21 July 2017 | Shawn Walker | The Guardian
The Nobel prize-winning author talks about the pressures of life in the Putin era, as her bestselling book on Russian women’s wartime heroism is republished.
Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode.
Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-Soviet apartment blocks, she has just returned from a book tour of South Korea, and is about to embark on a trip to Moscow.
“It’s tiring to have the attention on yourself; I want to closet myself away and start writing properly again,” she says, looking visibly wearied by the travel and spotlight. Alexievich reluctantly agreed to deliver a talk about a book she wrote more than three decades ago, The Unwomanly Face of War, which has been republished in a new English translation this month.
It was written in the early 1980s, and for many years she could not find a publisher, but during the soul-searching of the late-Soviet perestroika period, it tapped into the zeitgeist of reflection and critical thinking, and was published in a print run of 2m, briefly turning Alexievich into a household name.
Later, the merciless flashlight Alexievich shone on to the Soviet war experience became less welcome in Russia. Since the Nobel win, her work has found a new international audience, giving her a second stint of fame 30 years after the first.
The original inspiration for the book was an article Alexievich read in the local Minsk press during the 1970s, about a retirement party for the accountant at a local car factory, a decorated sniper who had killed 75 Germans during the war.
After that first interview, she began to seek out female war veterans across the Soviet Union. A million Soviet women served at the front, but they were absent from the official war narrative. “Before this book, the only female character in our war literature was the nurse who improved the life of some heroic lieutenant,” she says. “But these women were steeped in the filth of war as deeply as the men.”
It took a long time, Alexievich concedes, to get the women to stop speaking in rehearsed platitudes. Many were embarrassed about the reality of their war memories. “They would say, ‘OK, we’ll tell you, but you have to write it differently, more heroically.’”
After a frank interview with a woman who served as the medical assistant to a tank battalion, Alexievich recounts, she sent the transcript as promised and received a package through the post in response, full of newspaper clippings about wartime feats and most of the interview text crossed out in pen.
“More than once afterward I met with these two truths that live in the same human being,” Alexievich writes. “One’s own truth, driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time.”
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