myself did not know anything, I was told that it was just a bomb that went off, we had to drink red wine, and that was all.” No one was ready for a challenge of that magnitude — not the state, not intellectuals. So what can we expect from a common woman?

But I don’t try to fight it out with my protagonists. I cannot afford to. I can only continue to do my work, to the best of my ability.

Sometimes you just run into stories like this… I remember a dark old woman who always sat outside her house in my village. None of the villagers would visit her. When we’d pass by her place, my Ukrainian grandmother would hiss at everyone: “Quiet, children!” No one explained anything. And many years later, when I was already studying journalism, I found out that that woman had eaten her children during the Holodomor. And the villagers had judged her his this way.

But can we really judge her? What do we really know about her, about the limits of her body, her boundaries? What about our own? It’s easy to be all nice and moral now, but back then, during the war… I just don’t have space for this in my books.

Svetlana Alexievich accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2015 
Jonas Ekstromer / TT / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Do you think that becoming the protagonists of a fictional story is scary? You had the chance to experience it yourself, in Eimuntas Nekrošius’s play, “The Zinc (Zn).” You were pretty much the main character.

Unfortunately, I have not seen it. I was going to go, but I fell ill and couldn’t make it. I’ve hear different things about the play. I think it is mostly criticized? I am told I don’t look very good in it.

Your character is complex. A strong, sometimes even predator-like woman who occasionally practically shakes stories out of her protagonists.

Well, if I were to shake the stories out of them, the stories would be very different. Maybe they’d be harsher. But I doubt that people would be so open with me. In order to hear something new, you have to pose questions in a new way. And you have to be very friendly, because everyone has their own secret, something they don’t share with anyone — not with friends, not with loved ones. And sometimes they even confess, “My god, not only have I never told anyone this — I didn’t even think I remembered it!”

I’m a bit of a psychotherapist. You can tell me anything. It’s difficult to scare me, I don’t censor. Censorship can only come from my own ignorance, when I am unable to presuppose that a person can be a certain way. Or that I can dig deeper in this direction and bump into something there. Sometimes, when I’m tired, I am ready to bump into myself and be content with that.

No, the world is not easily knowable. You can’t take it by force. And, unfortunately, I’m no superwoman. I just sit down and talk about everything in the world, without preparing any questions in advance. The random flow of conversation gives you a great deal of freedom. You’re better prepared for sudden things, you can follow a flow of consciousness that’s foreign to you. The conversation can take a completely unexpected turn. If you question harshly, a part of life will simply never open up to you.

Svetlana Alexievich at a presentation titled “I don’t want to write about war” at the Gogol Center in Moscow, Russia, on June 10, 2017
Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / ddp / Vida Press

In the play, the protagonists can hardly come to terms with the fact that after the interview is over, you just get up and leave. The job of the writer is to gather material, not to console or to help anyone.

This would indeed often happen. Someone needs a new phone, someone else needs medicine, and you face a dilemma. You can’t abandon your own work and just busy yourself with others. And what can writers really do? They can do less than most people think. And common people don’t fully understand the value of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. They need to see some kind of result for themselves.

Interview by Alexey Munipov

Abridged translation by Olga Zeveleva

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