Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’

In conversations 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 work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience 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 of South 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 a talk 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 2m, 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 75 Germans 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 were taboo during the Soviet period and have once again been excised from Putin’s Russia: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, by which Stalin and Hitler carved up Europe, the executions of deserters and the psychological effects of war for years 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 the women in Alexievich’s book, most of whom are now dead, feel all the more important today. There is no lack of 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 on Russian 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 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 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 11 years 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. But it turns out you can’t leave this and become 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.”

During her trip to Moscow, she gives a talk at Gogol Centre, an edgy theatre space known for its outspoken director and controversial productions. The lecture is rambling and in places barely coherent, but receives multiple rounds of applause from an audience eager to display their liberalism and disdain for Putin’s militarism. The questions are mainly gushing odes to her work.

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