Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature for her “Polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Born in Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarusian father, she worked as a journalist in Minsk, covering the impact of WWII, Chernobyl, the Soviet-Afghan war and the breakup of and fallout from the Soviet Union. She spent the 2000s in political exile from Lukashenko’s regime and moved back to Minsk in 2011.
She was a strong candidate against Alice Monro last time, and has won numerous awards for her work internationally, including this May, her second Ryszard Kapuściński Award for the book Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man (Время second-hand. Kонец красного человека), translated into Polish by Jerzy Czech, and into numerous other languages.
She talks about this study of post-Soviet humanity in an interview at Russia Behind the Headlines: “It is one thing to fight a huge monster and win, but another to discover it had hundreds of offshoots. In some ways it was worse. And we do not have the cultural skills to deal with them. But 20 years have passed, and the silence of the intelligentsia and the elite must end. It is time to speak out.”
Alexievich enables all sorts of people to speak out. Polyphony is her characteristic feature – she collects a multitude of stories from real people, and brings the voices together. As she says herself on her website: “I tried this and that and finally I chose a genre where human voices speak for themselves. Real people speak in my books… I’m writing a history of human feelings”.
Her website includes extracts from her works in Russian, German, French and English. “Zinky Boys” is her view as the only woman reporting the Soviet-Afghan war, online in Julia R Robin Whitby’s translation (extract from September 1986):
“At the hospital I watched a Russian girl put a teddy bear on an Afghan boy’s bed. He picked up the toy with his teeth and played with it, smiling. He had no arms. “Your Russians shot him” his mother told me through the interpreter. “Do you have kids? A boy or a girl?” I couldn’t work out whether her words expressed more horror or forgiveness.”