Russia Update: Belarusian Writer Alexievich Wins Nobel Literature Prize; ‘Russian World’ Unhappy

October 8, 2015
Svetlana Alexievich at a press conference October 8, 2015 upon learning she was recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photo by Sergei Grits/AP

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has won the Nobel Prize for literature, and although she writes in Russian, the “Russian World” promoters are not happy.

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Belarusian Writer Svetlana Alexievich Wins Nobel Prize for Literature, But ‘Russian World’ is Unhappy

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian writer who writes in the Russian language, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Charter 97, the Belarusian web site reported citing the Nobel web site.

Those who have followed Belarus and writers in the Eurasian region in general already recognized Alexievich for her famous Zinky Boys [Zinkovy Malchiki], so named for the zinc coffins in which the Soviet army returned the bodies of Soviet soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan.

Her work was crucial in raising public consciousness about the sacrifices made by Soviet soldiers and their families in the war in Afghanistan, which played a role in the decision by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the war.

Alexievich has been a long-time critic of the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who came to power in 1996 and has methodically eradicated much of civil society in his 19 years of rule.

Alexievich was born in the city of Stanislav, now called Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine in 1948. Her mother was Belarusian and her father Ukrainian. Her family moved to Soviet Belarus where she went to school in the Gomel Region and graduated from the journalism faculty of Belarusian State University. Her first novel, War Doesn’t Have a Woman’s Face in 1983 brought her to the attention of the regional public. Then Zinky Boys and Chernobyl Prayer, on the aftermath of the nuclear explosion in Ukraine which devastated neighboring Belarus as well, secured her reputation as one of the greatest writers of conscience in the post-Soviet space, even as her books were banned in her homeland.

After leaving Belarus to live in 2000, Alexievich returned to Belarus only in 2013. At a press conference after the news of the Nobel prize, she said (translation by The Interpreter):

“I don’t love those 84% Russian citizens who call for the murder of Ukrainians. I love the ‘Russian World’ of literature and science, but I do not respect the ‘Russian World of Putin and Stalin.’

I love Ukraine very much. I was on the Maidan and cried over the photographs of the Heavenly Hundred.

I’m a representative of the Belarusian world.”

At the time of her news conference earlier today, Alexievich noted that no Belarusian officials had yet congratulated her. But according to a report, Lukashenka did finally weigh in later today with a stilted comment:

“Your work has not left indifferent not just Belarusians but readers in many countries of the world.”

He said he was “sincerely glad” for the prize and added:

“I very much hope that your prize will serve our state and the Belarusian people.” noted that Alexievich is “an opponent of the current Belarusian government,” and that her web site says that a “military socialist regime has been restored” in Belarus and that it is a “new post-Soviet dictatorship.”

Aleksiyevich has also called the Russian annexation of Crimea “an occupation.”

Speaking of her prize, Aleksiyevich said she believes she was given the award not for one specific book but for her work as a whole, particularly for the six books in the cycle called Red Person. Voice of Utopia which include, in addition to the works already noted above, Last Witnesses, Charmed Death and Second-Hand Time, which was the first of her books to be published in Belarus, albeit with only 500 copies.

Russian cultural minister Vladimir Medinsky sent congratulations to Alexievich. But as noted in a piece titled “Nobel Strike” today, Russian nationalists were not happy that a Russian-language writer critical of the Kremlin had won the Nobel prize — just as the last Nobel prize given for Russian literature went to the poet Joseph Brodsky, who was branded a “parasite” by the Soviet regime and forced into exile, and the prizes before that went to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of the Gulag Archipelago and Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. neverthless makes an effort to claim her — “Even if she is in clear opposition to the government — both the Belarusian and Russian – she remains a part of post-Soviet life” as she “lives now in Belarus, travels to Russia and gives interviews and meets with readers in these countries.” Her award is important because she is not a writer of literary novels but a documentalist, says

“Her books are complex montages of the testimonies of the era, the voice of ordinary people who fell out of official history, filled with dry dates, facts and the names of politicians.”

Alexievich says of her own methodology:

 “I put together the world of my books from thousands of voices, fates, pieces of our everyday life and existence. I have taken four to seven years to write each of my books, meeting and talking and recording 500-700 people. My chronicle covers dozens of generations. It begins with the stories of people who remember the revolution, who went through the wars, the Stalinist labor camps, and comes to our time — almost 100 years. It is the history of the soul — the Russian soul. Or to be more precise — the Russian-Soviet soul.”

Yet the reaction to her prize has been “contradictory,” says

Quite a few people have considered that the prize was given to her for politics, and she supposedly cannot write. Really, what kind of writer is it that only talks to people and gathers their stories in books. But decades of caring about the little guy and his feelings is worth a lot. As it turns out, even a Nobel Prize. Commentators who openly admit that they didn’t read her books but judge her for her “hatred of Russia” are particularly “enjoyable” — they virtually repeat word for word the famous [Soviet-era] statement “I didn’t read Pasternak, but I condemn him.”

Alexievich’s books have been published in Russia, but in print runs of 20,000 copies — by contrast with the millions of Medinsky’s books, comments

Aleksiyevich is considered “opposition” not merely because she criticizes Lukashenka or Putin but because she defies the basic premise of great-power state: that the suffering of ordinary people is needed to strengthen the nation, says She concludes from her hundreds of interviews with victims of World War II, the war in Afghanistan, or other disasters of the Soviet era that rather than strengthening the soul, such experiences “cement it and it cannot develop.”

As a pacifist, she is considered a traitor although the world needs “the female anti-war view,” says patronizingly, as a counterweight to the brutal “nationalist interests” of the government.

Her prize has sparked debates in Russia and the region about the meaning of the concept of the “Russian World” — invoked by Putin in backing the armed separatist war in Ukraine. When a person such as Alexievich appears who in fact represents that concept at least in a literal sense — she was born in Ukraine, was educated in Belarus, but speaks and writes in Russian — then the denizens of the “Russian World” want to call her “Belarusian” or “a native of Western Ukraine” to disassociate themselves from her. says that like many who grew up in the former USSR, “she does not notice that the country has changed” and finds that she has “not changed her genre or her heroes”:

“For 40 years, I have been writing the same book, I am keeping a Russian-Soviet chronicle: revolution, GULAG, the war…Chernobyl..the fall of the ‘Red Empire…I kept pace with the Soviet era. Behind is a sea of blood and a gigantic mass grave…”

Alexievich has written that “Our people have suffered the trials of the labor camps with greater dignity than the trial of the dollar,” but the Russian people would rather have myths and dreams rather than the documentation such a writer brings, concludes

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick