Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich was until recently the last leading opposition figure in Belarus to be both free and still in the country. Two weeks ago, however, the 72-year-old, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, flew with Belarusian airline Belavia to Berlin.
Alexievich is a member of the Belarusian Coordination Council, set up in August in the hope of negotiating a peaceful transition of power from dictator Alexander Lukashenko to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who by any objective measure won a presidential election on August 9. Mr Lukashenko nevertheless claimed victory, and has since installed himself in office for a sixth term as president despite ongoing mass protests against his rule, and the repressive way in which he has attempted to quell the demonstrations.
Prior to Alexievich’s departure, the six other members of the Coordination Council had long been either jailed (Liliya Ulasava, Maryia Kalesnikova, Maksim Znak) or compelled to leave the country (Pavel Latushka, Volha Kavalkova).
“The authorities have already tried to arrest me. And sooner or later they would have done it. It is a startling situation when one knows they might get arrested. None of us could believe it until recently,” the writer said after arriving in Germany, adding that her status as a Nobel laureate had “to some extent” protected her.
At one stage, EU diplomats kept a round-the-clock guard at the writer’s home amid fears for her safety.
Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for her polyphonic writings, “a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” according to Professor Sara Danius, the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy which picks prize winners. “For the last three or four decades Alexievich had been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual. Even though she talks about events, her books are full of emotions and all events are just a pretext to explore the individual and the human soul.”
On receiving her award, Alexievich said that it was as much a victory for Belarus and it was personal. “This is an award for our culture, for our small country, which has been caught in a grinder throughout history,” she said.
Alexievich’s first novel, War’s Unwomanly Face, published in 1987, is based on previously untold stories of women who fought against Nazi Germany in World War II. The book is a confession, a document and a record of people’s memory. The author interviewed more than 200 women for it, describing how young girls, who dreamed of becoming brides, became soldiers in 1941. The Soviet press called the book “a vivid reporting of events long past, which affected the destiny of the nation as a whole.” The most important thing about the book is not so much the frontline episodes as women’s heart-rending experiences in the war.
Perhaps her most famous novel however is Voices From Chernobyl, published in 1998, which details the psychological and physical ordeal of people who took part in the clean up of the 1986 nuclear disaster. It was the first book to present personal accounts of the tragedy. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the Chernobyl explosion and subsequent fallout, from ordinary citizens to firefighters and those called in from across the Soviet Union to clean up the disaster. Their stories reveal the fear, anger, and uncertainty with which they still live.
“I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotised me, I wanted to capture it on paper,” Alexievich once said. “So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world — as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realised to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.”
Most recently, she published the Second-Hand Time, which reads as a requiem for the Soviet era. It chronicles the shock and the existential void that characterised the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and helps explain the appeal of Vladimir Putin’s promises to bring pride back to a wounded, post-imperial nation.
Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948, in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankovsk to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother. After her father’s demobilisation from the army the family returned to Belarus and settled in a village where both parents worked as schoolteachers. From her school days Alexievich wrote poetry and contributed articles to the school newspaper. She studied journalism at Minsk University, and later became a correspondent for the literary magazine Nyoman.
It was during her time as a journalist that she became specialised in crafting narratives based on witness testimonies, particularly the oral histories that form the basis of her novels.
Alexievich’s criticism of the political regimes in, first, the Soviet Union and thereafter Belarus has periodically forced her to live abroad before.
She has long been a harsh critic of Lukashenko, and in 2005 left Belarus “as a protest”, spending 11 years living in exile in various European countries. “When you’re on the barricades, all you can see is a target, not a human, which is what a writer should see. From the point of view of art, the butcher and the victim are equal as people. You need to see the people,” she told the Guardian in 2017.
The world can now certainly see the Belarusian people, and their collective will for freedom. Alexievich will be hoping that they will succeed, and that her latest period in exile will be brief. She will also no doubt chronicle their struggle.
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