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People don’t understand what freedom is: Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich

The Nobel prize-winning author talks about the pressures of life in the Putin era, as her best-selling book on Russian women’s wartime heroism is republished.

books Updated: Jul 22, 2017 11:59 IST
The Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian
Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich,Svetlana Alexievich,The Unwomanly Face of War
Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War has been republished in a new English translation this month. (Elke Wetzig/Wikimedia Commons)

In conversation with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.

In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s workisa Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as theconscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.

When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-Soviet apartment blocks, she has just returned from a book tour ofSouth Korea, and is about to embark on a trip to Moscow.

“It’s tiring to have the attention on yourself; I want to closet myself away and start writing properly again,” she says, looking visibly wearied by the travel and spotlight. Alexievich reluctantly agreed to deliver atalk about a book she wrote more than three decades ago, The Unwomanly Face of War, which has been republished in a new English translation this month.

It was written in the early 1980s, and for many years she could not find a publisher, but during the soul-searching of the late-Soviet perestroika period, it tapped into the zeitgeist of reflection and critical thinking, and was published in a print run of two million, briefly turning Alexievich into a household name. Later, the merciless flashlight Alexievich shone on to the Soviet war experience became less welcome in Russia. Since the Nobel win, her work has found a new international audience, giving her a second stint of fame 30 years after the first.

The original inspiration for the book was an article Alexievich read in the local Minsk press during the 1970s, about a retirement party for the accountant at a local car factory, a decorated sniper who had killed 75Germans during the war. After that first interview, she began to seek out female war veterans across the Soviet Union. A million Soviet women served at the front, but they were absent from the official war narrative. “Before this book, the only female character in our war literature was the nurse who improved the life of some heroic lieutenant,” she says. “But these women were steeped in the filth of war as deeply as the men.”

It took a long time, Alexievich concedes, to get the women to stop speaking in rehearsed platitudes. Many were embarrassed about the reality of their war memories. “They would say, ‘OK, we’ll tell you, but you have to write it differently, more heroically.’” After a frank interview with a woman who served as the medical assistant to a tank battalion, Alexievich recounts, she sent the transcript as promised and received a package through the post in response, full of newspaper clippings about wartime feats and most of the interview text crossed out in pen. “More than once afterward I met with these two truths that live in the same human being,” Alexievich writes. “One’s own truth, driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time.”

The book touches on topics that weretaboo during the Soviet period andhave once again been excised from Putin’s Russia: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, by which Stalin and Hitler carved up Europe, the executions of deserters andthe psychological effects of war foryears to come. Her subjects recall sweaty nightmares, grinding teeth, short tempers and an inability to see forests without thinking of twisted bodies in shallow graves.

In modern Russia, Putin has turned the war victory into a national building block of almost religious significance, and questioning the black-and-white history of glorious victory is considered heresy. This makes the testimony of thewomen in Alexievich’s book, most ofwhom are now dead, feel all the moreimportant today. There is no lackof heroism in the book; the feats and the bravery and the enormous burden that fell on the shoulders of these women shine from every page. But she does not erase the horror from the story, either. In the end, the book is a far more powerful testament to the extraordinary price paid by the Soviet people to defeat Nazi Germany than the sight of intercontinental missiles rolling across Red Square on 9 May, or the endless bombastic war films shown onRussian television.

After The Unwomanly Face of War, Alexievich wrote books that dealt with the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, two tragedies that accompanied the death throes of the Soviet Union, both of them simultaneously causes and symptoms of its impending collapse.

More recently, she published the doorstop-sized Second-Hand Time, which reads as a requiem for the Sovietera. It chronicles the shock and the existential void that characterised the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and helps explain the appeal of Putin’s promises to bring pride back to a wounded, post-imperial nation.

‘Nobody thought the Soviet Union would collapse, it was a shock for everyone,” she says. Everyone had to adapt to a new and painful reality as the rules, behavioural codes and everyday language of the Soviet experience dissolved almost overnight. Taken together, Alexievich’s books remain perhaps the single most impressive document of the late Soviet Union and its aftermath. Alexievich became a harsh critic of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of newly independent Belarus. She left the country “as a protest”, and spent 11years living in exile in various European countries, returning only a few years ago. “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.”

Lukashenko has made it clear he is no fan of Alexievich’s work, and while the Nobel prize has given her some security, her books have not been published in Belarus, and she is de facto banned from making public appearances. As a writer of Ukrainian and Belarusian heritage, but who writes essentially about the whole post-Soviet space, she is confused about modern Russia. She is unsure whether to say “we” or “they” when she speaks about Russians. Where she is more certain is in her opinions of Putin and the current political climate. “We thought we’d leave communism behind and everything would turn out fine. Butit turns out you can’t leave this andbecome free, because these people don’t understand what freedom is.”

She has repeatedly criticised the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in east Ukraine, which has led to a falling-out with many Russian friends, she says. She never quite knows how conversations will go when she visits Moscow. She recalls a recent visit when she entered the apartment of an old acquaintance: “I had just walked in the door and taken my coat off, when she sits me down and says, ‘Svetochka, so that everything is clear, let me just say that Crimea isn’t ours.’ It’s like a password! ‘Thank God,’ I told her.”

She has two new projects she wants to finish: one about love, which will lookat 100 relationships from the perspective of the man and the woman involved, and a second book about the process of ageing. It is something she has been thinking about, as she approaches her 70th birthday.

“Inyouth, we don’t think much aboutit and then suddenly all these questions arrive,” she says. After a little more than an hour of discussion, her already quiet voice has become almost inaudible, and she seems tired and distracted. “What was the point of life, why did all of that happen?”

Not wanting to outstay my welcome any further, I turn off my recorder and thank her for the interview, assuming she will make a speedy beeline for the exit. “Excellent,” she says, immediately brightening. “Shall we have some lunch?” Surprised, I stay, and we talk foranother hour. Now it’s mainly her asking the questions: about my views onRussia but also Donald Trump, theEuropean far right and the Queen. Ever the listener, Alexievich is much more at easeasking the questions thananswering them.

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First Published: Jul 22, 2017 11:58 IST