When she won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich was little known outside Belarus and the former Soviet Union where her books were published in Russian. Those that had been translated into English had appeared with small presses. Newspapers scrambled to find out who the Belarusian writer was and to gather expert views on her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time,” as they were described by Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, in her announcement of the prize. In the Nobel citation Alexievich was credited with inventing a new literary genre, “a history of emotions”—a “carefully composed collage of human voices” recorded during interviews. Her oral histories (for that is what they are) are presented as monologues; they are concerned less with the witnesses’ recording of historical events than with their feelings about how their interior lives have been shaped by those events.
No reader could fail to be moved by the searing personal testimonies of Chernobyl’skaia molitva (Chernobyl Prayer, 1997), Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, as it was translated in 2005, or by the interviews she carried out with Soviet soldiers, their mothers, and their widows about the Afghan war of 1979–1989 in Zinky Boys (1990). These are both important books, original and powerful, retelling history through individual narratives, dispelling Soviet myths with the force of human truths, distilling the voice of memory into a form of literature. But as oral history they do not seem as inventive as the Nobel jury thinks.
The practice of oral history was slower to develop in the Soviet Union than in the West, where its practitioners have long used interviews to explore the reflection of events in the interior worlds of their interlocutors. As a discipline, oral history was never recognized by the Soviet Academy of Sciences, so it could not form part of professional historical research. The state kept a tight control on history. It molded the collective memory through propaganda and the media, school textbooks and commemorations to support its official version of the Soviet past—a propaganda myth of heroic sacrifice and achievement by the people under the Party’s leadership. Approved memoirs were published to add “subjective” content to this narrative. In the 1920s the oral reminiscences of revolutionary veterans were recorded for the official history of the Party (Istpart). But the stuff of oral history—the messy, uncontrolled, potentially subversive memories of ordinary people—had no place in it.
The earliest attempts at oral history in the Soviet Union were carried out by soldiers returning from the fighting between 1941 and 1945. Their experience was radically different from the official myth of the Great Patriotic War. One of them was the Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who as a teenager had joined the…
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