Nobel Laureate Tells Dark Story in Tel Aviv

Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich, on visit to Israel, warns about state power.

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Svetlana Alexievic at a Tel Aviv press conference, February 7, 2016.
Svetlana Alexievic at a Tel Aviv press conference, February 7, 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“A writer sees the world differently,” says Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. “When I came to Israel, a young border policewoman was murdered in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was only a few hours after I toured the same place. I saw a picture of her pretty face on the Internet, and it haunted me. The thought of the insanity that cut off that life haunted me. This is a circle of terror and I fear it will continue for many years. In Kiev, within a few years enormous hatred arose between related people. New hatred we didn’t know. I think that conflict too will continue for many years. Hatred, I think, is an organism that penetrates our skin in a mythic fashion, and does not leave.”

The silence of concentration prevailed at the press conference in Tel Aviv to receive the author and journalist as part of the “open lecture” project two weeks ago.

Alexievich was born in Ukraine to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother in 1948, and lived most of her life in Belarus. She is a cultural symbol and role model for values such as freedom, liberalism and humanism. At the start of the millennium, she was exiled from her homeland because of her political positions, but in 2013 she “returned home” to continue speaking about matters “no one wants to hear.”

Since she began publishing her books some 30 years ago, Alexievich has been in constant disputes with the government. At first it was the Soviet censor who tried to silence the horrifying truth she told about the Second World War in her first book “The War’s Unwomanly Face.” Now the governments of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Vladimir Putin in Russia, from whom she has never spared her criticism, have offered a very cold shoulder, she says, since her winning of the most prestigious prize in the literary world. The award brought her heavy criticism from the Russian press.

In a series of books on critical points in Soviet history, starting with WWII and running through the Soviet Union’s 1979-89 war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and ending in the 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union (which seemed to many, including her, as a sort of gate to the wonderful new world of freedom), her work has been a continuum, as she sees it.

Svetlana Alexievich with the award during the 2015 Nobel prize award ceremony in Stockholm Concert Hall December 10, 2015.Credit: Reuters

“The encyclopedia of the red civilization,” as she calls it, deals with “the history of utopia and what it caused to a person when it offered them the Garden of Eden. Fanatic ideas always end in bloodshed. Evil is victorious. The Soviet Union is a living picture of this same utopia, and what started as the 1917 Revolution we see until today.”

The last witnesses

It is not hard to understand why Alexievich annoys the Russian government and conservatives. She began working as a journalist and graduated with a degree from Belarusian State University in Minsk. She wrote a column, and worked as an editor and teacher until 1985, when her first book was published.

It was an enormous project. Alexievich collected testimony of women from the WWII years, women fighting at the front and those left behind, nurses and workers who detailed their daily lives, experiences and feelings. Along the way made vivid the contribution and viewpoints of these women, which had been left out of historical research. Afterwards she published another book, “Last Witnesses,” the testimony of those who were children during the war, and this book too changed accepted beliefs and presented an unusual perspective.

Her other books, which deal with later stages of Soviet history, all are about the perspective of simple people, and sanctify the “little person,” the tragic and central figure in Russian history from the days of Gogol and Dostoevsky.

Her method in her books is similar: She writes thousands of pages based on 500-700 testimonies she records, from which she composes layer on top of layer of testimony. Alexievich writes only in Russian, and her books have been translated into 47 languages, but not yet in Hebrew. She won many international awards before the Nobel. But in Belarus she has never been awarded any prize.

“We must admit we don’t have enough courage,” she opened her lecture, speaking of her work in the post-Soviet regime. “Maybe in the future they will think we all were barbarians. That is a thought an author must keep in their soul all the time, but in Russia an author who speaks that way is considered a fifth column. There are horrible periods in which entire nations sink into the plague of darkness and hatred. Regretfully, this is the period we live in.”

Breaking the silence

Alexievich was asked about testimonies of Jews and about Jews in her books, and whether she intends to dedicate an entire book to the question of the Jews. She says no: “Jews are part of the story in my books. I tell about Jewish women who went out to fight alongside Jewish men, and in doing so shattered the myth of Jews who did not participate in the fighting. I tell of entire families who were murdered. There are stories I cannot remember without tears. The horrible stories that have never been told are found in my books. On Jews who managed to crawl out from under dead bodies and went to the partisans, and the partisans themselves would sometimes execute them, torture them.”

Alexievich says her goal is broader, documenting the entire Soviet epic, and adds that the facts which appear incidentally in her books were enough to enrage some of her readers.

She is asked about and tells the story of her trial in 1993 after the publication of her book on Afghanistan. She was sued by the mother of an officer killed in battle and by a soldier who fought there. The two plaintiffs, whose testimony was included in the book under pseudonyms, claimed their words were distorted by Alexievich and that she dishonored their names. She did not present the recordings of those testimonies at the trial and the suit was partially accepted. A number of mothers, who were angered by her ripping off the mantle of heroism covering their sons, attended the trial.

Alexievich says the trial was one of the most difficult episodes in her life: “I remember a woman I knew, a pretty woman, who lost her only son, who she raised alone, in the war, and was crazy from grief. In her little apartment stood a huge zinc cupboard, I don’t know how they stuffed it in there. She screamed at me that I must tell the world the truth. She said she did not have the money to ransom her son so they would not draft him. She told how when he was drafted, what he did was to renovate the summer home of one of the generals. He didn’t even learn how to shoot a gun. The organizers of the trial were officers who wanted to preserve the myth, and in court I met her again and she screamed ‘my son is a hero.’”

Alexievich. who traveled to Afghanistan during the war, says it was important to her to see this war with her own eyes, because she never saw WWII, even though she wrote about it.

Alexievich speaks, and the comparisons to Israel, Breaking the Silence and the changing atmosphere seem to arise on their own. One of the journalists in the room asks her about the controversy concerning Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife,” about an Israeli-Palestinian romance and which the Education Ministry removed from its mandatory reading list.

Alexievich replies, “Two histories exist, the large history and the small history, and they conflict. I write the small history, the private happenings of the little man, and here it is clear I will stand at the author’s side. Hatred will always give birth to more and more hate, and love has the power to demolish the borders between us. The state always stands alongside the great ideas and does not deal with the little person. Ideas of patriotism awaken and we are all prisoners of the stigmas and banal fanaticism. We are all prisoners of the ideas of the times we live in.”

In some ways, she was the first Russian author to treat the woman’s voice with great intensity. “Men are prisoners of the war culture and this has continued since ancient times,” she says. “It seems to me in the village I grew up in, life was more fair before the men returned. I was influenced a great deal by this feminine world, in which there is more justice and flexibility. Women who remember war remember suffering, even of animals and nature. The woman’s view is the view of the future.”