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Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

The last thing that Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, wants to speak about these days is literature. From her exile in Germany, she studies the difficult events surrounding the Russian invasion to Ukraine and Russia’s return to the totalitarianism of the Soviet past, and is terrified. So terrified that literature – her entire world for as long as she can remember – has been pushed into a corner.

Alexievich’s 73 books, in which she described realistically, profoundly and sadly the horrors of the Second World War, the depressed reality of the Soviet Union and the difficulties of post-Soviet existence, have been translated into many languages and published in dozens of countries. They have won her many prizes, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the French Prix Medicis Essai, and the American National Book Critics Circle Award.


But the formal recognition and the aura of celebrity haven’t turned Alexievich’s head. They have not clouded her unique ability to study the depths of the soul of “Homo Sovieticus,” the Soviet and post-Soviet person who, in her view, is not similar to anyone living in another society, free from the destructive influence of tyranny. Alexievich is sure that the roots of the war and the conflict that is spreading before our eyes are planted in this soul.

“There is a temptation to attribute the problem to evil leaders, whether it’s Russia’s President Putin or Belarus’s President Lukashenko,” she says in an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom.

“I don’t doubt the role of the leader in history, but the main issue goes deeper. The main problem is that the totalitarian tradition of Communism didn’t die. It nurtured people who lived within it for too long and absorbed it [the tradition] in their souls. They didn’t just become slaves but romantics of slavery. They are still convinced that the Soviet world was founded on justice and are striving to return to how things were before.”

“We are currently seeing before our eyes the collapse of the totalitarian empire. We wanted to believe that Communism already died 30 years ago, but that was just wishful thinking. In the 90s we were naïve and stuck with the belief that the people caused the revolution against the Soviet regime. We were wrong. The people did not revolt then against evil, the change was only led by a small group of the intelligentsia, who gathered around the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and were supported by a thin layer of educated people. For the Soviet people the change was too sudden, they did not absorb, internalize or welcome the permutations.

“Later the people were impoverished, when public assets and natural resources were divided between cronies, which led to them believing that the entire transition from Soviet rule to freedom and democracy was bad. The totalitarian mindset didn’t die in those days, it’s still alive and kicking in Ukraine and among Ukrainians. These are the convulsions of resistance to the collapse and the counterattack of what I call ‘Red Man,’ the Soviet and the post-Soviet man who has not disappeared anywhere.”

A front against Lukashenko

Alexievich claims that the empires quickly disappeared from the world’s map, but their influence on consciousness has continued for generations. “One of the heroines of my books expressed this better than anybody: ‘Our countries are no longer, but we, its children and its products, are still here. Putin’s propaganda emissaries didn’t waste the last 20 years. During this period, they returned the ‘Red Man’ to the front of the stage, who now sows terror and shock throughout the entire world. We didn’t sufficiently appreciate this threat, and now the sad result is in front of us. I feel like vomiting from our helplessness.”

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, Sept. 9, 2021 (screenshot)

Alexievich’s writing style isn’t standard, and relies on interviews and testimonies of people who experienced in the flesh the painful events she shares with the reader. Some critics saw this as a slide towards journalism at the expense of literary values, but Alexievich continued to stick to the documentary prose that she is so identified with. If one disengages from the aesthetic aspect and examines the role of literature in broader contexts, there is an advantage to this kind of writing: in contrast to writers who sit in the heights of the ivory tower, Alexievich is connected to what’s happening in the society she describes in her works and emphasizes its hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden tendencies.

“In the 1990s I worked on my book Secondhand Time and I travelled across Russia to interview people,” Alexievich says, in relation to what she already experienced and understood three decades ago. “On my return to Moscow I told friends and acquaintances: There is no connection between what’s happening among the educated elites of Moscow and what’s bubbling in the depths of Russia. My interlocutors didn’t want to be convinced. They preferred to think that in Belarus the grip of the past of the Soviet tradition is maybe really strong, but in Russia the processes of change in the direction of democratization are irreversible. What a mistake this was. It’s become clear that it’s possible to turn the wheel backwards. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the last free media outlets, which were still allowed to exist in Russia one month ago, have been closed, censorship laws have been passed, and essentially this country has again deteriorated into an undisguised dictatorship.”

Alexievich was forced to leave Belarus at the start of autumn 2020, after pro-democracy demonstrations in the country were harshly suppressed by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Many were detained, but the national rebellion was peaceful and didn’t even descend into violence when the security forces used means of repression and cruel abuse against the protesters.

Alexievich’s voice wasn’t silenced. She stood alongside the demonstrators and wasn’t afraid to accuse Lukashenko of faking the elections and of maintaining a one-man dictatorship. In order to prevent her detention, Western diplomats in Minsk stayed in her house for a few days, but even this gesture wouldn’t have saved her if she had stayed any longer in her country. For the last 18 months, she has been living in Germany, longing for her homeland and watching events in the post-Soviet space, where she grew up and where is the center of life of most of her readers, with sadness and horror.

When Putin’s Russia was still preserving some individual freedoms, Lukashenko was dubbed “Europe’s last dictator.” According to many commentators, his success in preserving his regime, even when public support dropped into the single digits, encouraged Putin to stifle the last vestiges of democracy in Russia.

“I myself don’t have an explanation for the fact that the Belarussians have already been living under a dictatorship for decades and haven’t succeeded in shaking off its grip,” Alexievich says. “Life in a dictatorship is like living in a concentration camp. But if the gates of the camp suddenly open, the prisoners who were imprisoned there for long decades can’t simply begin a free life. They don’t have the qualifications for it, they don’t know what freedom is and how to live it. We didn’t succeed in taking the opportunity that fell into our hands during the uprising, after Lukashenko faked the elections, and everyone knew that he had lost them.

“I remember the atmosphere that gripped the country, the lofty spirit of the demonstrators who went joyfully into the streets, dressed in white, with flowers in their hands. We fell into the same snare of naivety and idealism like in the 1990s, because we really wanted to believe that freedom is a celebration, and that it would fall on our heads in a moment, almost without effort. We were wrong in the illusion that totalitarianism disappears peacefully, we really fell in love with the ways of Gandhi. I admit to myself that I nurtured the hope that in the 21st century there is no place for the tradition of tyranny, and the reality was shattered before us.”

Empty ideology

When asked if she thinks certain nations, like the Russians and the Belarussians, are giving up too easily on their freedom, she responds: “I don’t think like that. How long did it take the Germans to shake off the legacy of tyranny that was instilled in them during a relatively short period of Nazi rule? Although they were defeated and their country was destroyed in the Second World War, the Germans only began to face up to their crimes and regret them after 30 or 40 years of democracy, of a constitution that anchored the principles of freedom and the embrace by the West. And even then, the separation from the totalitarian legacy wasn’t easy for them. One mustn’t forget that Soviet man has lived in a reality of tyranny for far longer than the German [man].

Q: Were the seeds of the problem sown when the post-Soviet state didn’t go through a process of decommunization, in contrast to Germany, which went through denazification?

“It’s too simplistic to say that decommunization would have solved the problem. The problem is deeper. Us supporters of freedom and democracy didn’t talk about the nation. We tried to operate and change reality without always knowing how to do it correctly, we abandoned dialogue with our nation. Putin operated differently and more smartly – he spoke with the nation. The great sums that flowed to Russia during the fat years of high oil and gas prices, he directed them towards building propaganda mechanisms and strengthening the military. His investment in propaganda created the people who support him today.

“The television channels ask passers-by in the Red Square if they support Putin’s move and they hear a chorus of answers saying ‘yes.’ Where did these people come from? These people don’t understand the murky past of their country, and their value system has totally shifted in the direction of justifying evil. Putin sends his army to kill and to occupy, but behind this move there is no idea or justification. He didn’t even make an effort to invent worthy goals for the war. Despite this, the Ukrainians are united around an idea that is real – they are defending their country.”

Q: Does Putin understand the real desires of his subjects better than all the supporters of democracy?

“Yes. He also knows how to arouse in them the lowliest feelings and to flood the darkest parts of their souls. There are leaders who know how to bring out the best and the worthiest from their people, to set positive goals and to lead the pursuit of freedom. Vaclav Havel, the first leader of post-Communist Czechoslovakia, was that kind of leader. In contrast to him Putin sets low goals – raising Russia’s foundations through the submission of others – and does this with barbaric methods. Like every dictator, Putin’s dictatorship is extremely primitive in its foundations and relies on the legacy of the Soviet Union, therefore what is happening now is reminiscent of what happened in the 1930s. Putin is exploiting the fact that his nation’s people were educated by Soviet parents, who learned the world according to Soviet textbooks from the mouths of Soviet teachers.”

Q: How is that Ukraine, next to Russia and with the same Soviet legacy, after only eight years of freedom, has created a person so different from “Red Man”?

“The Ukrainian nation has a different past and mentality, and Putin’s impudence has also played a role. After all, he pretends to eliminate an entire nation, to subdue an entire nation. Fundamentally, he is denying their right to be called a nation, like he denies it for my Belarus. I feel that he hates Ukraine on a really physiological level. Thanks to the external threat of Putin, Ukrainian citizens of different nationalities have freed themselves from the chains of ‘Red Man’ extremely quickly.”

Studying the Red Man

Q: Do you agree with the growing assessments that this time, Putin bit off more than he could chew?

“I don’t know, after all I’m not a politician and I can’t sketch political scenarios. I assume that it won’t end quickly, and a lot more blood will be spilt. I am sure of one thing: the Ukrainians won’t surrender. It’s vital that the world will assist them, because also the fate of Belarus and the fate of Russia itself depends on what happens now. I hope that in the free world they’ve understood that Putin is also dangerous for them. Putin’s Russia is indicating that it’s playing with its nuclear suitcase, and in the face of this threat it’s difficult to calmly pretend that nothing is happening.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the launching ceremony of the Gazprom’s Amur Gas Processing Plant, via a video conference, on June 9, 2021

“I am very worried that Belarus will also be dragged actively into the war. But who knows if he will make do with that or he will force Lukashenko to direct the Belarussian army against the Ukrainians and really to shoot at them? The Belarussians have no hatred towards the Ukrainians, they are our brothers and sisters. Among the officers of the Belarussian army there are complaints and talk about refusing orders if they are told to shoot at Ukrainians. I was born to a Belarussian mother and a Ukrainian father, and there are millions like me. Who do they need to shoot at?”

Q: What is the role of your writer colleagues?

“There is a tendency of overreacting the power of art. It might be that without it, a person would be even worse off, but at the same time one should be cynical when people talk about the ability of another writer or artist to have an influence. The writer can only do what he knows: to reflect, to think, to investigate, and to write. I devoted around 40 years of my life to this goal. My five main books are an attempt to investigate the person who has been harmed by the ‘Red Idea’: how we thought we were slowly leaving the pit of totalitarianism, and how we failed on our way out of the pit.

“I am working on a book that focuses on Belarus’s failed attempt to free itself from Lukashenko and the processes that led to the Russian attack on Ukraine, but life writes the story quicker than any writer.”


{Written by Ariel Bulshtein and reposted from the IsraelHayom site}


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