Azzam Alkadhi watches Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich speak about forgiveness, peace and women at war
Focusing on the individual stories of thousands of interviewees, Belarusian journalist and author Svetlana Alexievich gives a unique and personal account of life in Soviet and post-Soviet times.
Winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2015, Alexievich was perhaps the star of the billing at this year’s FILBo, where she spoke about her books and her interest in the mundane, everyday existence of people living through tough times.
She uses the bigger events in history – Chernobyl, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, World War Two – simply as pretexts to shed light on human emotions, with her documentary style novels containing interviews with people from all spheres, not just the victims.
Speaking at a press conference during the book fair, Alexievich explains: “I myself grew up in a country where the population was divided between victims and aggressors. In the introduction to my latest book, there is a phrase from the great Russian poet Varlam Shalamov. He said that a concentration camp, a gulag, is equally damaging for the victim as for the murderer, because it corrupts them both.”
“In my books I never deprive the executioners of their voice, of the chance to shout their truth. What I want is to understand what they have in their soul, which also merits attention […] We need to know what motivates them, what ideas moved them. It’s not possible that they simply killed, liked animals, and treated people like animals.”
The 68-year-old writer’s books attempt to counteract the idea of history as simply a collection of facts, giving a voice and human context to events that are so often reduced to a succession of dates and events.
“I believe that it is necessary to explore the origins of problems, to look for the rationale behind things – you can’t eradicate a problem by simply stating facts,” explains Alexievich.
Of course it didn’t take long before she was being questioned about Colombia’s current situation and the parallels that can be drawn with victims of conflict elsewhere.
“I’ve heard your president [Santos] speak several times and I consider him to be a great person who is fighting for a great cause. However, not even the greatest person in the world is capable of carrying out as titanic a task as establishing peace in any country. That’s why every one of you, every member of society has to […] be conscious of the importance of peace, of the fact that hate will achieve nothing but a blood bath. This great objective, peace in Colombia, can only be achieved with love.”
She emphasises the need to treat victims, but also to give a voice to both sides. “Treating victims is very complicated,” Alexievich explains. The great occurrences in history, like World War Two […] created a victim culture – the victims were immersed in their resentment, keeping their desires for revenge, and this culture is very difficult to treat.”
“All victims need to be re-educated, helped to overcome the problems created by their previous suffering. To get out of this victim culture the state has to do everything in its power.”
“I spent a while living in Europe and noticed that, there, a lot of work is done around this topic [victim culture] on TV and in the media – there is the participation of psychologists, sociologists and many specialists in the treatment of victims because every victim needs to talk, to express the pain they carry inside.”
Perhaps treading on a thorny subject here in Colombia, she continues: “We also have to listen to the killers, the executioners.”
“I have always been interested by the problem of good and evil and I want to quote an episode from my book, about a man who remembered a certain Aunt Olga, who he was in love with as a small child. When he grew up his mother told him the truth, that in 1937 Aunt Olga had denounced her own brother, who died in a gulag […] Good and evil always go together, they interweave, and there is no dividing line between one and the other. Evil is not just Stalin, but the beautiful Aunt Olga.”
As she talks, it is clear that Alexievich is not comfortable or particularly at home with the level of fame that has been thrust upon her as a result of becoming the 14th female winner of the prize.
Awkwardly, and with a hint of resentment, she tells the gathered journalists: “Since being awarded the Nobel prize I have had to travel a lot, around the whole world, to the point that I am now missing my desk and being able to sit down to write. I am not a public person, I prefer to work alone, but I have to do this. I have to travel a lot, and I came to Bogotá, to this part of Latin America, because I don’t know it at all. I admire Gabriel García Márquez greatly, he is one of my favourite writers.”
Lucky for us, then, that she was awarded the prize, as Colombia most likely would not have had the chance to get to know a truly fascinating and inspiring person. At times she seems burdened by the number of stories she has heard, but at the same time seems keen to share various moments – spending up to ten years on each of her books, it is no wonder that she has so many anecdotes.
Referring to the one million Soviet women who participated in World War Two, she says: “I want to share one – after interviewing a woman, it seemed as if she wanted to confess what she really had in her soul, what she had been keeping inside, and she told me ‘Do you think that people think about dying heroically or that people are scared of dying? Yes, we really felt that fear but what scared me most was not dying at dawn when nature wakes up and the birds are singing, but dying in those ghastly male underpants that we were made to use. I was ready to die for my fatherland but not in the underwear I had on.”
This light-hearted moment leads Alexievich onto a discussion of the role of women in her books.
“The woman’s voice is very important, because men are always hostages of the culture of war. I was in Afghanistan and I realised that, unfortunately, men like war.”
“Women, on the other hand, are not hostages of the culture of war. It’s that way in every country, perhaps with the exception of Israel, where I saw some young women who were the same size as the machine guns they were holding. War and women are incompatible, which is why their voice is so important in re-establishing peace anywhere in the world.”
“In my book War’s Unwomanly Face, women describe the whole truth, they deprive war of all the heroism that the press, official literature and macho culture attribute to it. They expose it and simply say how frightening it is to kill and how frightening it is to die.”
Clearly impassioned by the topic, Alexievich continues: “I was told about a young mercenary who was going to Chechnya to fight and his mother said him ‘don’t think that you are going to be a hero out there. The one who is going to be fighting is me – while you are at war I will also be at war and I don’t know how you will return, maybe mutilated, or if I’ll still be alive when you get back. I have a sick heart, the war is mine too’”
Unsurprisingly, Alexievich’s writing has not been popular with certain authorities, with her scathing commentary on Russia and Belarus’s political regimes, but this is not something that fazes her, despite many years in exile from Belarus.
“One has to be prepared to confront authority because, if you work seriously, express what you think and put your whole soul into what you are doing, problems with the authorities are inevitable. And now people are experiencing this both with Lukashenko [President of Belarus] and Putin.”
“One has to continue on their path and do what feels right,” she continues. “When I returned from my time abroad, I wasn’t worried by the tense relations with Putin or Lukashenko, they just didn’t acknowledge me. They didn’t publish my works, they didn’t invite me to appear in the media, they didn’t interview me. But that’s not the problem – the problem is that people support Putin and Lukashenko.”
Her resolve shines through everything she says and it is clear to see that she is a firm believer in uncovering the reality of the world’s toughest situations, whether it be in Russia, Venezuela or Syria. She finishes with a simple but powerful message for writers and journalists everywhere: “Telling the truth is a necessity”.