The history of a socialist utopia
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Life & Arts news every morning.
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases and exclamations, I always think, “How many novels disappear without a trace!” Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk . . . I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.
Many times I have been shocked and frightened by human beings. I have sometimes wanted to forget what I heard, to return to a time when I lived in ignorance. More than once, however, I have seen the sublime in people, and wanted to cry.
I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood. We were told that human beings exist in order to give everything they have, to burn out, to sacrifice themselves. We grew up among executioners and victims. Even if our parents lived in fear and didn’t tell us everything — and more often than not they told us nothing — the very air of our life was poisoned. Evil kept a watchful eye on us.
I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia.
There was a time when no political idea of the 20th century was comparable to communism, a time when nothing attracted western intellectuals and people all around the world more powerfully or emotionally. [The French philosopher] Raymond Aron called the Russian revolution the “opium of intellectuals”. But the idea of communism is at least 2,000 years old. We can find it in Plato’s teachings about an ideal, correct state; in Aristophanes’ dreams about a time when “everything will belong to everyone” . . . In Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella . . . Later in Henri Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. There is something in the Russian spirit that compels it to try to turn these dreams into reality.
Twenty years ago, we bid farewell to the “Red Empire” of the Soviets with curses and tears. We can now look at that past more calmly, as an historical experiment. This is important, because arguments about socialism have not died down. A new generation has grown up with a different picture of the world, but many young people are reading Marx and Lenin again. In Russian towns there are new museums dedicated to Stalin, and new monuments have been erected to him. The “Red Empire” is gone, but the “Red Man,” Homo Sovieticus, remains. He endures.
My father died recently. He believed in communism to the end. He kept his party membership card. He and others close to me, my friends, all come from the same place — socialism. There are many idealists among them. Romantics. Today they are sometimes called slavery romantics. Slaves of utopia. I believe that all of them could have lived different lives, but they lived Soviet lives. Why? I searched for the answer to that question for a long time — I travelled all over the vast country once called the USSR, and recorded thousands of tapes. It was socialism, and it was simply our life. I have collected the history of “domestic”, “indoor” socialism, bit by bit. The history of how it played out in the human soul. I am drawn to that small space called a human being . . . a single individual. In reality, that is where everything happens.
It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. [Fyodor] Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnesses are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators.
In Dostoevsky’s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin, “We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity . . . for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.” That is more or less how my conversations with my protagonists begin. People speak from their own time, of course, they can’t speak out of a void. But it is difficult to reach the human soul, the path is littered with television and newspapers, and the superstitions of the century, its biases, its deceptions.
I would like to read a few pages from my diaries to show how time moved . . . how I followed in its path.
On one trip I met a woman who had been a medic during the war. She told me a story: as they crossed Lake Ladoga during the winter, the enemy noticed some movement and began to shoot at them. Horses and people fell under the ice. It all happened at night. She grabbed someone she thought was injured and began to drag him toward the shore. “I pulled him, he was wet and naked, I thought his clothes had been torn off,” she told me. Once on shore, she discovered that she had been dragging an enormous wounded sturgeon.
This was a war I had never heard about. It wasn’t about one group of people heroically killing another group of people. I remember a frequent female lament: “After the battle, you’d walk through the field. They lay on their backs . . . All young, so handsome. They lay there, staring at the sky. You felt sorry for all of them, on both sides.” It was this attitude, “all of them, on both sides”. Disappearance was what women talked about most, how quickly everything can turn into nothing during war.
I wasn’t looking for heroes. I was writing history through the stories of its unnoticed witnesses and participants. They had never been asked anything. What do people think? We don’t really know what people think about great ideas.
I’m convinced that there will never again be young women like the wartime girls of 1941. I dearly love these women. But you couldn’t talk to them about Stalin, or about the fact that after the war, trainloads of the boldest and most outspoken victors were sent to Siberia. The rest returned home and kept quiet. Once I heard: “The only time we were free was during the war. At the front.” Suffering is our capital, our natural resource. Not oil or gas — but suffering. It is the only thing we are able to produce consistently. I’m always looking for the answer: why doesn’t our suffering convert into freedom? Is it truly all in vain?
I’m in Kabul. I don’t want to write about war any more. But here I am in a real war. The newspaper Pravda says: “We are helping the fraternal Afghan people build socialism.” I talk to the guys. Many have come voluntarily. Most are from educated families, the intelligentsia — teachers, doctors, librarians — in a word, bookish people. They sincerely dreamed of helping the Afghan people build socialism. Now they laugh at themselves. I was shown a place at the airport where hundreds of zinc coffins sparkle mysteriously in the sun. The officer accompanying me couldn’t help himself: “Who knows . . . my coffin might be over there . . . They’ll stick me in it . . . What am I fighting for here?” His own words scared him and he immediately said: “Don’t write that down.”
Before Afghanistan, I believed in socialism with a human face. I came back from Afghanistan free of all illusions. “Forgive me father,” I said when I saw him. “You raised me to believe in communist ideals, but seeing those young men, recent Soviet schoolboys like the ones you and Mama taught (my parents were village schoolteachers), kill people they don’t know, on foreign territory, was enough to turn all your words to ash. We are murderers, Papa, do you understand!?” My father cried.
Russian literature is interesting in that it is the only literature to tell the story of an experiment carried out on a huge country. I am often asked: why do you always write about tragedy? Because that’s how we live. We live in different countries now, but “Red” people are everywhere. They come out of that same life, and have the same memories.
Something opened a little bit after Chernobyl . . . I remember an old taxi driver swearing in despair when a pigeon hit the windshield: “Every day, two or three birds smash into the car. But the newspapers say the situation is under control.”
All the information about Chernobyl in the newspapers was in military language: explosion, heroes, soldiers, evacuation . . . The KGB worked right at the station. They were looking for spies and saboteurs. Rumours circulated that the accident was planned by western intelligence services in order to undermine the socialist camp. Military equipment was on its way to Chernobyl, soldiers were coming.
In the mornings everyone would grab the papers, greedy for news, and then put them down in disappointment. No spies had been found. No one wrote about enemies of the people. A world without spies and enemies of the people was also unfamiliar. This was the beginning of something new. Following on the heels of Afghanistan, Chernobyl made us free people.
I will take the liberty of saying that we missed the chance we had in the 1990s. The question was posed: what kind of country should we have? A strong country, or a worthy one where people can live decently? We chose the former — a strong country. Once again we are living in an era of power. Russians are fighting Ukrainians. Their brothers. My father is Belarusian, my mother, Ukrainian. That’s the way it is for many people. Russian planes are bombing Syria . . .
A time full of hope has been replaced by a time of fear. The era has turned around and headed back in time. The time we live in now is second-hand . . .
This is an edited extract from Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Lecture, ‘On The Battle Lost’ © THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2015
Translation by Jamey Gambrell
The importance of Svetlana Alexievich by John Thornhill
The Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s literature prize to the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was greeted with incredulity in some countries that fancy themselves among the world’s literary superpowers. “Svetlana who? From Bela-where?” asked one commentator, bemoaning the fact that the last time an American writer won the prize was in 1993 (Toni Morrison).
It is true that Alexievich’s books are little-known in the English-speaking world and that the Nobel Committee has sometimes revelled in choosing worthy, but obscure, authors. But her writings have already won her countless admirers among Russian-speaking readers and literary prizes across central Europe, which is perhaps more appreciative than the anglophone world of writing that explores human ambiguity and moral confusion.
The members of the Nobel Committee honoured Alexievich for devising a new literary genre, nothing less than a journalistic “history of the soul” of the Soviet and post-Soviet peoples. The committee’s citation praised “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”.
Born in 1948 in the (now) Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, Alexievich worked as a newspaper reporter in the decaying days of the Soviet Union. She was tempted to write fiction but questioned the value of making up stories when her interviewees’ memories were more vivid. “Reality attracted me like a magnet,” she later wrote.
Her books deftly weave together thousands of interviews conducted across the former Soviet Union over the past four decades, recording the “voices from Big Utopia”, as she puts it. They tell the tales of female soldiers during the second world war, of victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and of those driven to suicide in post-Soviet Russia.
Alexievich’s subjects are occasionally inspirational, but more often than not grim, dealing with the brutal realities of war rather than its heroic romanticisation; with the disillusion of daily life rather than its Communist idealisation. Her books make for difficult, painful reading, but they deserve to be read, for perhaps three main reasons.
First is the arresting nature of the writing itself. Stripped of artifice, Alexievich’s work is compellingly direct, even if very often harrowing. The power of her prose is intensified by the knowledge that the stories she tells are true.
Some of the human insights and stories she records linger long in the mind: of courageous female snipers who still squeal at the sight of a mouse; of an escaper from Chernobyl who carries with him a door on which his father was laid out for burial, his children’s heights were marked, and his daughter subsequently died; of the university student who had scribbled “Nonsense!! Gibberish!! Lies!!” in red pencil on his dissertation on Marxism and religion before jumping out of a 12th-floor window.
It is a unique insight into what it was like to live through the collapse of the Soviet empire. With it disappeared the entire “intellectual superstructure” through which people understood the world.
Second, her work highlights the literary value of non-fiction (something all journalists should applaud). Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker magazine has long argued that it is senseless to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction; it is all writing. Defining something by a negative is absurd. You would never say that you ate a non-grapefruit for breakfast.
Besides, as Alexievich has written, non-fiction can soar beyond art. “Art cannot convey the full human experience. Art has failed to understand many things about people,” she writes.
The third reason for taking Alexievich seriously is that her writing has enormous political resonance, even if it is remarkably non-judgemental. In societies (such as the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus) in which there is only one publicly acknowledged truth, the publication of dissonant voices whispering different versions of reality is itself subversive. It was sometimes said in Soviet times that the truth was singular while lies were plural. But, as Alexievich’s books make clear, the opposite is more often true. In our times, truth has been shattered into millions of pieces and it is only by attempting to reassemble those fragments that we can ever hope to find an approximation of reality.
Alexievich, who has long been marginalised in Lukashenko’s Belarus but has returned to live in Minsk after years of exile, is currently finishing a book about love, entitled The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt. It promises to be more uplifting than previous works.
“People always speak beautifully when they are in love or close to death,” she says.
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor
Photographs: AFP/Getty; UIG/Getty
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published