On October 8, Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Forty-five years earlier to the day, the prize went to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who also wrote in Russian and whose body of work could also be described as a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Samizdat editions of Solzhenitsyn were avidly read in the USSR; last year, you had to go to a small independent bookshop to buy Alexievich’s books in Russia.
Alexievich was born in 1948 in Ukraine and has lived most of her life in Belarus. A journalist, she published her first books in 1985. War’s Unwomanly Face, composed of interviews with women who fought against the Germans, and Last Witnesses, about wartime childhood, appeared in the same year. Further exploring the genre of literary interview, Alexievich wrote Zinky Boys (1991), based on accounts of Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and their families; The Chernobyl Prayer (1997), subtitled A Chronicle of the Future; and Second-Hand Time (2013), a study of homo sovieticus. The Swedish Academy praised these books as “polyphonic writings”; the author herself refers to the series as The Voices of Utopia. Recording hundreds of interviews, Alexievich chooses to mute her own voice, using her talent to collate others that urgently need to be heard.
The Nobel prize was last awarded to a Russian-language writer in 1987, when the exiled Joseph Brodsky won it. The decision to pick a Belarusian as the first post-Soviet winner, and a woman working in non-fiction to boot, was bound to cause controversy. The Russian media erupted in bigoted commentary. A Western handout to President Lukashenko, who has been promoted from “the last dictator of Europe” to a peacemaker in the Ukraine conflict, was one view. Another interpreted it as a slap in the face of Russia, delivered as the country had just began showing its military prowess in Syria. What a contrast with Alexievich’s own analysis of war, which led her to conclude that “the superpersonal idea always ends up in bloodshed”.
While Alexievich’s books have long been popular in Europe, the Anglophone world is only gradually catching up. Next year, the London publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions is putting out Second-Hand Time, a portrait of an era whose relevance goes beyond the historical. The Soviet era may be over, but its peoples are still there, with all their sufferings and hopes. Living in separate, very different countries now, Russian-speakers are fortunate to have a writer of Svetlana Alexievich’s calibre to hold past and present rulers to account.