For more than 30 years Belarusian journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich has explored conflict and its aftermath. Through numerous interviews, books and articles she has pursued a life that gives a voice to the survivors of conflict. Focused on the tragedies of the Soviet Union as well as its aftermath, Ms. Alexievich has traveled from Chernobyl to Kabul and finally to the 2015 Nobel prize in literature. Unlike many other Russian speaking Nobel laureates, Svetlana was not focused on poetry or prose but on the necessity to spread factual information and stories of those around her.
Svetlana Alexievich was born on 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk. She grew up exposed to two different cultures, due to the fact that her father was Belarusian and her mother Ukrainian. Following her father’s demobilization from the army, Svetlana and her family moved back to Belarus. Her two parents worked as school teachers. After finishing school she began working as a reporter at a series of local newspapers. She then graduated from Belarussian State University in 1972 and became a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Alexievich went on to chronicle the Chernobyl catastrophe, the Soviet invasion and war in Afghanistan as well as the after effects of World War II on civilians, namely on women. In 2000 she was forced to leave Belarus by Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime and was offered sanctuary by the International Cities of Refuge Network. She went on to live in Paris, Gothenburg, and Berlin before being allowed to return home to Minsk in 2011.
One of Alexievich’s greatest works is War’s Unwomanly Face (1985) which chronicles the lives of hundreds out of millions of Russian women who lived through the Second World War. She gives voices to these women who served as foot soldiers, snipers, doctors and nurses during this difficult time period. First printed in 1985, this book was then repeatedly reprinted reaching sales that surpassed two million copies.
“All that we know about Woman is best described by the word ‘compassion’. There are other words, too – sister, wife, friend and, the noblest of all, mother. But isn’t compassion a part of all these concepts, their very substance, their purpose and their ultimate meaning? A woman is the giver of life, she safeguards life, so ‘Woman’ and ‘life’ are synonyms.” –War’s Unwomanly Face
Zinky Boys: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation tells the story of two boys who lost their lives in the Soviet War in Afghanistan and were then buried in zinc coffins. The honesty of these accounts showcase the confusion and contradictions of the war and lead you to really feel for the individual. In Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of Nuclear Disaster (2006) Alexievich explores the real life ramifications of tragedy on the lives on the individual. Chronically over 500 eye witnesses, including firefighters, clean up specialists and ordinary citizens, the book truly showcases how these tragedies affect all walks of life. A short film was made based on these accounts and then nominated for an Academy Award in 2010.
Svetlana Alexievich is not only the first writer from Belarus to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, but also the first journalist. She was given the award for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” as stated by the judges. Svetlana Alexievich stands as not only a phenomenal contributor to literature but a catalyst to spread the stories of those most affects by our world’s tragedies.
Featured image: By Elke Wetzig (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons