On October 8, the Nobel Committee announced that the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature was being awarded to Svetlana Alexievich, a writer and journalist whose body of work is unique both in scope and in genre.
The bare facts of Alexievich’s biography reflect the nature of her greater subject: the memory, aspirations, tragedy, and fluid historical identity of Homo sovieticus. She was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine that lies at the eastern edge of the Carpathian Mountains, about 85 miles south of Lviv, and a mere 150 or so miles from the borders of Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, respectively. The city was annexed by the USSR only a few years before her birth in 1948. Her mother was Ukrainian and her father Belarussian. She grew up in Minsk, Belarus, where she studied journalism, developed her own exceptional voice, and became a Russian writer.
Over the course of several decades and numerous books, Alexievich has pursued a distinctive kind of narrative based on journalistic research and the distillation of thousands of firsthand interviews with people directly affected by all the major events of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. She has uncovered the unknown but crucial work that Soviet women did in World War II, recounted the memories of children caught up in the “Great Patriotic War,” documented the realities facing soldiers in the Soviet-Afghan war, which were kept from the Soviet public, and recorded the experiences of those who lived through the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In her most recent book, she deftly orchestrates a great chorus of diverse voices to chronicle the human toll—emotional, physical, economic, and political—of the collapse of the USSR, a country that once made up a sixth of the world’s land mass.1 Alexievich’s oeuvre comprises nothing less than a history of epic proportions, which she has called “Voices of Utopia.” This undertaking has brought the writer many awards and accolades from Western European countries in particular, and from Russia, where her books have been printed and reprinted many times; she is a well-known critic of the Putin regime. In her home, Belarus, however, under the dictatorship of Aleksandr Lukashenko, she has been subject to the same political censorship and pressure as many of her colleagues (as Timothy Snyder pointed out in the NYR Daily
2). For over a decade she lived in various European cities, because it was not safe to return to Minsk (though she did in 2011), and her books have not been published in Belarus since 1994.
In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy called Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings…a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” “By means of her extraordinary method—a carefully composed collage of human voices,” the Academy went on to say, “Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era.” As she writes:
I don’t just record a dry history of events and facts, I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during the event. What they believed in…
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English translation © 2011 by Jamey Gambrell