A conversation with Nobel Prize Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich took place in London’s Southbank Centre on May 29 as part of Power of Power festival. The event was opened by Natalia Kaliada, a co-artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, who introduced the prominent Belarusian writer to the London audience. Svetlana Alexievich talked to British writer and literary critic Marina Warner and answered questions from the audience. The announced topic was “Putin and Power”, but the conversation was much deeper. Below are keynotes of Svetlana Alexievich’s speech.
On historical naivety
The time of troubles has come. I can understand it from the books I read and my friends read. They read about Germany of the 1930-s, about pre-revolutionary Russia. The situations look pretty much the same.
All – you here and we – were naive in the 1990-s. We even wrote about the “end of history”; we thought the Cold War had ended and the world would become free. It was a naive thought. As writer Varlam Shalamov said: “A person who has just been released from prison cannot become free just outside the prison door.”
Today we don’t understand our naivety of those times and even regard it as something criminal. Why did we think like that? We talked in our kitchens and had good conversations, and we enjoyed ourselves; we dreamt about the future; we talked about people and loved them… But actually we didn’t know our people. We loved our dream about people. I like artist Illya Kabakov’s words, who said: “When we were fighting against the Monster, the communism, it seemed to us we were beautiful. We finally defeated the Monster and found out suddenly that we have to live with rats.” It means we didn’t know human nature. We were not ready for changes. We didn’t have any ideas of how to reform our life; we didn’t have the elite that, for example, Poland had. We thought it’s enough to destroy everything and then all new and beautiful would appear out of nowhere.
It was a beautiful time. We were running in streets, chanting “Freedom! Freedom”, but unfortunately we had no idea what it is. As a result, we now live with a feeling of defeat.
On value of human life
I’ve written four books about war, and I admire the girls who were in the war; I admire members of clean-up teams who, barehanded, worked on the roof of the nuclear reactor… The only question that has been haunting me for 30 years while I was writing my Red Utopia is: Why are these sufferings are not converted into freedom?
One of possible answers that I found is that we are military people and our culture is military. So, we are hostages of this culture.
It was always strange to me to hear democratically minded people saying something like “we will execute them when we come to power.” Human life cost nothing, it was equal to some aims. I heard the same in Chernobyl. You could heard phrases like this at the beginning of the work day: “This requires five human lives, and that requires seven human lives.”
Another example is what I saw several days ago. Russia and Ukraine were exchanging a Ukrainian pilot for two Russian servicemen captured in Donbass. Only wives of the Russian servicemen welcomed them at the airport. The airport was cordoned off, no one was allowed there. The Ukrainian pilot was welcomed by many people, journalists, president Poroshenko. She talked to people.
It means that there are no individuals, there’s only a collective “mass of people”. I remember perfectly that people found themselves alone during the perestroika. The idea was over, and they had to solve their problems on their own. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, they were so reluctant to separate themselves from that collective mass of people.
They didn’t print my books, there was prosecution, I lived abroad, but it was a conflict with the authorities. This conflict, which we have had for 200 years, is a “conflict between tsar and poet”. Today, we have a far more terrible conflict, a conflict with the people of the country. You think: where are the people who starved for freedom and demolished monuments of executioners in the 1990s? In today’s Russia these people open Stalin museums and 80% support Putin. So I think the conflict between writer and people today is one of the most difficult times in history.
On book characters
If I didn’t enjoyed life, if I didn’t like people, perhaps there would be no sense for me to write, especially in my genre. I come to a person as a friend, not as a famous writer. I never interview people. We just begin to talk about life, that’s what I do.
For example, I am writing a book about war. But people tell me not only what they saw during the war, they tell me the story of their life. They can be happy or not, young or old, but the story must be enlightened with the light of their whole life to be able to be turned into literature.
On main things in creative work
We have got used in the past few years that the world is information. The more information there is, the more open the world is. I have a different viewpoint. For me, main things are something above information. There’s a mystery of human life, and this is what interests me. I am not interested in how much fuel exploded in the reactor or why it exploded. I am interested in something lying very deep in people, because it is the most important thing in people.
I am interested in a person who is farther than war, farther that any event. The person inside us, about whom we don’t know yet. Of course, I know there must be a core that holds this rubbish and life’s metaphysics together. And there are only two things that are important in our life – death and love.
Socialism, capitalism, Gorbachev, Putin – everything disappears with new generations, with new biological flows. But it seems to me that literature should keep the knowledge of the most important things of each period.
On literary methods
Each of us can say today that our life’s internal rhythm has become fast, unnaturally fast. Sometimes it prevents us from listening to ourselves, our soul. Music, visual art and literature are looking for new forms. When I was looking for my literary form, my genre, I thought every person had a mystery and answer to what human life is. If we put it together, we get an oratorio.
Tonality of tragic poetry is very important to me: it gives a person an opportunity to read about the horrors I describe in my books. I think a lot about the aesthetic side of my works. There’s a dark side of art, where evil and beauty sleep together.
For example, there’s a fragment in my book Chernobyl Prayer, telling about a fireman with acute radiation syndrome, who was to die in two weeks. He turned into a monster before his death, they forbade to come close to him, and doctors said to his wife: “Forget that this is your beloved. This is the object that must be decontaminated.” These are the texts that are “above Shakespeare”. I understood that if I wrote directly how she pulled his organs from under him while he was decaying from inside nobody would be able to read it. And I mixed up these horrors with fragments of their love and life. The scene began to sound.
I have no desire to gather a collection of horrors. I’d like to show human spirit in my books.
I am now writing a book, in which men and women talk about love. But each of you know how difficult it is to speak about love even to yourself. I want to get free from this “love games culture”, let’s put it so, and find a tonality that would allow a person to recollect his or her love stories on his or her way to the dark, to nowhere.
The sense of my genre is to find my way to new knowledge, a person’s new guesses about himself or herself, about the person who disappears in conversation with us, with our life. This is what literature hasn’t used yet.
I had two ideas in this regard. One of them is the story of the Red Utopia. I’ve written five books about it, and I don’t know what else I can say. I’ve exhausted all my ideas on that topic. The other idea is two books about main mysterious things in our life – about love, old age and death.
On “main person” in life
Each of us had his or her “main person” in life. For me it was my Ukrainian grandmother. She didn’t have good education, but she sang beautifully, and she taught me a lot of things. She had something that these “nature’s children” living on land have. They don’t read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but they have deep knowledge about the meaning of life. My parents were rural teachers, and I am happy I spent my childhood and adolescence in a village.
On conversations in kitchens
Conversations in kitchens are our tradition. It is a tradition to sit at the table, drink tea or vodka and talk about personal things, love or revolution. Our culture is a verbal one. The kitchen has always been the church and the parliament. It’s true for all our countries – Belarus, Russia, Ukraine.
Young Belarusians are leaving the country today, and I can understand them. The power of any authorities is that they disintegrates us and makes us weaker. People leave the country not only to look for a better life, but because it’s not in their power to build the country in the way we want to see it.
I talked to Mikhail Khodorkovsky in London a couple of days ago. We spoke that it’s too early to prepare for victory, but we should prepare for the future. Young people should study, get education and professions. I’d like the country’s economy in the future to be run by professionals rather than by revolutionists. We need to save ourselves for the future and prepare ourselves for the future.
On Soviet heritage
I belong to the generation that has lived most part of its life in the Soviet Union. We lived in that huge country. Later, during the perestroika, we went to our own homes and found ourselves – Belarusians found themselves, the people of the Baltic states found themselves… We had to learn how to live on our own, but communism hasn’t died, it doesn’t hurry to go away, it returns. We still live on the ruins of communism.
Even if one moved to London and speaks perfect English, some part of him or her remains Soviet. We don’t know what strong connections we have with the century’s superstitions.
On national issue
I think I have three homes. Ukraine lives in my feelings. I still remember the smell of the village and even oxen pulling carts. My second home is Belarus with its flavour of forests and smell of swamps… The third home is, of course, the Russian culture and especially my favourite Dostoyevsky.
I’d like to say something that some won’t probably like. When I was travelling in the Chernobyl zone and writing the book Chernobyl Prayer, I got a wider idea of nationality. Imagine that you are in the Chernobyl zone, and you can’t sit on the ground, drink water or pick up a flower. Everything is death. It looks like an ordinary world, but it’s not so. This is the world where everything is against human beings. You are driving through the zone and see a hare or a sounder of wild pigs running out of houses. You don’t feel you are Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, French or German. You feel like a representative of the specie that can be wiped out. You know that radionuclides will be decaying for tens of thousands of years, and you are dissolving in it, you are disappearing.
I don’t have an illness of missionarism. I think the aim of art is more humble, because human nature cannot be changed easily.
On the other hand, everything I do is an attempt to increase knowledge about evil, about how sophisticated and inventive it is, how well the mechanism of evil was practised in human history and how often good becomes defenceless. On the other hand, we need to increase good. Hatred won’t save us. Love will save us.
Reality is a mystery. Human memory is not a reliable tool to try to understand it, because it depends on many things: on whether one is happy or not, on what one reads, on what friends one has. If someone talks about a war or an accident, we shouldn’t think it is true. You will come home after this event and talk about it, but there will be as many stories as there are people here. People create things by speaking, I have no doubts.
I personally try to achieve veracity only through describing an event from different points of view. A document is a living object, it always contains someone’s love and someone’s hatred.
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