Documentary and Ideology: Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature

Who is Svetlana Alexievich?

by Zachary Murphy King

Alexievich RoundtableOn January 19, 2016, the Center for East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies hosted a roundtable discussion on Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. Specialists in Russian studies from the University of Chicago gathered to discuss the significance and place of her work in the current ideological debates in the Russian-speaking world. The speakers were Robert Bird, Eleonora Gilburd, Faith Hillis, and William Nickell.

            Svetlana Alexievich is the first Belarusian to receive the prize for literature, and the first Russian-language writer since Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Indeed, Alexievich is the first female author writing in Russian ever to receive the honor. And yet, when the Nobel Committee announced their choice, there were two common responses: “who?” and “why?” If the former may have been common among lay readers and many people even generally familiar with contemporary Russian literature, the latter question was voiced Russian commentators, several envious Russian writers, and at least a few Western specialists in Russian literature. Amid the widespread ignorance and even disinterest in her work, the panel proposed answers to these questions and contributed to a greater awareness of her work.

Introducing the panel, Robert Bird (Slavic Languages and Literatures) suggested that the lack of academic interest in her work so far could partially be the explained by her generic ambiguity. Her documentary prose is neither fiction or history, but a hybrid oral history. Each of her books consists of dozens of edited interviews focused on a single historical event: World War II, the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the collapse of the USSR. As a dissenting voice in her native Belarus and Russia, Alexievich fits the established pattern in Russian-language Nobel laureates, and news of Alexievich’s selection drew familiar criticism of Stockholm and the writer from the pro-Kremlin media. And yet her voice is not a loud one against Putinism: while her work fits into themes of human rights and pluralism, her method has been consistently to subsume her own voice in the voices of her many interviewees. The Nobel Committee pointedly praised her “polyphonic writings,” suggesting that her distinction had to do with her self-erasure as an author.

Faith Hillis (History) highlighted the circumstances of Alexievich’s childhood in post-WWII Ukraine and Belarus. She was born in 1948 in Stanislaviv, now Ivano-Frankivsk, a city that had suffered under the Nazis and soon after the war became again the site of ethnic cleansing and a continuing Ukrainian nationalist rebellion led by Stepan Bandera. Thus Alexievich was born into a moment of triumph over the Nazis but in an area of the country still in the midst of internecine strife. She writes, speaks and (presumably) thinks in Russian, although she was born to a Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father and moved to Belarus, where she was also educated. The fact of Russian as not only lingua franca of the Soviet Union but the language of culture at large meant, Hillis noted, that Alexievich was able to engage thoroughly with this culture, absorb it and respond to it deeply, without ever having lived in Russia. Her works emphasize the complexity of experience and history and the dignity of the individual at a time when state media take to narratives of perfect simplicity and supreme disregard for individual difference. Amidst public uproar over her critique of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, Alexievich’s humble admission that, “It’s hard to be a decent person in our times,” exemplifies her quiet courage in resisting the “dehumanizing impulses” of the post-Soviet world.

For Eleonora Gilburd (History) Alexievich represents not a triumph of oppositional writing but rather of socialist writing. In this she surpasses her fellow laureate Mikhail Sholokhov and his socialist realist epic And Quiet Flows the Don. Despite the fact that Alexievich has taken such pains to limit and even efface her presence from her work, Gilburd pointed out that her oeuvre is actually remarkable for the cohesion of its themes and in its metaphors. Alexievich describes herself, in her first book and her Nobel lecture, as an ear for many voices—golosa in Russian—so they can golosit’—cry out, weep, lament. Her first book (War’s Unwomanly Face) gathers many such female voices to create a woman’s perspective on WWII. This poses an implicit (and sometimes explicit) challenge to the national myth of the war dominated not only by men’s voices but by “male memory”: stories of battles fought, enemies destroyed, friend’s lost—heroic facts that pile up like so many bodies. The “feminine memory” of Alexievich’s book prioritizes the experience of smells, sights, and sensations over data or heroic victories. Her book presents a conservative femininity: the characters speak of having to find time to knit after a day spent in the “man’s business” of war. Gilburd identified the Belarusian writer Ales’ Adamovich, as well as the Russian writer Viktor Nekrasov as important influences on Alexievich’s style. Finally, Gilburd suggested that her achievement was not so much in creating a narrative framework (which existed in a similar form in Adamovich and Polish works about WWI), but in her use of ellipsis, which elides the masculine language of carnage.

William Nickell (Slavic Languages and Literatures) focused his attention on Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. He pointed out that the book’s publication followed closely on the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress and the introduction of glasnost’, and that it mirrors the American “human interest” story. While in the Soviet press interviews and stories about locals were highly mediated and even staged outright—a practice that continues today in coverage of the war in Ukraine and annexed Crimea—Alexievich’s method offers a relatively unmediated and authentic interaction with her subjects. But her subjects’ narratives often imitate established patterns: personal narratives of the Chernobyl disaster’s first responders reproduce the common World War II-era narrative of the brave front and cowardly home office, while those exposed to radiation drink vodka in a throwback to pagan cleansing rituals. In this her work testifies to the literary structures persisting in cultural consciousness.

Robert Bird focused on Alexievich’s place in the “documentary wars” raging in Russia today. He recounted the myth of the World War II-era general Panfilov, which has been recycled with some license by the current Minister of Culture,Vladimir Medinskii, noting that its factual basis had been discredited already in the late 1940s. Such official myths are threatened by Alexievich’s humanistic insistence on the personal experience of war. However, a glance at history reveals that the Panfilov story also originated in documentary narratives based on participant interviews, meaning that both sides in the current documentary wars share a common origin in practices of early socialist realism, which substantially complicates our estimation of the current documentary wars and of the status of the documentary as such. In short, today’s documentary wars are rooted in old debates of the 1930s, a fact that underscores Alexievich’s complex position in literary history. And yet Alexievich is often dismissed as a mere “journalist” by Russian critics and academics, a charge fueled possibly by both sexism and disdain for what is perceived as low or uncreative work.

Following the presentations the panelists, students and other faculty discussed the origins of such collective war narratives, the difference between feminist and feminine writing, the possibility of protest in contemporary Russia and the necessity (or irrelevance) of distinctions between historian, journalist and artist. Does Alexievich’s work have anything new to teach us about the world of the former Soviet Union? And does it have a role to play in that still-unfolding history? The answer to both questions will certainly depend on a public engagement with her work. If we can find in her work a kernel of opposition to the current regime in Moscow, then it might lie in the humanist position of her narrative stance rather than in anything specific she or her narrators say. These narratives place trauma and experience at the center of the story, leaving “victory” at a distant remove. In cultivating this care for the instability of experience and investment in the stories of others, her writing makes possible a reckoning with the Soviet past and its unfulfilled promises.

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