Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich (born 31 May 1948) is a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer, writing in Russian. She was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Alexievich is the first writer from Belarus to receive the award. She has also been described as the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislaviv to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Alexievich grew up in Belarus. After finishing school she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers before graduating from Belarusian State University (1972) and becoming a correspondent for a literary magazine in Minsk (1976).
She went on to a career in journalism and writing narratives from interviews with witnesses to the most dramatic events in the country, such as World War II, the Soviet-Afghan war, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. After persecution by the Lukashenko regime, she left Belarus in 2000. The International Cities of Refuge Network offered her sanctuary and during the following decade she lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin. In 2011, Alexievich moved back to Minsk.
Her books are described as a literary chronicle of the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual, as told by means of a carefully constructed collage of interviews. Her books owe much to the idea that the only way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not to create fiction but to document the testimonies of the witnesses. Her most notable works in English translation include a collection of first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War) and a highly praised oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Voices from Chernobyl). Alexievich describes the theme of her works this way:
“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 dialog 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.”
Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II. Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, describes personal memories of children during war time. The war seen through women’s and children’s eyes revealed a whole new world of feelings. In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted and completed suicides due to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order and the newly interpreted history.
Her books were not published by Belarusian state-owned publishing houses after 1993, while private publishers in Belarus have only published two of her books. As a result, Alexievich was better known in the rest of world than in Belarus.
She is a member of the advisory committee of The Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage which has been given annually since 2003 for the best texts in the genre of literary reportage.
Alexievich has been awarded many prestigious international awards.
Bibliography (English translations):
War’s Unwomanly Face (1988)
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (2005)
Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992); Other edition: Zinky boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war (The ones who came home in zinc boxes) (1992)
If you look back at the whole of our history… it is an eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims.