THE CHRONICLER OF THE UTOPIAN LAND
Says Alexievich: "I've been searching for a genre that would allow the closest possible approximation to how I see and hear the world. Finally I chose the genre of actual human voices and confessions. Today when man and the world have become so multifaceted and diversified, when we finally realized how mysterious and unfathomable man really is, a story of one life, or rather the documentary evidence of this story, brings us closest to reality."
Svetlana Alexiyevich was born 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankovsk into the family of a serviceman. Her father is Belarusian and her mother is Ukrainian. After Father's demobilization from the army the family returned to his native Belorussia and settled in a village where both Father and Mother worked as schoolteachers. (The father's grandfather was also a rural schoolteacher.) After finishing school Alexiyevich worked as a reporter on the local paper in the town of Narovl, Gomel Region.
Already in her school days she wrote poetry and contributed articles to the school newspaper. At that time she needed two years work record (as was the rule in those days) in order to enroll in the Department of Journalism of Minsk University, entering it in 1967. During her university years she won several awards at the republican and all-Union competitions for scholarly and students' papers.
Having received her degree she was sent to the town of Beresa, Brest Region, to work on the local paper. At the same time Alexiyevich taught at the local school. At that time she was torn between various career options: to continue the family tradition of school teaching, scholarly work, or journalism. But after a year she was invited to Minsk to work on the Rural Newspaper. Several years later she took the job of a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman and was soon promoted to the head of the section for non-fiction.
She tried her voice in various genres, such as the short story, essay, and reportage. It was the famous Byelorussian writer Ales Adamovich who made a decisive influence on Svetlana's choice, particularly his books I'm from the Fiery Village and The Book of the Siege. He wrote them jointly with other authors but the idea and its development were entirely his, and it was a new genre for both Byelorussian and Russian literature. Adamovich was looking for the right definition of the genre, calling it "collective novel", "novel-oratorio", "novel-evidence", "people talking about themselves", "epic chorus", to name a few of his appellations. Alexiyevich has always named Adamovich as her main teacher. He helped her to find a path of her own.
In one of her interviews she said: "I've been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world - as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher."
In 1983 she completed her book The Unwomanly Face of the War. For two years it was sitting at a publishing house but was not published. Alexiyevich was accused of pacifism, naturalism, de-glorification of the heroic Soviet woman. Such accusations could have quite serious consequences in those days. All the more so since already after her first book I've Left My Village (monologues of people who abandoned their native parts) she has already had a reputation of a dissident journalist with anti-Soviet sentiments. On order of the Byelorussian Central Committee of the Communist Party Alexiyevich's already composed book was destroyed and she was accused of anti-Communist and anti-government views. She was threatened with losing her job. They told her: "How can you work on our magazine with such alien views? And why are you not yet a member of the Communist Party?"
But new times came with Mikhail Gorbachev's coming to power and the start of the perestroika.
In 1985 The Unwomanly Face of the War came out simultaneously in Minsk and in Moscow. In subsequent years it was repeatedly reprinted; all in all more than two million copies were sold out. This novel, which the author calls "the novel-chorus", is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the unknown aspects of the Second World War that had never been related before. The book was hailed by the war writers as well as the public.
In the same year her second book came out: The Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildlike Stories, which has also languished unpublished for the same reasons (pacifism, failure to meet ideological standards). This book also ran into many reprints and was acclaimed by numerous critics, who called both books "a discovery in the genre of war prose". The war seen through women's and children's eyes opened up a whole new area of feelings and ideas.
The 40th anniversary of the war was marked by the theatre production of The Unwomanly Face of the War at the renowned Taganka Theatre (staged by Anatoly Efros.) The Omsk Drama Theatre received the State Prize for their production of The Unwomanly Face of the War. The play based on this novel was running in many theatres around the country. A cycle of documentary films was produced on the basis of The Unwomanly Face of the War. The film cycle was awarded with the State Prize, and received the Silver Dove at the Leipzig Festival of Documentary Films. Alexiyevich also received many other prizes for this work.
1989 saw the publication of The Boys in Zinc, a book about the criminal Soviet-Afghan war that had been concealed from the Soviet people for ten years. To collect material for the book Alexiyevich was traveling around the country for four years to meet war victims' mothers and veterans of the Afghan war. She also visited the war zone in Afghanistan. The book was a bombshell and many people could not forgive the author for de-mythologizing the war. In the first place the military and Communist papers attacked Alexiyevich. In 1992, court proceedings have been opened against the author and her book in Minsk. The democratically minded public rose in defense of the book. The case was closed. (Photo: Kabul, 1988)
Later several documentary films and plays were based on this book.
In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted suicides as a result of the downfall of their socialist mainland. They were people who felt inseparable from the socialist ideals, who were unable to accept the new order, the new country with its newly interpreted history. The book was adapted for the cinema (The Cross).
In 1997, Alexiyevich published her book The Chernobyl Prayer: the Chronicles of the Future. The book is not so much about the Chernobyl disaster as about the world after it: how are people adapting to the new reality, which has already happened but is not yet perceived. The post-Chernobyl people obtain new knowledge, which is of benefit for the whole mankind. They live as it were after the third world war, after a nuclear war. The book's subtitle is very significant in this respect.
"If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions - Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man."
Alexiyevich's book have been published in many countries: USA, Germany, UK, Japan, Sweden, France, China, Vietnam, Bulgaria, India -- 19 countries in all.
She has to her name 21 scripts for documentary films and three plays, which were staged in France, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Alexiyevich has been awarded with many international awards, including the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for the "Courage and Dignity in Writing" (the Swedish PEN), the Andrei Sinyavsky Prize "For the Nobility in Literature", the independent Russian prize "Triumph", the Leipzig Prize "For the European Mutual Understanding- 1998", the German prizes "For the Best Political Book" and the Herder Prize.
Alexiyevich has thus defined the main thrust of her life and her writings: "I always aim to understand how much humanity is contained in each human being, and how I can protect this humanity in a person."
These questions acquire a new implication in connection with the latest events in Beloruss where a military-socialist regime is being restored, a new post-Soviet dictatorship. And now Alexiyevich is again unwelcome to the authorities in her country because of her views and her independence. She belongs to the opposition which also includes the country's finest intellectuals.
Her books add up to a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet person. She continues to develop her original genre. In each new book it is employed in a new way. One can't help recalling Lev Tolstoy's maxim to the effect that it is more interesting to follow real life than to invent it. "Many things in man still remain a riddle for art," says Alexiyevich.
For her 50th anniversary a two-volume collection of her works came out. In the introduction the critic Lev Anninsky says: "This is a unique work, which has probably been undertaken for the first time in Russian, or rather in Soviet and post-Soviet culture: the author has traced and recorded the lives of several generations of Soviet people, and the very reality of the 70 years of socialism: from the 1917 Revolution through the Civil War, the youth and hypnotism of the great utopia, Stalin's terror and the gulags, the Great Patriotic War, and the years of the downfall of the socialist mainland up to the present times. This is a living history told by the people themselves and recorded and selected by a talented and honest chronicler."
Alexiyevich is currently finishing her book The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt made up of love stories. Men and women of different generations tell their personal stories. "It occurred to me that I've been writing books about how people kill one another, how they die. But this is not the whole of human life. Now I'm writing about how people love one another. And again I ask myself the same question, this time through the prism of love: who are we and what country we are living in. Love is what brings us into this world. I want to love people. Although it's increasingly hard to love them. And getting harder."