Literature's Womanly Face

This woman is one of the most (if not the most) published contemporary Belarusian authors. Her books have been translated and printed in more than 20 countries. However, today most of the new editions of Svetlana Alexievich’s works first see the world through publishing outside of Belarus. If you had a chance to look into the informal blacklist, drawn up by the Belarusian official ideologists, you would definitely find her name somewhere near the top. Nevertheless, in spite of being blacklisted, writing in Russian, and living in Sweden, books by Svetlana Alexievich occupy a distinguished place on a shelve with the most worthy items of modern Belarusian literature. 

In her autobiography Svetlana calls herself “Belarusian prose writer, writing in Russian”. She was born on May 31, 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk (Ukraine). Her father, native Belarusian, was a military officer; her mother was Ukrainian. Svetlana’s family spent several years in Ukraine and then decided to permanently move to Belarus. Svetlana Alexievich surrendered to her craving for creative writing and went to Minsk to study journalism. After graduation she changed from one newspaper to another until she finally got a job at the literary magazine “Neman.”
Svetlana was looking for her own path in literature. She wrote short stories, essays and journalistic reports. According to Svetlana, it was Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who had a decisive influence on her creative style. She was struck by his books I Come from the Fiery Village and Blockade Book, which documented the tragic fate of people, who survived WWII atrocities in the burnt-down villages of Belarus and during the Leningrad blockade.
“For a long while I have been searching for the literary genre, which would be in harmony with the way I see the world. Finally, I began to record people’s voices. I look out and listen to my books on the streets. In my books real people tell about the main events of their time – war, collapse of the socialist empire, Chernobyl. Together, these events compose the history of a country. And every single voice tells its own tiny history of a human fate,” writes Svetlana Alexievich in her autobiographic notes.
In 1983 Svetlana completed her first book War's Unwomanly Face. For two years it collected dust in a state publishing house. The book consisted of narratives of women, who fought in the Red Army during WWII. Contradictory to the Soviet clichés of the time, they not only saved soldiers as sisters of mercy – many of these women were sharpshooters, pilots, tank drivers… They had to kill – and so they did. The women told Svetlana about their rage mixed with pity towards those, who were killed on both sides, about battlefields, full of corpses, and their attempts to shed away the memories of the war after it was over. They also trusted her with their bitter experiences of lacking acknowledgement of their input into victory – the typical WWII hero in the Soviet Union was usually depicted as a male soldier… Soviet ideologists immediately accused Svetlana of smearing the image of Red Army. Fortunately, the Perestroika period broke out in 1985, and War's Unwomanly Face found its way to the reader. The book was published in several major Soviet literary magazines as well as a separate edition, with the total of more than 2,000,000 copies. She published her second book Last Witnesses (100 Non-Children Stories) the same year. It contained children’s stories from WWII. As Svetlana puts it, “War seen with children’s eyes becomes even more awful”.
Zinky Boys, perhaps the most famous book by Svetlana, appeared in 1989. Here is an excerpt from the review, published in the magazine “Publishers Weekly”: “The 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, as Russian author Alexievich remarks in this oral history, wrenched boys from their daily life of school or college, music and discos, and hurled them into a hell of filth. She conveys that hell here through the grotesque memories of infantrymen, helicopter pilots, tank crewmen, medical corpsmen and political officers who survived the ordeal, plus those of widows and mothers of fighters--zinky boys brought home in zinc coffins.” According to Svetlana, “this is a book about the criminal Afghan war, which has been hidden from people for a decade.” In order to write this book, Svetlana traveled many thousand miles across Soviet Union, interviewing the ex-soldiers and mothers of the killed. She also flew to Afghanistan, to see the war with her own eyes. Zinky Boys had an effect of an exploded bomb. An attempt to bring Svetlana before the court for “defaming the heroic international help of Soviet Army to the people of Afghanistan” was made, but the process died out after numerous protests of native and foreign intellectuals.
“I was often asked one question – why do you write so much about war?” confesses Svetlana Alexievich. “The reason is that we haven’t had any other history but war. Our whole history is a military one. That is why blood is being so easily shed on the lands of the former empire”.
In 1993 Svetlana Alexievich published a book “Taken up with Death,” a set of stories of people, who commited suicide or attempted to take their own lives, having failed to cope with the disappearance of the socialist ideas.
“It’s a book telling the story of us recovering from anaesthesia of the past, from the hypnosis of the Great Fraud... From the murderous Idea...” says the author.
In 1997 a new book by Svetlana Alexievich was published under the title The Chernobyl Prayer. “This is not a book about Chernobyl, this is a book about the world after Chernobyl,” explains Svetlana. “After Chernobyl we live in another world. Two catastrophes coincided – a cosmic one, which is Chernobyl, and a social one, when the whole socialist continent sunk. This, second crash was more understandable for us, and it overshadowed the first one. What happened in Chernobyl is unique; we are the first people on Earth who are going through something like that.”
Now the writer is working on her new book A Wonderful Deer of Eternal Hunt. The author doesn’t reveal all secrets, but it is already known that the book will present stories about love between men and women of different generations. “It’s a book about a Russian person who wants to be happy, but constantly fails,” writes Svetlana.
Rather than recording the naked history of facts and figures, Svetlana Alexievich is aiming at creating the history of feelings. “You can also call it the missed history”, she says. Svetlana spends 4-7 years working on each book, interviewing about 500-700 people. “My chronicles begin with the stories of people who remember revolutions, who lived through wars, Stalin concentration camps, and, finally, it reaches our time“, explains Svetlana. “The timespan is about 100 years. This is a history of a soul – of a Russian soul. Or, to be more exact, of a Russian-Soviet soul. It is a history of a great and horrible communist Utopia, which ideas are not yet extinct in Russia as well as in the rest of the world. They will continue to tempt people’s minds in devilish ways”.
On one hand, Svetlana enrages official ideologists with her critical stance towards the present political regime. On another, she also somewhat estranged many freethinking Belarusian intellectuals from herself by actively pointing her belonging to the Russian culture. More generally, Svetlana positions herself as a universal, cosmopolitan writer. But many of her Belarusian colleagues, also blacklisted, believe that someone so closely connected with Belarus cannot afford such a position today, when the neo-Soviet regime in Minsk is suppressing national Belarusian culture on all fronts. These contradictory viewpoints came to light in the polemics between Svetlana Alexievich and Valiantsin Taras, published in September 2007, in the independent Belarusian weekly newspaper Nasha Niva. Valiantsin Taras, another renowned Belarusian writer, who was a soldier during WWII, recently changed from writing Russian to Belarusian. For him, writing in Belarusian is like a yellow Star of David, which the Danish King wore on his clothes during the Nazi occupation, a sign of solidarity with the culture, which experiences something close to a genocide. Of course, Sviatlana Alexievich is well aware with the suppression of national culture in Belarus. However, she argues that Belarusians shouldn’t put too much faith into nationalistic romanticism, which can lead them into a dangerous temptation. According to her, in the times of globalization, Belarusians should be flexible if they want to survive as distinctive people in the world, which is more and more prone to the influence of mass culture.
One shouldn’t be misguided by this disagreement. For Belarus, where the authoritarian regime is striving to impose one single opinion on the whole nation, having such arguments is an important sign of vitality of the country’s free-thinking culture. Intellectuals argue, but they also listen to each other, fueling the cultural development with their discourse.
“We ought not to become hostages of Lukashenka, of his intellect, worthy of a soviet collective farm director”, said Svetlana Alexievich in her recent interview to Radio Liberty. “It is especially important for intellectuals to escape from his captivity, from under his hypnosis, to feel themselves in the world, not only in Belarus. I shall repeat it once more – in the world, as Belarusians, but – in the world.”
by Ales Kudrytski
For the ODB
The books by Svetlana Alexievich can be found at