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Svetlana Alexievich, The Dostoevsky of Nonfiction

The Nobel Prizewinner’s compassionate oral histories resist Cold War narratives

Sergei Gapon / Getty

Svetlana Alexievich, a 67-year-old dissident writer who was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Belarus, became the first female Russian-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature Thursday. The choice was clearly a political one, as often happens with the prize, and it was understood as such: My first thought when I heard the news was that as far as the Swedish Academy is concerned, the Cold War is back. The Russian opposition journalist Oleg Kashin seemed to concur, writing that the Nobel would make Alexievich’s voice loud enough to rival Putin’s. And in her first public response, Alexievich denounced Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, calling it an “occupation” and a “foreign invasion.”

“I love the kind Russian world, the humanitarian Russian world,” she said, “but I do not love the Russian world of Beria, Stalin, Putin, and Shoigu,” she said. (Beria was a key political figure under Stalin; Shoigu is Russia’s current Minister of Defense.)

Unlike most Nobel laureates in literature, Alexievich writes nonfiction. Her chief technique is collage. She combines the voices of many ordinary to give us a new vision of historical events: World War II and its aftermath, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl. Alexievich believes in the importance of remembering the horrors of the past in order avoid repeating them. In Unchildlike Stories, an oral history of the children of the Second World War, she writes, “A man without a memory is only capable of doing evil, nothing else but evil.” Alexievich fits naturally into the post-Holocaust and post-Soviet ethic of memory as preventive medicine. In this, she is a Nobel laureate in the style of Solzhenitsyn. So far, so Cold War.

But Alexievich’s work is more complicated than the political narrative suggests. Alexievich was originally a journalist, and says that she learned early on that “the best way to learn about life was through the sound of human voices.” In War’s Unwomanly Face, about the experiences of Soviet women who served during World War II, she writes, “In apartments and cottages, on the street and in the train…I listen…More and more, I turn into one large ear, always turning to another person.” Alexievich has said that her work is inspired by the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who wrote “collective novels” or “epic choruses” about the horrors of war.

Another of Alexievich’s clear influences is Dostoevsky, whom she mentions often. She shares his belief that compassion is the greatest hope for humankind, and his rejection of the cycles of revenge that have dictated so much of human history. Like Dostoevsky, Alexievich uses seemingly artless prose, littered with ellipses, to give us truth, conveyed through the gathering strength of many voices. Like Dostoevsky, Alexievich is concerned not only with national realities, but with universal human values. It will be a pity if she is understood as a strictly anti-Soviet or anti-totalitarian writer. Although her work paints a lovingly detailed picture of Soviet and post-Soviet reality, her concerns transcend historical particularities.

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, starts with Alexievich not wanting to write about war. In the process of writing two books about World War II, she filled herself to the brim with other people’s suffering. Now even one more drop would make her overflow. Suddenly everything was unbearable: a child’s nosebleed, the bulging eyes of a fish caught on a line.

She doesn’t want to write about war again, but she must. The other journalists and writers covering the Afghan war, which was conducted under a veil of secrecy and lies from 1979-1989, are “fairytale merchants.” Alexievich is the only woman in the group. “I can’t rid myself of the feeling that war is a product of the male nature,” she writes. She’s the only journalist who isn’t dying to go to the front and “do a bit of shooting,” something to brag about later. Instead, she worries about the ethics of writing about soldiers. For her, the “zinky boys” sent home in zinc coffins are relatively lucky: far worse to be left crippled, begging on crutches in railway stations, or to be driven insane, like the boy who can’t stop digging trenches, even in the soil of potted ficus plants. Perhaps worst of all, no one will listen to them. A poet who served in the war tells her that no one wants to hear him and his fellow veterans talk: their mouths are full of blood.

The state’s regime of silence allows citizens to cling to long-cherished myths of cultural and moral superiority. “We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are and from the fear that such understanding would bring,” Alexievich writes in Zinky Boys. “Nothing, not even human life, is more precious to us than our myths about ourselves. We’ve come to believe the message, drummed into us for so long, that we are superlative in every way, the finest, the most just, the most honest.” She’s writing about the Soviet people, but her words hold a much broader truth. She asks whether it’s good to “kill in the name of socialism.” Today, we might also ask whether it’s good to kill in the name of freedom, or democracy. We can compare the Soviet war in Afghanistan, with its secrecy and its aggressive concealment of casualties, to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine; but we can also compare it to the long-running American nightmares in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Unchildlike Stories, Alexievich says that the hero of her book is “childhood which was burnt, shot, and killed by bombs, bullets, hunger, fear and fatherlessness.” Much of her work focuses on caregivers, often women: the people who took in the orphans of World War II, the women who cared for maimed, traumatized Afghan war veterans, the loyal wives who insisted on nursing their radioactive husbands as they died after cleaning up the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich knows that caregivers are often forgotten or worse, as we saw last week in the US’s sustained bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. For Alexievich, as for Dostoevsky, compassion does not choose sides. In Unchildlike Stories, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad recalls how she went on to give her own food to German POWs and, much later in life, had to run out of the room when she saw hungry Palestinian refugees on television. She simply couldn’t stand the sight of hunger.

“How can we preserve our planet on which little girls are supposed to sleep in their beds, and not lie dead on the road with unplaited pigtails?...In the name of such womanly faith as mine, this book is written!” Alexievich declares in Unchildlike Stories. In her view, it’s women’s nature to oppose war: they give life, and are therefore less willing to take it. Women see the world differently, and their voices can have a transformative effect. If you can get women to speak about their own experience of war, she writes in War’s Unwomanly Face, you’ll discover that it has “its own colors, smells, and light, its own emotional space, its own words. There are no heroes or unbelievable feats, only people who are absorbed in an inhuman kind of human work. And it’s not only people who suffer, but the earth, the birds, the trees. All of nature suffers with us, without words, which is even more frightening.”