On December 10, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich will receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Here is an article I wrote about how awarding the Prize, the Swedish Academy continues its tradition to support the work of dissidents within the region that used to be the Soviet Union.
Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy
According to the last will and testament of Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded an author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” With her collected testimonies creating a history of emotions located at the intersection of fiction and reality, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich fulfills this criterion in a way few other authors do.
Named as one of the favorites to receive the 2014 Nobel Prize, this year’s decision places Alexievich in the company of other literature laureates whose work has forced them into exile. Moreover, the Academy’s decision highlights the importance of sanctuaries for writers as well as the commitment of the Swedish intelligentsia in supporting the critics and dissidents of Belarus, Europe’s only dictatorship.
Born in 1948, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. Already at a young age she noticed the discrepancy between the personal experiences related by the adults who surrounded her and the official version of events put forward by the Soviet government. From the very beginning of her career as a writer, the urge to expose this gap has been her driving force.
To be able to do so, Alexievich has invented a new literary genre where real-life testimonials are written as prose. Her books are based on interviews with people who participated in important historical events, such as World War II, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The interviews are detailed and in-depth; Alexievich estimates that it takes her between five and ten years to finish a book. Literary critic Kristoffer Leandoer writes in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet how his wife, Elsa, became part of Alexievich’s source material when the couple was living in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in the late 1990s. Alexievich spent an entire weekend interviewing Elsa, going over details while drinking copious amounts of tea.
But telling the story of the everyday human experience as opposed to the narrative of a totalitarian system can be difficult and dangerous. Kajsa Öberg Lindsten, Alexievich’s Swedish translator, writes in the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten that the Soviet authorities banned Alexievich’s first book. Instead, Öberg Lindsten continues, War’s Unwomanly Face became the book that introduced Alexievich as a writer. Finished already in 1983, an edited version of War’s Unwomanly Face was published in 1985, riding on the wave of glasnost and perestroika.
Whereas War’s Unwomanly Face revealed the story of women soldiers at the Soviet frontlines during World War II, Alexievich’s second book, Zinky Boys, took on the subject of the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. The official death toll is 50,000 soldiers, but, as Alexievich says herself, everyone knows that number to be a fabrication.
Zinky Boys exposes the human suffering during a war that the Soviet government pretended did not exist as it was going on. When the book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1989, it caused an uproar. In 1992, Alexievich was put on trial in Minsk, accused of slander against the heroes featured in her book.
By the time of Alexievich’s trial, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist after Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine declared independence. In the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, Belarus was transitioning towards a democratic society. But the mentality of the Soviet Union still lingered, and it was only because of international pressure that the charges against Alexievich were dropped.
But Belarus never became a democracy. In the 1994 presidential elections, former kolkhoz chairman Alexander Lukashenko took power and has ruled the country ever since. In a column in Göteborgs-Posten, Alexievich describes Lukashenko as a man attuned to the changing currents of politics. Once he stood side by side with Russian president Boris Yeltsin, speaking about democracy and western values. But as faith in democracy faded in the former Soviet states, Lukashenko changed his tune. Now, his greatest heroes are Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin.
Under Lukashenko Belarus has become a society with no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. Belarus imprisons and executes critics of the government. Authors, journalists, and human rights activists are persecuted. The secret police is still called the KGB.
After publishing her third book, Voices from Chernobyl, which contains interviews with survivors and evacuees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, the pressure exerted by the Lukashenko regime became too much to bear. As the 1990s came to a close, Alexievich went into exile.
At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was a power plant located in the Soviet Union. But Chernobyl is in fact located in Ukraine, in close proximity to the northern border of Belarus. The dramatic event of when the nuclear reactor exploded is arguably the largest peacetime disaster in modern Belarusian history. In spite of this, the Lukashenko regime is investing heavily in the region that took most of the radioactive fallout.
According to Johanna Lindbladh, senior lecturer in Russian literature at Lund University, the regime responded harshly to Voices from Chernobyl because by portraying the human suffering caused by the disaster, Alexievich exposes the weaknesses of the state. To a totalitarian regime that is not only a humiliating insult, it is also a challenge to the status quo.
Support for Lindbladh’s conclusion can be found in an article in Politico, written by Joerg Forbrig, director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Forbrig claims that Alexievich has been able to tap into the post-Soviet era mindset of the Homo Sovieticus. It is this mindset that has given rise to the development seen in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
The former Soviet Union looks the way it does, Forbrig explains, because of a “social consciousness that remained widely unreformed and that dragged down attempts at building open societies and polities.” This social consciousness fosters an attitude of cynicism, hatred, and suspicion. Its moral compass has stopped functioning and in its stead a longing for power, respect, and stability has developed alongside a genuine fear of change.
Alexievich would go on to spend the next twelve years in exile. Two of those years were spent in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has been a city of refuge for persecuted writers since 1996. Alexievich herself has declared that without cities such as Gothenburg, she would not have been able to continue her work as a writer. Moreover, Alexievich’s stay in Gothenburg served to strengthen the already established ties between the Swedish and the Belarusian intelligentsia. Because of these ties, Alexievich has become a regular contributor to Göteborgs-Posten, whose main office is located in Gothenburg.
In 2012, Alexievich decided to voluntarily return to Belarus. She says she moved back because she needs to hear the voices of the Belarusian people and spend time among them so that she can finish what she considers her life’s work–a book about love in the former Soviet Union.
Alexievich’s reason for returning home underlines a recurring misconception about her work, namely that she is a critic of Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is true that the sharp point of her pen often points in the direction of Belarus’s neighbor and its leader, but Alexievich is a Belarusian author. It was the Belarusian regime that forced her into exile, not the government of Russia. It is the Lukashenko regime that has banned her books from being distributed and prohibited her name from being mentioned in public. It is the Lukashenko regime that considers her a non-existing person.
It is within this post-Soviet Belarusian context that the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Alexievich the Nobel Prize should be viewed. Since the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901, the Swedish Academy has given four dissident writers from the now-defunct Soviet Union the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first one was Ivan Bunin in 1933, who at the time lived in exile in Paris. In 1958, the award went to Boris Pasternak. Still living in the Soviet Union, the authorities pressured him into declining the award. In spite of this, the official records of the Nobel Prize still names Pasternak as the recipient of the 1958 award. In 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize, but did not accept it in person until he had gone into exile in 1974. The last of the Soviet Union dissident writers to receive the Nobel Prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Forced into exile in 1972, Brodsky lived most of his life in the United States where he passed away in 1996.
By naming Alexievich the 2015 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy has used the international prestige of the award to back Lukashenko into a corner, forcing the regime to acknowledge her existence. Following the announcement, Belarusian state media mentioned Alexievich’s name for the first time. On October 9, Alexander Lukashenko issued an official statement, congratulating Alexievich on the award, saying that her “creative art has touched Belarusians and readers in other countries alike.” He claimed to be happy for her success and expressed hope that the award would benefit the Belarusian nation and its people.
Furthermore, the Swedish Academy’s announcement could not have been more opportune. On October 11, presidential elections were held in Belarus. Leading up to the elections, Lukashenko presented them as fair and open. A number of political prisoners were released to show his good intentions. In order to maintain this facade, Lukashenko had no other choice than to congratulate Alexievich on the award.
Moreover, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize comes at a delicate time in the diplomatic relations between Sweden and Belarus. In 2012, the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, was asked to leave the country and the Swedish embassy was closed. The Swedish government answered in kind and the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm closed its doors. The Swedish foreign minister at the time, Carl Bildt, was quoted by Reuters, saying that the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime “is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus.” The Swedish embassy in Minsk reopened in 2013, but it is not until this year that negotiations concerning the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm are underway.
Even though the Swedish Academy has been criticized for pandering to totalitarian regimes–the latest example being Chinese author Mo Yan as recipient of the 2012 award–this year’s decision is a clear statement in favor of democracy and freedom of speech.
Meanwhile in Minsk, Svetlana Alexievich held a press conference after the award had been announced. She told reporters that the eight million Swedish kronor that come with the award would buy her the freedom to complete two more books that she is planning. When asked about the presidential election, she answered that she would not participate in an election where the result is predetermined.
As voting began on October 11, reports of voter fraud immediately began pouring in. By the end of the day, Lukashenko had won a fifth term as president with more than 80% of the votes.
Freedom from dictatorship might seem far off in the future for the people of Belarus. But with every author given the freedom to write–be it at home using the money from a prestigious award or in exile in a city of refuge–the day when the dictatorship will come to an end is still within our grasp.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.