Svetlana Alexievich was in conversation with Conor O’Cleirigh in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. The interpreter was Alexander Kan. What follows is an attempt to summarise what was said during an enthralling event.
Alexievich was here to publicise her new book Secondhand Time, an oral history of post-Soviet Russia, which has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was born and grew up in a family of rural village teachers. She told us that the early post-war (WWII) years were difficult in Russia, where every 4th man had been killed.
‘Women’s conversations formed me. Our home was full of books but the streets were always more interesting to me because of the stories the women told.’
So when she graduated from Minsk University School of Journalism, she didn’t have to look far for her subject. Starting to write, she understood that both life and literature were changing really fast. She needed a new form to express what she wanted to say. ‘We didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy & Joyce had, writing their novels over years.’
Her first book was about the war – a subject that was impossible to deny.
‘Women never talk about war as a heroic act, women talked about acts of murder. They never talked about the enemy but about the destruction of human life … I made the decision to write the book when a woman sniper talked about how hard it was for her to kill someone the first time… They call it hunting … she described looking through the optic and seeing a German officer. She knew her job was to kill him but she couldn’t do it, all she could see was a young, handsome man.’
She told another story about two freight trains in a station, one with people in it one with horses … when German planes came and bombed the station, everyone rushed to save the horses, not the people. Why? 1. Horses are not guilty of anything, and 2. their screams are more horrible and frightening. ‘That was the war that I was most interested in. Since childhood I’d been curious: How do people hold onto their sanity when they have to kill each other? Three books later I still don’t know the answer.’
Being in conflict with authority is a tradition for the Russian writer, going back 1000s of years. ‘Lots of things happened to me as a journalist – I was fired, I was taken to court – that’s not newsworthy, it’s to be expected. What is harder to take is that the times we live in now mean that we are in conflict, not with the authorities, but with our own people. When I wrote in support of Ukraine, I lost friends in Russia.’
‘We were naïve in the 90s when we believed that freedom could come overnight. People who live in a camp all their life can’t just step out through a gate and be instantly free – they need preparation, education.’
Russian culture and literature are all permeated by a reverential attitude to the Russian people – but we didn’t really know our people. I realised that we worshipped the idea rather than the actual people around us. We were building bridges over rivers but the rivers went another way.’
‘I want to understand why the people I live with and love are so divided, why they are prepared to return to the position of slaves.’
Why does our suffering not convert to freedom?
Why can people living under a dictatorship not come together?
Why did we seem to gain freedom in the 90s and let it go so easily?
‘Looking for those answers is more important to me than wondering why people reacted to my award the way they did.’ (She has been accused of being a traitor)
‘Being accused of being a traitor is unsurprising, it’s a return to old rhetoric.’
‘I first went to Chernobyl two weeks after the disaster. Few people understood the scope of what had happened. There was a crimson glow over the reactor. People came to look, they even brought their children, to see how beautiful it was. But I was also struck by the number of military – people with guns, helicopters. ‘Who are you going to shoot?’ I asked them. Their first instinct was to treat it as a military incident. Talking to the military … they were thinking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But this was supposed to be a peaceful site – they/we couldn’t understand this as being the same. We didn’t understand why fresh food had to be dumped. There were surreal scenes – soldiers washing rooftops or wood for burning – like scenes from a sci fi movie.’
‘It would be quite easy to write a book about how people were deceived and misinformed but at first no one understood what had happened and believed it was nothing too serious, you’d be okay if you only drank red wine … I wanted to look deeper into the essence of what happened. I remember feeling that I – a person of culture – didn’t know how to begin to find answers. Overnight, our culture became a chest of (useless) old manuscripts. (…) People looked for answers in Tolstoy but couldn’t find any. We had no previous experience to help us understand the nature of what happened. We couldn’t see, smell or touch it – this was a different perspective, a different reality. We had no instruments to perceive it. So people turned to religion. The churches filled.’
‘Writing that book was a most challenging experience. War is as old as history; the Soviet Union was not the first empire to collapse; but this was new, unprecedented.
COC: There was a tremendous sense of excitement towards the end of the Soviet Union, everyone excited by the promise of reform Can you talk about the sense of disillusionment in your book?
‘The 1990s was a beautiful time. Hope – there was a sense of being on the brink of a new, bright future. Now, looking back, we understand we were not prepared for democracy. It turned out there was no real free people. Everyone wanted a tsar to come and bring democracy to us.’
Now people feel deceived, robbed. Everything has been taken away from them.
‘7% of the population now own what everyone used to own. Everyone else is very poor. There are two outcomes from this. People either idealise the past, or a new fascism rises, called ‘new patriotism’.’
‘We shouldn’t demonise Putin; there is a collective Putin.’
‘People now read memoirs of Germany in 1930s or Russia before the revolution, looking for parallels, answers to what’s happening today.’
‘The only thing to do is to work for the future and not give in to despair.’