The Belarusian novelist and journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Alexievich is the author, most famously, of Voices From Chernobyl, an oral history of the nuclear disaster. Her fiction and nonfiction tend to focus on the Soviet Union and its collapse—aside from Chernobyl, she has also written about the Soviet experience during World War II and the Afghan War. In a statement accompanying the announcement, the Nobel Prize Committee praised Alexievich's “extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices,” which “deepens our comprehension of an entire era.”
Born in the Ukraine in 1948 and raised in the Belarusian capitol of Minsk, Alexievich is the 14th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Three of her works are available in English—alongside Voices From Chernobyl are another oral history, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, and and War’s Unwomanly Face, a hybrid book about women who joined the Soviet Army, encompasses fiction and oral history and sold over 2 million copies when it was released in 1985. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, War's Unwomanly Face is “based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, Voices of Utopia, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.” Alexievich is also the author of three plays and over twenty documentary screenplays. Her books have been translated into 39 languages.
Alexievich is notable for her style of intertwining literature and reportage, to create “novels of voices,” according to the website of her literary agent Galina Dursthoff's website. “I see the world as voices, as colors, as it were,” she says in a quote provided by Dursthoff. “From book to book, I change, the subjects change, but the narrative thread remains the same. It is the narrative thread of the people I have come to know. … With thousands of voices I can create—you could hardly call it reality, since reality remains unfathomable—an image of my time, of my country. ... It all forms a sort of small encyclopedia, the encyclopedia of my generation, of the people I came to meet. How did they live? What did they believe in? How did they die and how did they kill? And how hard did they pursue happiness, and did they fail to catch it?” In an interview with Charter 97, she was more specific about her interest in Soviet and post-Soviet history, saying “Socialism and fascism are two ideas of the 20th century. They are very insidious and beguiling. I have always wanted to know why this moment of blindness in society, like in today's Russia, happens.”
Alexievich's “fundamental project is to uncover the Russian soul,” said Jacques Testard, publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, which will release Second-Hand Time, an oral history about nostalgia for the Soviet Union in the UK in May 2016. “As a writer, she has a very unusual style because she gives space to other people's stories, building up different narratives to make a greater whole.”
Bela Shayevich, who is translating Second-Hand Time, concurred, telling me Alexievich illuminates “the lives of the thousands of nameless individuals history steamrolls in its path. People just like us. Who speak eloquently to the suffering that one is exposed to, forced into, as a pawn in a greater geopolitical game. She transforms the scale of writing on contemporary history, essentially arguing that it's all human interest and proving that the most interesting thing are humans themselves, the individuals who lead complex but mundane lives amidst all the explosions. She shows how people survive unimaginable tragedy, and how it breaks them, revealing a universal, metaphysical dimension to extremely localized experiences.”
Shayevich believes that Alexievich's work as an oral historian is essential for readers in the West. “As foreigners to another culture, we usually look at political events—political leaders—maybe a few cultural artifacts—songs, articles of clothing—we turn these things over in our hands and minds, seeking conclusions we can arrive to about the culture they come from, but we have no idea what these things mean in context or what they are used for. Oral history is the only genre capable of providing that context. The context for understanding how history and culture play out in real people's lives and truly learning about who these people are.”
While her criticism of the government of her home country has forced her to live abroad in the past, Alexievich returned to Belarus in 2011, though she is unable to publish there. Nevertheless, Alexievich "shouldn't be characterized as a dissident," according to Testard. “She's a journalist. She's not judgemental. She lets people tell their stories and allows the reader to make their own judgment.” In an interview following the Nobel announcement, Alexievich said she considers herself “a person from the Belarusian world, from Russian culture, and a cosmopolitan of the world.” According to the Financial Times's Henry Foy, the majority of the questions Alexievich was asked at a press conference following the announcement were political in nature. Alexievich told reporters that she had not received a phone call from Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko and that Belarusian authorities "pretend [she] does not exist." She also indicated that she will not vote in Sunday's presidential election, which Lukashenko is expected to win, but that she would back the opposition candidate, were she to vote. Belarus has often been referred to as “Europe's last dictatorship.”
Although Alexievich was the betting favorite leading up to the announcement (Ladbrokes had her at 3/1 odds) she's still an interesting and surprising choice—the prize is rarely awarded to a nonfiction writer. Alexievich is a rigorous writer who often works in oral history—think of her as a drearier and more difficult Studs Terkel—and a brilliant journalist devoted to the darkest moments of Soviet history.