Vodka + Caesium

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, but some people still don’t think her books are literature. In fact, they are collective oral histories, of similar genre, though completely different in tone, to those of Studs Terkel in the United States, whom she has probably never read. Her main influence as far as genre is concerned was the Belorussian writer Ales Adamovich, who in the 1970s (with Daniil Granin) collected the testimonies of wartime Leningrad survivors in Blokadnaia kniga, but that’s not very helpful in a Western context since nobody has heard of him. Lately, Alexievich has taken to citing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah as an inspiration. Her first book, with methodology already honed, was finished before Shoah was made, so that obviously can’t be taken literally. But it’s a way of letting a Western audience know that what she’s doing is exploring suffering and loss through the voices of the sufferers.

Whatever her genre, Alexievich is an original, with a voice that is hers alone. That’s to say, it’s hers alone as a writer. Her respondents, particularly the women, tend to speak in the same voice as Alexievich. That voice is unmistakably Russian (though Alexievich, who writes in Russian, is actually of mixed Belorussian and Ukrainian origins). It is also unmistakably Soviet. She writes about suffering, and that means that the Gulag and the Second World War are never far away. She writes about death and the soul – an important word in her lexicon. She is, she says, a sovok, the post-Soviet pejorative term for Homo sovieticus, and so are her parents and her friends. She means the kind of sovok who suffers because of the Soviet identity and baggage they can’t disclaim, not the kind who glories in it. Only a sovok, she believes, could have persuaded all those other kindred souls to talk about their guilty, angry, nostalgic love of the world they have lost.

Alexievich came on the literary scene at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the high point of her and many of her interviewees’ lives. Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, appeared in Moscow in the mid-1980s, after a two-year hold-up by the censor. It made a big splash in Russia but wasn’t much noticed in the West. Her subject was the Second World War, on which the Soviet literature was enormous, but she had a genuinely new take: the war through the prism of women’s experiences. Her heroines, who tell their own stories, had volunteered as teenagers along with their boyfriends because they wanted to fight with rifles in their hands (they explain that Soviet schooling had taught them women could do anything). At the front, they both experienced the camaraderie of the frontline and, on occasion, felt excluded from it. They cut their hair short on joining up and tried to walk like men, but after a while started wanting to be women again and got annoyed by being issued male underwear. They saw their male comrades rape German women, and afterwards, even as they helped the weeping women clean themselves up, were glad to see their tears. They fell in love at the front, only in many cases to be dumped at the end of the war when the men went back to their peacetime wives. They were shocked, on their own return, to find themselves described contemptuously as ‘frontline wives’ and seen as loose women.

Alexievich loves these women. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she characterised them as the highest expression of the communist ideal, ‘higher even than the revolution and Lenin’. But she doesn’t see just the women who went away to war in those terms: it’s a view that also applies to the women who stayed and bore the burden on the home front. These are people she knows from her childhood in a Belorussian village (she was born in 1948) where the women would sit around in the evenings telling stories about the war, particularly their wartime partings from the men they loved and their determination to wait for them for ever. She internalised the ‘sad intonation’ of their talk, she said in a recent lecture given at Oxford, and learned from them that ‘suffering was a form of information.’ Thanks to listening to these conversations, ‘I think I’ve known from childhood what love is,’ she told her Nobel audience in Sweden. Alexievich is prone to saying things like that, on the sentimental side to a Western ear; I have to tell myself to let it pass, she’s Russian.

Although Alexievich says there were no men in the village, there was actually one important man: her father. He and her mother were schoolteachers and raised their children as Soviet patriots. A lifelong communist, her father wept when, after witnessing the pointless deaths of Soviet soldiers in the Afghanistan war (the subject of her 1990 Zinky Boys), she lost her socialist faith and told him: ‘We are all murderers.’ In the complex intergenerational relationships of late Soviet times, that ‘we’, addressed to a parent, mainly means ‘you’, but not entirely. ‘We were merciless towards our parents,’ she writes in Second-Hand Time. Yet she sees her father and others of his generation as tragic figures.

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