The first press conference of the Nobel prize winner in literature Sviatlana Alexievich was held in the editorial office of the “Nasha Niva” newspaper. The writer described her first feelings when she learnt that she’d got the prize.
So how did she feel?
— I didn’t think about myself, of course. A few days ago, a German theater which stages The War’s Unwomanly Face wanted some heroines to come to Frankfurt. And you know, I called around 50 of them, and nobody’s alive. And before that I had the same experience with my hero from Chernobyl. And I thought: what a pity it is that these people wouldn’t know. But they once had the book in their hands. I thought that it was not only my reward, but the reward... to our culture in our little country, which throughout the whole history has been grinded, pressured from all sides. Once I thought about it. I won’t hide it — of course, it was a strong personal joy, and of course there was alarm, because after all there are such great shadows — Bunin, Pasternak... These shadows are too great, and they seem to come to life for me, this is very serious. And if sometimes I thought that I was tired, I was disappointed in some things, but then I thought that it will be impossible to slow down. Those were my main feelings.
— And whom would you like to thank in the first place?
— First of all, I would certainly say thank you to my teachers: Ales Adamovich and Vasil Bykau. These are my teachers. Vasil Bykau, who was an example of human resistance, and Ales Adamovich, who, I would say, influenced my way thinking. I don’t know anybody equal to him in the European scale of thinking in the Belarusian culture. I thought at first about these people with regard to Belarus. But I have lots of them: my heroes, my publishers around the world, the people who made me think about something or who gave me some guess about humankind, because in order to hear something new about humans, you need to ask in a new way. So we all are made of the teachers. We all stand on the shoulders of the family, on the shoulders of the people we’ve met.
— What this award will mean for people, in your opinion?
— Just yesterday, I read in blogs that one person wrote: “when I was asked how I feel about the fact that Alexievich could get the prize, I said that hadn’t read her books, I watched only her movie”. And he wrote that he felt proud. So I wanted it to be pride. We are a small proud country.
— Can you explain what it means to you to be a Belarusian writer who writes in Russian?
— I'm writing about a utopia man, a red man, 70 years of this utopia, and then 20 years as we are coming out of this utopia. And it spoke Russian. That’s where the language comes from, because my heroes are Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Tatars and Gypsies – there was even one gypsy heroine – they are different. I could say that I feel like being a human of the Belarusian world, a human of the Russian culture, a very powerful inoculation of the Russian culture, and a human who lived a long time in the world and is certainly cosmopolitan. The person who sees the world as a great space. I was also convinced of this by Chernobyl, when after Chernobyl I travelled a lot. And I have the book Chernobyl Prayer, and there, you know, you don’t feel like “I am Belarusian”, but you feel that you are equal to the hedgehog, the hare, all living in the same world, that we are all one living species. This is a very strong feeling. And all this together is in me.
— Why have you not yet been congratulated by the Belarusian president, and what is the attitude of the Belarusian authorities to you?
— Well, the Belarusian authorities pretend that I don’t exist. My books are not published, I can’t speak anywhere, at least at the Belarusian television... Oh, are they already there? And the Belarusian President. Two hours have passed since the decision of the Nobel Prize Committee was announced, and I have received around 200 letters, and in one of them, a very good guy wrote: I wonder how Lukashenka is going to behave. He awarded Darya Domracheva the Hero of Belarus, so what will he do now? The Russian Minister of Information, Mr. Grigoriev, only congratulated me, he was one of the first to congratulate.
— Will you accept the title of the Hero of Belarus, if there is an offer?
— I need to think, but it would be an award not from Lukashenka, but from the Motherland.
— As soon as the world knew that you got the prize, many comments appeared on the Russian websites, saying that you got the Nobel Prize because of hatred for Russia, the “Russian world”, Putin, etc. Do you think that it’s true? That you got the Prize only because of hatred. And do you have hatred for the “Russian world”? By the way, Oleg Kashin considers you an adept of the “Russian world”, of the Russian literature.
— When people have such fanatical ideas, they certainly look for them everywhere. I just read a piece of what Kashin wrote, and I was very surprised. There’s also Zakhar Prilepin who writes. I mean, that some people are writing the same things in Belarus – that I hate not only the Belarusian authorities, but people as well. I do not think anyone likes the truth. I say what I think. I do not hate, I love the Russian people, I love the Belarusian people, my family on my father’s side is completely Belarusian, for example my beloved grandfather. And all I’m a fourth-generation rural teacher, my great-grandfather studied with Jakub Kolas, so I feel, it is my homeland, my land. At the same time, my grandmother and my mother are Ukrainian. I love Ukraine. And when I recently was on the Maidan and saw these photos of young people, of the “Heaven’s Hundred”, I stood and cried. This is also my land. So, it's not hatred. It's hard to be an honest man in our time. And we must not succumb to this conciliation on which totalitarian power always counts. I love the book Conscience of the Nazi, from time to time I re-read it — it is about how fascism crept into the life of the Germans in the 30s. First, when the Germans were said not to go to some doctors or tailors, they, on the contrary, went to Jewish doctors and tailors. But a very powerful machine is running, it presses the most primitive “buttons” in a person, what we can see today, especially in Russia — in ten years they have changed people a lot. I asked my father “How have you survived that?” And he told me only one thing: it was very scary. I think that it’s always scary to remain a human; it’s always difficult, even if people are not so massively taken into prisons as in those years. But you can see, in Russia they are already being taken to prison, and in Belarus as well. We must have this courage, and what they say – well…
— And can you define your attitude to the “Russian world”? Which “Russian world” you like and which one you don’t like, given that you write in Russian?
— My heroes are Russians, right? I love the Russian world, however, I still can’t understand what they mean. I love a good Russian world, a humanitarian Russian world, a world which is respected by the whole world — the literature, the ballet, the great music. Yes, I love this world. But I do not love the world of Beria, Stalin, Putin, Shoigu — it’s not my world.
— The character of a red man... Is it relevant in today's environment?
— I think that this book is not about the past (Second Hand Time), but about what we stand for, our ground. It’s about where we come from. I value the words that I had specially put in the epigraph, that totalitarianism, the camp, let’s call it this way, corrupts both the executioner and the victim. We can’t say that the victim comes out totally not traumatized. Here we are now living in that “traumatized” period. We all, even you (young journalistic audience) are somehow nailed to this Soviet experience. And then, as they provoked and escalated the situation in Russia, and 86% of people became happy to see how people in Donetsk were killed and laughed at the Ukrainians. Or those who now believe that everything can be solved using just strength.
— Do you think that the Belarusians will recognize the country’s first Nobel Prize winner in the street? And would you like it?
— (Laughs) In 2013, when I was among the three candidates, I remember the situation when I was travelling from Berlin or something and was so tired, and a very young man approached me and asked: “Are you Sviatlana Alexievich?” I said yes. “Wow! You are candidate for the Nobel Prize! Oh my God, I have neither your book, nor even some paper”. And he took out a box of cigarettes and asked me to sign it for him! I am not a vainglorious person absolutely, and I don’t like publicity, I don’t like when people recognize you because you’re different, and not always ready for the people, one can be very tired. But there are moments when you think – there is something in you that touches this man. It is not by accident. If it wasn’t really important for him, he wouldn’t have run up to me with this box of cigarettes. I do not want to be like Kirkorov and mask myself when going out, but sometimes, when you see that people need it and they are ready to talk to you and they trust you as a companion, it is certainly nice.
— In your last book you show the readers how difficult it was for a usual man to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union. Are there some moments from this experience that are undervalued and described not in detail, and that should be stressed once more, in your opinion? Maybe some difficulties of transition to another way of life?
— I think, of course, we haven’t yet reflected on it and hadn’t even realised it. I wrote the book, but I think a hundred of Solzhenitsyns can work in this area, because it’s been 70 and something years, millions of people dead, an idea that began with the desire to build a “city of the sun” ended with so much blood. This is much to think about more. I do not think I managed to tell everything. But I could tell what I realized in these five books in the series of “The red man”. Somebody of you should come and do this (laughs).
The War's Unwomanly Face, cover
Find description on books page by Sviatlana Alexievich
— What are you working on now?
— Now I’m working on two books. Metaphysical topics. Our life, of course, doesn’t always get well. We start to build something, and all the end will be just the same – like in that joke, with “Kalashnikov”. But other people, who want to be happy, live now. They want to love. They know the joy of life. Many have seen the world. I’m writing a book about love — men and women tell about love in it. And the second one is about age, disappearance, about the end of life. What it all matters and what it is. The culture, especially the Russian one, is more prepared for the second book. But for the book about happiness... Everyone wants to be happy, but nobody knows what it is.
— This weekend we have the presidential elections. Will you vote? And if yes, for whom?
— I won’t vote. But if I did, I would have voted for Tatsiana Karatkevich. Because of women’s solidarity. Due to the fact that I see a normal person, hear normal speeches, which I absolutely do not hear from male politicians. Normal suits, normal reactions, which male politicians lack. And just because of some hope. And the fact that “Karatkevich is a “decoy duck”, according to Pazniak... I don’t believe it. I don’t know who is behind her, where she gets the money... But I know that it would be a new turn in our lives. I won’t vote, because me and you already know the winner. We know that Lukashenka will win. And perhaps he would have 76%. I think so. He will look into the public moods and estimate how much he could have.
— You mentioned Adamovich, Bykau… And what is the role of intelligentsia, Belarusian underground in the society, how much is it forming, important, how essential is it to have these moral authorities?
— I think our Mohicans died not in their due time. We miss Adamovich and Bykau very much, we miss their word, their understanding and their level. I think they would not allow to themselves some things that are now generally allowed. We cannot afford such freedom – to sit somewhere, like my German colleagues who go to the countryside and write. We live in such imperfect time, imperfect society. I am not a man of barricades, but I constantly feel barricades-sick because of our time. Because it is a shame, it’s a shame for what’s going on.
— Do you think that your voice will become weightier in the Belarusian society?
— Well, I don’t know, you see, we have such authorities… I hope that they will be explained what the Nobel is, and maybe a somewhat relevant reaction will follow, at least a careful one. The political elite is generally Soviet-minded. Or even worse. The Soviet elite had some benchmarks that were observed. There were some people who needed to climb long stairs to crawl up to the top. And today you are from rags to riches – and you are already a boss. Look who have been a Minister of Culture – a builder, and some khabzayets (note - a student of secondary specialized professional educational establishment, usually for blue-collar work), whoever it was. I think you should do your own business and say what you think.
— How would you evaluate the fact that it has been the first Nobel Prize in literature in Belarus?
— It is hard to say. As for scientific research, physics, chemistry, it requires both high technological level and strong scientific potential. It seems to me that everything has been ruined here. We have a lot of talented people, and they have to either emigrate or live their lives deficiently.
— What do you think of the current situation in Ukraine and the Russian airbase in Belarus?
— I think we don’t need a Russian airbase. But I fear we will have one. I don’t see that Lukashenka is strong enough or resourceful to resist it. And I don’t see these resistance forces in the society. The society will accept anything the authorities would offer, unfortunately. As for Ukraine, I still consider it to be an occupation, a foreign intervention. Although there are people, many of them, who were dissatisfied by what had been in Ukraine and had always longed for changes, but they would never fight. They would find some other way of changes. Bring us two dozen trucks, and you will always find people to arm. I hear it from a man, a fellow traveler from a train who made a nice impression, an elderly Russian lieutenant colonel. But he was so shocked when the Crimea was occupied, and said: “We also can shake the cobwebs, we’ve got also the gun and the pea-jacket.” Here you are.
— Are you going to visit Ukraine?
— I’ve been there recently. My granny died, and I have no more such close relatives.
— In your view, are there any signs of changes in Belarus, a hope for changes, and what will be the direction of their development?
— Lukashenka is in a highly complicated position now. He would like to loosen ties with Russia. But who would allow? On the one hand, he is attached to his own past. On the other hand, this is Putin who is holding him. Saying about the past, I mean that he does not know any other rules of the game. He’s grown up with it, although, one should admit, he has a strong political intuition.
— Is the base being imposed on him?
— Of course, the base is being imposed. I don’t think he wants it by himself. There is a rescue for Belarus to turn face to the EU. But nobody would let it go.
— What would you tell the Nobel Commission?
— Well, I don’t know anyone of them. I can only say “thank you.”
— When did you have the phone call?
— A few minutes before you found it out. I had just returned from the countryside, and there it rang.
— Where were you yesterday, at dacha?
— Are you going to live in Belarus?
— What will you spend the award on?
—I always buy freedom for awards. It takes me very much time to write my books – five to ten years. It’s quite a long time when you need money, need to travel, to type. Now I can work freely without thinking where to take the money.
— Will your victory influence the attitude to the Belarusian culture abroad, at the world level?
— It is difficult for me to say, I think it takes more than one name. In any case, when I was in Austria, I met some people asking where I was from. And when I said I was from Belarus, they mention Domracheva, Lukashenka. So, you see, they know already a little.
— What Belarus would you like to live in?
— I would certainly want Belarus to resemble Scandinavian countries… It is of course a dream for such a small country like ours. Or, at least, to look like the Baltic.
— You also received an award for your work about the Afghan War. Do you think that Putin risks repeating the Afghan experience in Syria now?
— There was an anniversary of the Afghan War, and Putin was asked if it had been a mistake. He answered no, it was right that we had been there. If not we, then it would have been the Americans. I think so: after the Afghans, there were the Chechens, and now will be the Syrians. I met people who had fought in Africa in Soviet time. This is a country of soldiers, either famous or clandestine ones. We are generally living in military surrounding and military thinking. It is from top to bottom, from the government to ordinary people.
The book cover of Chernobyl Prayer
— Does it refer to Belarus, Russia, post-Soviet countries?
— Yes, I think we are still all tied in this knot.
— Are you going to write in the Belarusian language?
— I am often asked the question. What is the Belarusian language genuinely? I know Belarusian, but not so good as to write in it. And the language I know is narkomovka (note - accepted literary language, with a certain rules of Grammar, type of vocabulary, used by official mass media and in official documents, for common communication). In my time, we studied only this language. So for me it will never be a goal in itself.
— Where is it more comfortable for you to live and to write, in what country? You lived in lots of places.
— Well, perhaps, at home, in Belarus. At dacha.
— Where were you when you got the phone call, and were told about the prize?
— I was at home, ironing, by the way.
— Haven’t you really published your books in Belarus for twenty years? And isn’t there really a single Belarusian literary prize awarded to you?
— You told that you anyway belong to the Belarusian world. What is it, the Belarusian world, in your opinion?
— My father was Belarusian. His gentle and placid eyes. He would never say a bad word. He was a school headmaster, then, in older age, a teacher. These were old women among whom I grew up. The villagers. The voice. The poetry of their glances. And even when the Chernobyl happened, I saw officials, militaries and scientists at a loss, and only those old women, peasants, people close to nature, they found their points of support. They had a monolithic understanding of what had happened. Although it was tough, because such people of nature suffered the most.
— Will your victory help popularize Belarusian literature in wide publishing? Both in the world and here.
— You know, it does not depend on that, it depends on the book. Imagine a book, it is published not because the country is well-known. The Latin Americans offered a new outlook, so the whole world published them. Ryszard Kapuściński offered his outlook, and he was published everywhere. Whatever publishing house I visited – they were saying they were publishing Ryszard Kapuściński. And the point is not about who is in the country, the point is that we’ve got to come out to the world with some text. We had this text, the Chernobyl text, then this text of post-dictatorship, what is mutating and how. But, unfortunately these post-Soviet clichés don’t let set us free and give some new interpretation to all this.
— You are writing about the fate of a small Soviet and post-Soviet man, do you agree that your prize belongs to Belarus?
— Well, perhaps, it is wider, because protagonists of my books are all from the post-Soviet area. The War’s Unwomanly Face… I remember one Belarusian scientist telling me that I shouldn’t have taken Russian women for heroes. I should have taken Belarusian women for this. But no, my book is broader in philosophical terms: a woman and a war, a person and a war. So, the scope is wider.
— You were talking about Kapuściński, has his creativity influenced you?
— I was very interested in his views when I first time read his book The Empire, I saw how curiously he searched in the sphere of documental writing, which is my sphere, too. I liked the Polish author Hanna Krall, she is working interestingly in this sphere, and Kapuściński. And there is nothing of the kind in Belarus, although there is a book by Adamovich, Bryl and Kolesnik “I am from Fiery Village”. I consider it a genial book, but in Poland a documental book is a whole layer of culture. Because the Russian and the Belarusian cultures, they a kind of didn’t let the world in, they a little bit traditional, self-sufficient, things in themselves. And I opened up the world for me through such figures as Hanna Krall and Kapuściński.
— You said you would not vote at the elections, as it does not make any sense. Do you think Belarusian citizens should follow your example?
— One must not boycott elections in any case. Because if you boycott, Lukashenka gets more chances. Because if 800 people come to vote out of thousand, he will be able to draw a certain number of votes to himself. But if only 500 people come to vote, the percentage rises. It is a wrong behavior. I think the calls for boycott are the opposition’s mistake. You can simply calculate that if we boycott the elections, we give Lukashenka a chance to raise the percentage. It is very simple. I am somewhere disappointed by our opposition, and by our people, if I may say so. Why don’t we wake up? And when? I think it is a long way.
— When was your book last time published in Belarus? Do you remember it?
— Around 25 years ago…
— But the last book published, The Time Second Hand?
— Oh, yes, but this is a kind of half-underground book, non-state.
— And what state publishing houses published your books, and what books?
— It seems, some small publishing house published The Zink Boys… It was the publishing house “Belarus”. But it was also a small publishing house, and it was a personal deed of the editor.
— Now the whole world and the whole Belarus are listening to you. If you have to tell something to the Belarusians in one sentence, what would it be?
— Let’s try to live in a country of worth. Everyone has to do something for it. One should not wait for the neighbor, the son, the grandson to do it, everyone should. Otherwise, being all on one’s own, it is easy to blackmail, to threaten, to deal with us. Let’s go together, but at the same time I am against a revolution. I don’t like blood. I don’t want even a single life of a young guy to be lost here. I consider we’ve got to find our Belarusain Gandism. If we are together, we will find it certainly.
— There are now many wars in the world, don’t you feel, as a writer, some disappointment that books a kind of don’t teach people anything? Is rapprochement for the East and the West possible, not a new cold war, but a common world, neither Russian, nor Western?
— There are not only books in the world, Tolstoy or somebody else, there is also the Bible, and Francis of Assisi, and Anthony of Sourozh was standing on the stone for so many days, all those religious martyrs… But, a man does not change. Still, I’d like to think that something is changing, though the events in Donetsk and Odessa frightened me personally: how fast culture comes off and the beast steps out from a man. So, I think if we give up doing our job, it can be worse. How the Apostle Paul said - woe be to me if I should not preach the Gospel. As for the anti-West movement, especially the one in Russia, I think it will come to nil. It will be gone together with today’s leaders. There is no such hatred in the people. There is no hatred to the West or to Europe either in Russians or in Belarusians. These are bubbles created by politicians. And there will always be young guys willing to play some game. So, it is not deep, but not the only one, so we will live in such a transitory time for quite long. We were too naïve in the 90ies, we thought we could become free at once. No, it is impossible, as it turned out. It looked to everyone, that people will read Solzhenitsyn, and will become pure, but people killed every day someone at home entrances. I think that the heaviest heritage of the socialism is a man, a traumatized man because a camp perverts both the hangman and the victim.
— And how do you start writing? Tell how the process looks.
— It is a big question. It is a long talk.