A writer and journalist from Belarus won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. Svetlana Alexievich became the first nonfiction writer to win the prestigious award in half a century.
Alexievich’s work charts the rise and fall of the Soviet Union: It chronicles World War II, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Through it all, the 67-year-old writer presents the human face of these tragedies.
“It’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions,” Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius said following her announcement of the award. “She’s devised a new kind of literary genre. It’s a true achievement not only in material but also in form.”
Alexievich developed a documentary-style approach to writing, because, she said, “[A]rt has failed to understand many things about people.”
“But I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings,” she wrote on her website. “What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced. This is impossible to imagine or invent, at any rate in such multitude of real details.”
Trained as a journalist, Alexievich has said that she interviewed at least 500 people for each of her five books. She blended her tireless research with literary techniques to present “thousands of voices, destinies, fragments of our life and being.”
Below are excerpts from three of her books.
The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories
In The Last Witnesses: The Book of Unchildlike Stories
, Alexievich presents the remembrances of World War II from people who were only seven to twelve years old during it.
“The war is described through innocent children’s eyes,” she wrote of the book on her website. “[Fyodor] Dostoyevsky once said that the common good is not worth anything if it is obtained at the cost of one child’s tear.” The book considers the pain war has wrought on children, including one who was left orphaned by it:
“Tamara Frolova, 3 years old. Now an engineer. Lives in Kuybyshev[:]
I live with the feeling that war gave birth to me. Because from childhood I remember only war…
They say that our soldiers found me near my dead mother. I was crying and asking her: to stand up. It was at one of the railway stations in the suburbs of Minsk. The soldiers put me on to the train that went to the east, taking me away farther from the war. So, along with the other people I ended up in the town of Khvalynsk. There, a husband and wife, the Cherkasovs, adopted me; they became my parents. As for my own parents — mother and father — I do not know them. I have no photos not even memories: what kind of mummy, what kind of daddy. I don’t remember. I was very small…
I live with the feeling that war gave birth to me. Because from childhood I remember only war…”
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
In Zinky Boys, Alexievich captures the voices of soldiers, doctors, widows, and mothers affected by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which lasted from 1979 to 1989.
“As one might expect, there are hardly any Soviet accounts available on how the Soviet Army behaved in Afghanistan,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in a 2012 essay. He noted that Alexievich wrote one of only two accounts which have been translated into English, and in doing so, presented “the suffering of ordinary soldiers, many of whom were wounded.” She did this, she wrote in the beginning of the book, despite a reaction to bloodshed that caused her to be physically ill:
“I never want to write another word about the war, I told myself.
Long after I’d finished [The Unwomanly Face of the War], a book about World War II, I could still be upset by the sight of a child with a nosebleed. Out in the country I couldn’t bear to watch the fishermen cheerfully throwing their catch on to the sandy riverbank. Those fish, dragged up from the debts of God knows where, with their glassy, bulging eyes, made me want to vomit. I dare say we all have our pain threshold — physical as well as psychological. Well, I’d reached mine. The screech of a cat run over by a car, even the sight of a squashed worm, could make me feel I was going mad. I felt that animals, birds, fish, every living thing had a right to a life of its own.
And then all of a sudden, if you can call it sudden for the war had been going on for seven years…
One day we gave a lift to a young girl. She’d been to Minsk to do some food shopping for her mother. She had a big bag with chicken heads sticking out, I remember, and a shopping-net full of bread, which we put in the boot.
Her mother was waiting for her in the village. Or rather, standing at her garden gate, wailing.
‘Mama!’ The little girl ran up to her.
‘Oh, my baby. We’ve had a letter. Our Andrey in Afghanistan.
Ohhh…They’re sending him home, like they did Ivan Fedorinov. A little child needs a little grave, isn’t that what they say? But my Andrey was as big as an oak and over six foot. “Be proud of me Mum, I’m in the Par as now,” he wrote to us. Oh, why?
Why? Can anyone tell me? Why? Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows.’ (Richard II) Then, last year, something else happened.
I was in the half-empty waiting room of a bus station. An officer was sitting there with a suitcase, and next to him there was a skinny boy who you could tell from his shaved head was a soldier.
The young soldier was digging in a plant pot (a dry old ficus, I remember it was) with an ordinary kitchen fork. A couple of simple country women went and sat next to them and, out of sheer curiosity, asked where they were going, and why, who were they? It turned out the officer was escorting the soldier home.
He’d gone mad: ‘He’s been digging ever since we left Kabul.
Whatever he can get hold of he starts digging with. Spade, fork, stick, pen…you name it he’ll dig with it.’ The boy looked up, muttering: ‘Got to hide… I’ll dig a trench… won’t take me long… brotherly graves we called them…I’ll dig a nice big trench for you all…’It was the first time I’d seen pupils as big as the eyes themselves.’”
Voices from Chernobyl
In Voices from Chernobyl Alexievich captures the stories of firefighters, bystanders, and workers who witnessed the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. The disaster forced more than 100,000 to leave the area surrounding the plant, which spewed tons of radioactive material into the air. In the following excerpt, Alexievich presents testimony from one man who tried to “prevent a panic” while fearing that he might be endangering people’s lives — including those of his own family:
“Vladimir Matveevich Ivanov Former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee[:]
I’m a product of my time. I’m a believing Communist. Now it’s safe to curse at us. It’s fashionable. All the Communists are criminals. Now we answer for everything, even the laws of physics.
They pronounced a verdict on the past, on our whole life.
I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party. In the papers they write that it was, you know, the Communists who were at fault: They built poor, cheap nuclear power plants, they tried to save money and didn’t care about people’s lives. People for them were just sand, the fertilizer of history. Well, the hell with them! The hell! It’s the cursed questions: What to do and whom to blame? These are questions that don’t go away. Everyone is impatient, they want revenge, they want blood.
Others keep quiet, but I’ll tell you. The papers write that the Communists fooled the people, hid the truth from them. But we had to. We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, telling us: You have to prevent a panic. And it’s true, a panic is a frightening thing. There was fear, and there were rumors. People weren’t killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic.
But that’s what’s happening now. Everything’s falling apart. No government. Stalin. Gulag archipelago. They pronounced a verdict on the past, on our whole life. But think of the great films! The happy songs! Explain those to me! Why don’t we have such films anymore? Or such songs?
In the papers — on the radio and television they were yelling, Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded: Truth! Well, it’s bad, it’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob. Look around. What’s happening now? [Silent.] If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Stavgorod in diapers. It was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should stay with our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party! I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own child? [Goes on for some time but it becomes impossible to understand what he’s saying.]”