by Tatyana Ivanova
The prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature 2015 has been awarded to my compatriot from Belarus, writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Many Belarusians pin their hopes on this prize. That’s why she started her Nobel Lecture at the Stockholm City Hall with the words: “I do not stand alone at this podium…There are voices around me, hundreds of voices.”
They are the voices of her protagonists that she interviewed over the decades. They are the voices of Belarusians she was hearing and evoking all her creative life. “Flaubert called himself a human pen,” she noted in her lecture. “I would say that I am a human ear.”
News of a homegrown Nobel laureate in literature is more important in Belarusian society than news of a politician, especially a dictator. Since its announcement in October, Alexievich’s prize has been the subject of heated discussions in Belarusian social networks as well as in all the independent mass media.
The novelty has stolen the spotlight from the “great” President Alexander Lukashenko. Journalists and civil society of late have found him relatively less interesting, even during his so-called election victory. Lately, he has been mentioned only when Alexievich brought him up or he criticized her.
Many remember Lukashenko in the context of the Ig Nobel Prize that he won 2013. The annual Ig Nobel Peace Prize, a kind of anti-Nobel, is awarded at Harvard University to poke fun at specious achievements. Lukashenko won his for making it illegal to applaud in public. The Belarus State Police also received the award—for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.
From Scant Applause to Critique
Svetlana Alexievich criticizes dictatorship and dictators of all kinds, including Lukashenko. She debunks their fraudulent elections and wars. At the same time, she distances herself profoundly from politics by positioning herself as a writer who studies human nature.
The German Deutsche Welle wrote about the “scant applause” for Alexievich in her home country:
About six hours after the Nobel Committee had named Svetlana Alexievich the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko congratulated the author, telling the state news agency Belta that he was “honestly happy” about her success, adding “I hope very much that her award will serve our state and the people of Belarus.” That was the extent of Lukashenko’s recognition. On Belarusian state television, the news from Stockholm was not a headliner but instead a dry news bulletin.
At her press conference in the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Alexievich said: “Dictatorship is primitive creation, usually headed by the unintelligent people.” The dictatorship in Minsk proved its primitivism by going to great lengths to ignore its Nobel Laureate. Instead of expressing national pride in Alexievich, Lukashenko started to criticize her, in much the same way the Soviet Union denounced Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov. Lukashenko said, in a transcript of a speech on the president’s website:
Some of our ‘artists,’ creative individuals, even Nobel Prize winners … went abroad and tried to pour a bucket of dirt over their country. It is completely wrong because, like your parents, or your mother, you don’t choose your motherland, your land. [Belarus] is what it is. If you speak badly about your motherland, are ashamed of her, that means you, above all, are a bad son.
The congratulations, celebrations, and meetings for Alexievich at the Minsk airport were from ordinary people, journalists, civil society representatives, and colleagues. Belarusians organized a “Let’s celebrate the Nobel Prize together” campaign through social media.
Heroes of Revolution
In her banquet speech after the Nobel Award Ceremony, Alexievich talked about Belarus. She explained that Belarus has not taken the path to democracy, despite declaring independence from the Soviet Union 25 years ago. Indeed, no change has come about since Soviet times. The country still gets called a “communist reservation.”
Yet behind the mask of what Lukashenko calls “stability,” Belarus is experiencing ongoing revolution. Alexievich spoke of the heroes bravely fight for liberty in Belarus that the Lukashenko regime has jailed, expelled, and killed.
Several generations have grown up since Belarus became independent after the August 1991 coup. Each of them has had its own revolution, has come out onto the Square to demonstrate, and each has wanted to live in a free country. They have all been beaten, sent to prison, driven out of universities, and fired from their jobs. Our revolution has not been victorious, but we do have our own revolutionary heroes. Freedom is not an instantaneous holiday, as we once dreamed. It is a road. A long road. We know this now.
According to Alexievich, the entire world is experiencing a return to a past of imperialism and totalitarianism. ”A barbaric era is upon us once again. An era of power. Democracy is in retreat,” she said. “We are witnessing a new clash between good and evil. We are both witnesses and participants.”
Some days later, in her interview with the online independent Russian TV Rain she talked about loyalty to totalitarianism in the post-soviet period: “We are tied to the past like dogs,” she said. “Empire in the 21st century–it is an absolute anachronism.”
Alexievich spoke about the tragedy of the “little red man” in her speech at the Stockholm City Hall. The figure of this little man has intrigued her for decades. He appears in her books as someone facing huge problems: war, perestroika, Chernobyl, and dictatorship. Her little man is a red man, a Soviet man, who survives his troubles and changes. The transformation of a Soviet man to a Chernobyl survivor and an adherent of dictator Putin or Lukashenko is something she has seen happen. Alexievich wonders about the nature of the little red man. Why is he still around after the end of the Soviet era? Why does he support a new dictatorship? Why is he prone to make war? Why does he create and maintain dehumanized geopolitical boundaries in which the value of human life approaches zero?
The little man is the one who does not care, does not influence, does not take part in decision-making on the important issues for society. He doesn’t even want to, and he is quite tenacious in his refusal. Part of the attraction of the figure of this little man is that he can be found not only in the post-Soviet zone of influence but elsewhere as well, even in the United States.
Links to Current Wars
Today Russia is making war again—in Ukraine, in Syria. She is surrounding herself with a ring of enemies by opposing the United States, European Union, and even former friends such as Turkey. In Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, where Putin has launched both conventional warfare and propaganda attacks—the social networks exploded with the quotations from the books of Alexievich. Ordinary people posted stories from her War’s Unwomanly Face about World War II and Zinky Boys about war in Afghanistan. These stories very much resemble the stories of contemporary wars in Ukraine and in Syria.
In her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm, Alexievich told one of her Afghanistan stories:
I drove to a hospital for Afghan civilians with a group of nurses – we brought presents for the children. Toys, candy, cookies. I had about five teddy bears. We arrived at the hospital, a long barracks. No one has more than a blanket for bedding. A young Afghan woman approached me, holding a child in her arms. She wanted to say something— over the last 10 years, almost everyone here has learned to speak a little Russian—and I handed the child a toy, which he took with his teeth. “Why with teeth?” I asked in surprise. She pulled the blanket off his tiny body—the little boy was missing both arms. “It was when your Russians bombed.” Someone held me up as I began to fall.
With her true war stories or her oral history about the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, Alexievich is addressing the same issue: abuse of power and the destruction of people. With the Nobel Prize, her books will now receive worldwide dissemination. Perhaps they can help prevent more of these disasters in the future.
Photo: Svetlana Alexievich
Tatyana Ivanova is a Belarusian journalist residing in the United States.