Svetlana Alexievich: ‘I am grateful to Belsat TV’ (in-depth interview)

Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, a 2015 Nobel laureate, granted an interview to Belsat TV journalist Alina Koushyk in the run-up of the award ceremony in Stockholm.

‘My Nobel prize is dedicated to those who disappeared in the darkness’

I am grateful to Belsat TV, that, in contrast to our state-run television, has shown solidarity with the world’s attention locked on us, with me as an author, with the people I wrote about. That’s how we should live our lives. You give an example of how people should treat each other. I do not take this prize as a personal award: it is dedicated to many generations of people who disappeared in the darkness without a trace. It is impossible not to bow to them. Our [Belarusian] government does not even know what ‘to love its people’ means.

Belsat: Our government is far from thinking in such terms…

I agree with you – they fail to think in strategical and historical terms. They just have goals: today we must survive, tomorrow we must win the election, etc. That is the thing that distinguished great leaders from placeholders.

Nevertheless, those in power are resilient in Belarus…

There are such form of autocracy in the former Soviet Union: Belarusian, Kazakh, and now Russian. In the 1990s we were so naïve when thinking that we became free. But it was a mistake. Freedom is a long way to go.

Do you think that we became closer to freedom on this way?

Of course. Firstly, we realized that one cannot gain freedom immediately. We realized that it takes a lot of doing. It became clear that no one should despair – neither our opposition which sometimes falls into disenchantment with the Belarusian people nor the Belarusians who are out of conceit with the opposition. One should know that it is impossible to become free at once. Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in prison, said that ‘a prison camp spoils both torturer and sacrifice’. All of us are ill and injured after the [Soviet] era.It will take us time to become free.

“We cannot jump out of our past”

What can the present-day Belarusian society be diagnosed with?

In my opinion, it can be diagnosed with the ‘impossibility to jump out of the past’. We are still tightly bound to it … I would not name the climate of fear [in Belarus], would not say that everyone is afraid of Lukashenka and his minions. Of course, it is true because people lose their jobs, their children are expelled from universities. But I think that most people have a fear of life: their present-day life is not similar to that of their parents, to the way they used to live. And they do not want to change something for the sake of their children and themselves. The only thing they dare to is to send children abroad.

Aren’t you afraid the authorities will start exerting pressure on you and you will have to leave the country?

I have just returned from abroad. I could stay there but I did not want to, I wanted to live at home. This is my country. Why should I leave? Let them leave. Where is their wealth? Let them go to the place where they keep their assets, where their bank is.

In your books you touch such complicated and sensitive issues … Your Nobel Prize, in fact, united the people, united all Belarusians who are happy about your victory, our common victory. Can one say that our strength also lies in positive developments?

I think we need such symbols. I remember the nation’s joy when Darya Domracheva, our outstanding biathlete, won. We were proud to be Belarusians and happy that the world got to know us better. Once I was going by taki taxi, and the driver told me: “I was in Poland, in Germany – and everyone knows Domracheva, knows that she is from Belarus.” And he said it with pride. Of course, we need such things.

And what can the world learn about Belarus from your books?

I hope that all the books that I have written for forty years – a sort of encyclopedia of Red Utopia – explain to people what we are, who we are, why we live the way we live, why we choose captivity instead of freedom once again. I hope that the books show tha the disease is deep-rooted. I remember being asked at the meetings in Western Europe: what people are you? After my recent book I see tears in people’s eyes: “Now we know what you had to go through, why it is so hard for you to start a new life.”

“Dictators leave, we remain”

Almost all Belarusians know who is Alexievich, but not so many people did read your books. What is to be done to have Belarusians read your books more? The Belarusian Language Society urge the authorities to add your works to the school curriculum. Isn’t it too soon?

War’s Unwomanly Face and, perhaps, Zinky Boys were in the school curriculum. I do not know whether they are till there. Even teachers are said to be pressing for it, and many give my books to pupils. A student wrote to me that a teacher lend her my book when it was unoficially banned. And when this girl was taking her entrance exam, she mentioned my name and began to tell about my books, an examiner told her that one should not cite a ‘fascist’ writer as an example. However, he still gave her a high grade because she is a smart girl. <…>

Of course, there is little point hoping that everyone will read my books. But I think that now many people are reading them. And it is not up to me, but the case is that we need to reconsider our past. We jumped over it and hoped we would manage to go further, but in vain. That is why we should ting all these things over.

How do you feel about your being called ‘Solzhenitsyn in a skirt?’

Solzhenitsyn did many years in camp and suffered so much … I do not dare to compare.

Before winning the Nobel Prize, you told journalists that you always wanted to be the best. Do you currently have a feeling that you have achieved great triumphs?

Not ‘the best’. In my young days I had a motto – the words of Leo Tolstoy – ‘You should head above the place where you need to get to otherwise you are blown out’. I was not conceited, I was just a person who does everything in their power.

Does [winning] the Nobel Prize mean that there is nothing more to do in life?

No, life is going on, there is a new book on my table, a great piece of work lies ahead of me again. No prize is able to change it.

You address our viewers with any words – lots of people watch Belsat TV.

Now we are facing very difficult and rough times. Not everyone has the courage to stand up to the situation. Under conditions of any authoritarian system it is very difficult to confront circumstances because the nation is not united, we are always separated. But we should not despair, we should do our part with calm and dignity. If it is not possible to defeat evil, one should be involved in it as little as possible . Each of us can opt for it and do it. Our children grow – hence, we should enjoy life. Young people should get a good education. Taking to the street and fighting is good, but I do not want revolutionaries who have been engaged only in protests in their life to sew a dress for me or to take care of my teeth. I would like to deal with a professional dressmaker and a good dentist. Therefore, become good professionals! No authoritarian idea is eternal. Where is Stalin, Gaddafi and dozens of other dictators? They are gone. But life and we, small people, remain.

Alina Koushyk, Belsat, Stockholm

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Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian investigative journalist and prose writer. She wrote narratives from interviews with witnesses to the most dramatic events in the country, such as World War II, Soviet-Afghan war, fall of the Soviet Union, and Chernobyl disaster.

Her first book War’s Unwomanly Face came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold out in more than two million copies. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before.

Her most notable works in English translation are about first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) and a highly praised oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl).

in 2000 Alexievich became the target of the Lukashenka regime: she was accused of collaborating with US intelligence agencies, her phone was tapped, and her works were no longer published.

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