Alexievich has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten: the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties.
Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” begins with a woman’s account of watching her husband, a firefighter, physically disintegrating in a hospital bed in the days following the April, 1986, nuclear-plant explosion. “It’s as good as Shakespeare,” she said of the quality of the woman’s words when I asked her about that part of the book, years ago. “But do you know how long it took to get her to produce those two pages of text?” The first hours—and subsequent hours and hours—of an interview, Alexievich explained, are always taken up by the rehearsing of received memories: newspaper accounts, other people’s stories, and whatever else corresponds to a public narrative that has inevitably already taken hold. Only beneath all those layers is personal memory found.
The Swedish Academy, which announced today that Alexievich will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, cited the writer for inventing “a new kind of literary genre.” The permanent secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described Alexievich’s work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.” Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation. The Academy mentioned two Russian-language writers who have most influenced Alexievich: Sofia Fedorchenko, a nurse who left an account of the experiences of soldiers during the First World War, and Ales Adamovich, who co-authored an oral history of the Siege of Leningrad. Adamovich and his co-author, Daniil Granin, once described a similar process to that of Alexievich. They sifted through layer upon layer of words, which could have come from newspaper clippings or patriotic songs, to unearth personal recollections of the Siege.
Alexievich’s job has perhaps been even more difficult than that of those older writers: she has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to Chernobyl and the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties (the subject of her most recent book).
Her first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” documented the experiences of Soviet women during the Second World War, but in all of her subsequent books she has written about events that had just occurred when she began investigating, when the work of un-remembering is arguably most active.
I first met Alexievich about twenty years ago. I called her after reading an excerpt from the just written “Voices from Chernobyl” which had appeared in Izvestia, the highest-circulation Russian daily at the time. Alexievich explained to me that she had been going to the “exclusion zone” and the “estrangement zone”—the contaminated lands around the nuclear reactor—for a decade. This means that she started visiting the “zones” almost immediately after the explosion. She confessed that the process of researching the book had made her physically ill.
Only in the nineties would an excerpt from Alexievich’s new book have appeared in Russia’s largest newspaper. In the decades since, her name has become almost obscure in the country of the language in which she writes. As a magazine editor in Moscow, I often introduced younger colleagues who had never heard of Alexievich to her books. On the eve of the Nobel announcement, Russia’s leading highbrow culture publication, Colta.ru, published a piece titled “Why You Should Know Who Svetlana Alexievich Is.”
Alexievich, whose native language is Russian and who has never written in another language, was born sixty-seven years ago in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus. For most of her adult life, she has lived in a nine-story concrete apartment bloc in central Minsk. Its standard-size kitchen—which is to say, quite small—is outfitted with a couch, because it’s the room where, in keeping with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition, all the important conversations happen. When Alexievich is there, her kitchen is indeed the site of many important conversations.
In the early aughts, Alexievich left Minsk and spent about a dozen years in Europe, living by turns in different countries where she could find writing fellowships: in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. She finally returned to Minsk a couple of years ago, admitting that her plan to wait out the reign of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had failed. This project proved too long, even for her.
At around the time of her return, Alexievich published “Second-Hand Time,” her longest and most ambitious project to date: an effort to use an oral history of the nineties to understand Soviet and post-Soviet identity. In the meantime, she has seen her own identity change profoundly. She is a Russian-language writer who has never lived in Russia, but only now, nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has this separation between Russia and its neighbors become clear.
A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country. At the same time, she has spoken about feeling increasingly alienated from what used to be her intellectual community inside Russia, which has now, she says, thrown itself into that country’s new imperial project. Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition—and the Swedish Academy has just amplified the voice of that experience immeasurably.