“We won the Nobel prize!” my husband shouted last Thursday afternoon. It could only mean one thing: a victory for Svetlana Alexievich (above), the new Nobel laureate in literature and the first Belarusian citizen to win. Throughout the day, as people around the world began to search for Belarus online, we watched as our country began to trend. Last Thursday, because of Svetlana, Belarus became well known.
I first met her 15 years ago in Minsk. I had already read her books “Zinky Boys”, about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and “Voices from Chernobyl”, about the nuclear disaster. What struck me when I spoke to her was her loyalty to the people she had written about, of whom she talked all the time. Her books, which are so full of colour and conversation, are distillations of years of reporting and hundreds of interviews. In each one, she immerses herself in her subjects’ lives and memory.
“Voices from Chernobyl”, her most powerful book, is based on more than 500 interviews conducted over ten years. Among those she talked to were the firemen who went to fight the blaze at the reactor, many of whom were newly married and all of whom later died from radiation poisoning. She talked to their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters, as well as the doctors who tried to save them, and visited the contaminated villages which were being quickly deserted, recording the atmosphere of those empty places. She then compressed these conversations into a rich collage, and raised her journalism to the level of art. Together with my husband, I once wrote a play for the Belarus Free Theatre about kidnapping. We spent nine years interviewing our friends before beginning the painful process of refining that research into a 23-page drama. I can’t imagine how difficult that process is for Alexievich, because her books contain so many different characters and stories.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Voices from Chernobyl” is that, even though Alexievich is a writer and not a dramatist or film-maker, it leaves you with images rather than words. Three have stuck with me since I read the book nearly 20 years ago. I remember the plastic bags in which the firemen were buried, and how their bodies were so swollen that they wouldn’t fit into their coffins. I remember the wife of one fireman who would wrap her hand in bandages and remove the bits of lung and liver that he was coughing into his mouth as his body fell to pieces. And I remember the doctors sending the wives out to get milk for their husbands to drink, thinking that it would help them. But the milk was contaminated; all they were doing was poisoning their husbands. Alexievich began writing these stories at a time when talking about Chernobyl was entirely prohibited by the Soviet authorities—a silence that contributed to thousands of deaths.
Belarus today clings on to its Soviet past. If you wanted to write a menu of what it means to be an artist in Belarus under the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, it would include everything from silent repression to violence. If you’re a student who goes to the theatre, the government might stop your education or threaten your parents. Artists are beaten up, their houses are raided, and they are sent to jail. Several journalists have been kidnapped and killed, and their bodies not found.
What’s more, from an official point of view artists like Alexievich simply don’t exist. In spite of this, she insists on living in Belarus so that she can listen to people in her own country. Her Nobel prize is a recognition that she and artists like her, and the individual voices her work records, do exist, whatever the regime says.