Svetlana Alexievich was going to have a meeting for the first time in Ukraine. However, it was cancelled because of the provocation: Svetlana was added to the website Myrotvorets (gathers information about separatists) and deleted from there in an hour. The meeting was hosted by the Green Theatre, and it was threatened. This is the reason why the meeting with a prominent Western European writer had to be cancelled. Several hours before that, Opinion managed to take an exclusive interview with Alexievich and ask her about the censorship, soviet mindset and the XX century Ukrainian history which has just been revealed.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015 for “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. She described and saved an oral history of Soviet times. For half of the century, piece by piece, she was documenting a military way of a countrywoman, the first soldier killed in Afghan, a tragedy of an emergency group member from Chornobyl etc. – the life which will never be in propaganda student books: tough but full of humanity and love life. She is known and respected at any historic or literary conference in Europe and the USA. Nevertheless, she needs post-soviet landscapes and people as air. Unfortunately, “a voice of thousands of the miserable and the strong” isn’t respected by Russian and Belarusian political establishment. She couldn’t manage to take the floor in Odesa.
Several days ago in Belarus, ten oppositional journalists were detained. A state informational agency BelTa seems to be the reason for it. Is it a tendency or a one-off in Belarus?
It is a political process in Belarus. Authorities are gradually dismissing old editors – even those who seem to be loyal. They are getting ready for tough times as we are extremely economically-challenged now. Russia has stipulated the condition: either we become dependent on it as its part or they “turn off the taps”. It has been lasting for long. Oppositional media have narrowed topics they discuss. There are no new ideas, society don’t back up old ones. This is also because of the mind set: Belarusians are not a bellicose nation, and we are like in a swamp: neither authorities nor the opposition have new ideas. We need some changes, however your Maidan has scared our society, and people are not ready to come to the streets.
Despite this situation, you returned to Belarus after almost twenty years of emigration.
It was good to live in Europe, and I was successful as a writer. But I need to live at home to write something. Especially, working in a genre I work in.
You are most likely to gather information piece by piece. In 2014, the Ukrainian National Security Agency has revealed the KGB archives. Many historians are immensely researching documents of the last century. They base their articles and books on them. Is it possible to get an access to such information in Belarus?
Belarus is a closed, military and totalitarian country, we don’t have such freedom. Belarus is likely to be one of the most closed post-soviet countries. That’s why many historians become accomplices of what is happening now. They are servants of their country. Others spend their best years, not having a possibility to do what they love. We are not writers who write what they want. A historian documents…
That’s why you started to conduct interviews with witnesses of the war, of the Chornobyl disaster containment in the 90-s and of other events in your books?
No, this is my view on the history. I wanted and was doing it more than for 30 years – I was writing “the history of red times” – 5 books – the last one “Second-Hand Time” when it had already collapsed. I wanted to write from another point of view. I thought that literature was expanding then, that traditional literature couldn’t catch up with what was happening, and I was looking for that form. This form turned out to have existed since the First World War: Sofia Sidorchenko, who was writing down pieces of conversations. In Soviet times, this style was being developed by my teacher Ales Adamovich in his book “Out of the Fire”. There were documental memories of the people, whose village was burnt together with its citizens by Germans.
Are people ready to speak about war horrors they survived?
It is not hard to gather memories. I was looking for a new view on this war, to ask what they had never mentioned. The events were that strong and terrible that they were kept deep inside of memory. The hardest thing was to tear off a cloth of common phrases: what newspapers and the party were talking about. I came to a woman and she said, “the whole Soviet nation went to the war, a Soviet woman…” – nothing but clichés. Or her husband was telling her the whole night what she had to say. How he understands the war. I had to set women free from a man’s view of the war as it is a men’s world and territory. I was looking for women’s memories. For example, I came to a factory where a woman-sniper was working. She remembered how he saw a German officer. She said, “he was so young, so handsome but I needed to shoot” – I wanted to convey these feelings. And a shop’s director said, “What do you need her for? I will give you the list of men-veterans.”
Did a soviet censorship let it be published?
They didn’t publish it for three years. When Gorbachev became the leader, he happened to read the book somehow. He was very impressed with it and it was published, however in a very shorted version. After the 90-s, the full version was published. By the way, Ukrainian the books were translated by Oksana Zabuzhko (Ukrainian writer).
Do you feel that generations and the mindset are changing? Do you think that the Second World War and Afghan veterans, the 90-s generation are extremely different?
These are absolutely different generations, different guns, and different wars. Our views are constantly changing. People of 1941 didn’t have the question “Is it scary to kill someone?” Perhaps, some women had such doubts, but not men. However, in Afghanistan, everybody was worried about this question: you have just finished your school, and now you are in a foreign country and have to kill somebody. Young men found themselves in a quite a different world, where there had been no socialism propaganda. They were told by old Afghans, “build socialism in your country, why are you here?” I was flying there by plane full of Marks and Lenin busts. There was an understanding that there were no heroes at war, if you had taken a gun in your hands, you couldn’t wait for the justice.
As for generations and the youth: for people born in the USSR, the Great Patriotic War is the main cultural artefact, while for the 90-s generation, it is eternally distant war.
There is some legitimacy that the system of values and views is changing. Why was “The Unwomanly Face of War” so successful – a 2 million circulation? Because women are not infected with a culture of war. They were talking about the loss of life, how it was scary to kill and die. They are more concerned about humanity. It is important for a modern person. I was talking about it in each book.
In Ukraine, it happened also because of a new war – the war in Donbas. New heroes, new enemies… It is most likely to create a new cultural identity, different from Russia and Belarus, isn’t it?
After the empire had collapsed, we all began living our own lives. We all have our own histories. For example, Russians have demonized a banerovets, while in Germany, I hear how cruel Belarusians partisans were. Ukrainians base on their own history and they are right at some point, as Belarusians are right. They were defending their land when Germans came. Russia solves its geopolitical issues and wants to keep Ukraine according to its historial views. They afraid to look at their war again: many killed, many to-be-killed. If it was possible to do when Yeltsin was a president, today, it is impossible. When we deal with geopolitics instead of the history, there is no truth.
Ukraine is divided into absolute militarism and pacifism followers. There are aggressive groups, which dream of taking Donetsk. Others don’t notice that there is a Russian flag in Crimea. You are a documentarist. In your opinion, is it a natural process?
It is a tragic time for Ukraine. When I see portraits of killed soldiers on Facebook… Of people who defend their land. Russia has got its big Euro-Asian plans – it can’t make it without Ukraine. It is clear what is happening. I, as a writer, stand for a value of a human life. I am a pacifist, let’s be clear. It was Zakhar Prilepin (Russian writer), who had a gun. When he was asked whether he had killed anyone, he answered, “it’s my job.” It is not for me…
Interview by Kostiantyn Rul
Photo by Pavlo Lebedev