Svetlana Alexievich’s History of Human Feelings
The Nobel Laureate on Creating a New Genre
In 2015, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Born to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarusian father, Alexievich depicts life during and after the Soviet Union through the experience of individuals in dramatic events, such as World War II, the Afghan War, the Chernobyl tragedy, and the USSR’s collapse. In The Red Cycle, Alexievich creates a unique collage of a wide range of voices through what she calls “conversations,” sometimes conducting many with a single subject in order to break through to a moment of stunning truth. Alexievich was trained as a journalist but breaks new ground in the boundary between reporting and fiction by insisting that her books are “documentary novels.” Her latest book, Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets was recently translated into English (by Bela Shayevich) and published by Random House.
Alexievich’s central message is that post-communist countries like Belarus will not become free and democratic if the citizens of these societies cannot free themselves from the destructive Soviet legacy that affects even young people who have never lived under communism. She was recently hosted at Washington, DC’s National Endowment for Democracy at a standing room only lunchtime event; policymakers, academicians, pundits, and media all came to hear the prize-winning author in conversation with Leon Wieseltier, the former longtime literary editor at The New Republic and now a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
(NB: Svetlana Alexievich spoke in Russian; headsets were provided for simultaneous translation, and while any mistakes in translation might be lost, any mistakes in transcription are my own.)
Alexievich began by explaining why she has developed a new way of documenting history. “Life is much faster than any event,” she told Wieseltier. “It involves a lot of people, a lot of witnesses and testimonies.” She said that from her earliest memories, she found her childhood home and village “much more interesting than fiction. Journalism is wonderful, but still limiting. It takes only the upper layer of life. I want to delve deeper, to see the truth of human beings.”
She slowly realized, “Why not compose a novel using live voices? Every person has a deeper truth. . . I never call what I do ‘interviews.’ We speak to each other as neighbors, in a new genre that is required by our time. It is a history of human feelings.”
Wieseltier asked Alexievich to expand on what this “history of human feelings” is, and she responded by talking about details that would be “lost in the scheme of grand history, a tremble of the heart that reveals our true humanity.” She then told the story of a woman she spoke with who had been a combatant in World War II. When Alexievich asked her what she had packed to bring to the front, the woman said she brought “a suitcase full of chocolate bonbons.”
“These are normal women who had their own humanity,” said Alexievich. “I do not collect catastrophes. I collect moments of the human journey.”
Since her new book’s subtitle is “The Last of the Soviets,” Wieseltier and Alexievich spent some time discussing Homo sovieticus, also known as “the sovok:” Citizens of the former USSR who have internalized that lost society’s ideals. “To me the sovok is a tragic notion,” said Alexievich, who explained that her father was “90 years a communist” and always found an explanation for what his government did. Her own “free moment” came when the truth about Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was revealed. “My Dad didn’t have anything to say to that,” she said. “He just cried.”
“If a person doesn’t know what freedom means, they can’t process the information they are getting,” she said. “Freedom is not a holiday, it’s not a feast, it’s not tomorrow. It’s a long journey, and it takes work.” Wieseltier noted that she seems to be examining political versus societal emancipation, “the magnitude of the disorientation and dislocation of a society when a dictatorship falls.” Alexievich agreed: “We were just shown the windows of the Western stores, but we didn’t think about the work of freedom. We didn’t have people who could tell anyone about that work.”
As the formal conversation came to a close, Wieseltier asked Alexievich if it is her intention to use her moral authority as an artist to effect change. She answered by describing the current mood in her country and in the rest of the former Soviet states: “As of now, everyone is in waiting mode.” Many of her closest friends and associates are reading literature written during the 1920s in Germany and in pre-revolutionary Russia, other times of foreboding.
Alexievich was a bit more specific while answering questions from the audience. “I’m not a big fan of revolution,” she told one person. “It is very hard for an artist to step over human life. . . I always think the barricades are a bad place for artists.” When Wieseltier asked her if she is a pessimist, Alexievich told him, “I am not so much a pessimist, but we have been romanticizing notions of freedom for so long. We need to be realists; a new age is upon us.”
Afterwards, I asked Wieseltier where else we might see this new genre that Svetlana Alexievich has created. “People in this country have compared her to Studs Terkel, which is unfair,” He said. “She’s much more profound, much more nuanced, she is herself a kind of spiritual figure, of spiritual intensity. In principle, her methods could be applied to the study or the portraiture of any society. She thinks that art has failed to capture some very significant things about the society that she knows. But it’s not a method that is confined to her society, by any means.”
What about her editing process? Wieseltier emphatically responded that Alexievich’s work “is not journalism. This is literature. It’s only after she’s gotten to know a person, after there’s been some kind of spiritual connection made, that she gives an account of that conversation. But in a book like this, one has to trust her—and she asks for that trust.”