Nobel Prize Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Oral Histories

Nobel_Prize_Literature_Alexievich_ap_img1Andrew Meier at The Nation:

A prominent Belarussian writer and journalist, Alexievich is doubtless well aware of what her title has lost in translation. She sees herself not as prophet (in the old Soviet writer’s extracurricular tradition) but as a guide intent on repairing her country’s fractured sense of community. What she longs for issobornost, that sense of belonging and shared ideals sacrificed long ago to Bolshevik unanimity. Throughout her work, she has sought to bring to light the hidden stories of the Soviet era. One of her first books, U voiny—ne zhenskoe litso(“War’s Unwomanly Face”), an oral history of Soviet soldiers in World War II, which broke with the heroic narratives of official history, was suppressed for two years before Gorbachev allowed it to be published in 1985. That book and its follow-up, Poslednie svideteli (1985), a collection of 100 “children’s stories” of war, sold millions of copies in the former Soviet Union and made Alexievich aglasnost celebrity. Her career hit its peak with Zinky Boys (1992), an unflinching look at the Soviet war in Afghanistan (“zinky” alludes to the zinc coffins in which more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers returned home).

As voiceless narrator and hidden editor, Alexievich is aware—too much so, her critics contend—of her singular pursuit. “For me people are like the black boxes found in the debris of airplane crashes,” she told me a few years ago in her small apartment in Minsk, Belarus’s capital. “Someone has to open them.”

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