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19 Jan

João de Almeida Dias (Portugal)
Observador, 9.10.2015

A Nobel Prize in Europe’s last dictatorship

Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus’ freest writer, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The country, which has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko over the last 20 years, will go to elections on sunday. Will this award change anything?

João de Almeida Dias

Originally published in www.observador.pt

Translated from Portuguese into English by João de Almeida Dias

“I didn’t even know it was possible for a nonfiction writer to win the Nobel! But I was so happy to learn the news. So happy. Now the whole world will know about us!” Taken by surprise, and at a loss of words. That’s how Igar Lohvinau, Svetlana Alexievich’s editor in Belarus reacted to the news that she had won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Moments after, he picked up the phone and dialed the 67 year old writer’s phone number. In regular days, she would have answered his call without question: after all, Lohvinau was the only editor who took the risk of publishing Alexievich’s work in the post-Soviet years of Belarus, dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe” due to Alexander Lukashenko’s 20 year reign in power. But October 8th, 2015, was not a regular day. “I sure tried, but the line was always busy”, he tells me in a phone conversation, two hours after the announcement of Alexievich’s award was done in Stockholm, Sweden.

The same thing happened to Andrei Sannikov, the presidential candidate in 2011 who after being imprisoned, tortured and eventually released, fled to exile in Warsaw, Poland. He too tried to call Alexievich after hearing the news. No luck. The conversation will have to wait for another day. “I’m really happy about this”, he tells me on a Skype conversation. “I was so nervous yesterday that I had to make myself to stop anticipating this. I was so eager for her to win this prize. I even became superstitious about it at a point, I thought that maybe if I kept thinking about it she’d never make it.”

But she did. And Sannikov couldn’t have been any happier: “The Belarusian dictatorship has been going on for 20 years. After all these years, it’s good to know that the the first Nobel prize that one of us gets is precisely someone who lives her own life according to the value of freedom.”

“This is all new to me, so I’m still in shock”, Viktor Martynovich, a Belarusian writer, tells me on the phone after the announcement. It’s hard to believe with whom he had a brief encounter just a few days ago has won a Nobel prixe. “I was in Minsk airport when someone shouted my name. I looked around and that’s when I saw that it was Svetlana. We talked for while, essentially about literature, but we didn’t mention the Nobel prize. She didn’t bring it up so I decided to do the same, because it wasn’t sure if she’d would win it or not.”

When the brief, small talk, airport encounter drew closer to its end, Alexievich asked the young writer if he’d have the time to sit and talk over a cup of coffee anytime soon. “I told her ‘yes’, of course! But now I doubt that she’ll have time to have a drink with my anytime soon!” Martynovich is speaking very fast and loud, as though unfiltered, unlike the gloomy tone he had in our previous conversations in Minsk. “I’m sorry, but this was a huge surprise.”

Alexander Lukashenko has been the President of Belarus since 1994. He’s been winning every election since that year, owing that to a mix of electoral fraud with a monopolization of the media in such a way that the opposition candidates haven’t enough air time for people to even memorize their name. Alexievich’s Nobel prize came at the same time has one of such elections: the voting for the next president of Belarus started this week and the result will become public on sunday — and it will come, unlike with today’s award, nobody will be surprised that Lukashenko will be nominated for his fifth term in power.

Just like everybody else who dared step over Lukashenko’s red lines, Alexievich has been ostracized by the regime up until today. However, anyone who wants to read her books in Belarus has roughly three ways to do it. They can order them online from a Russian website; they can borrow a book from a friend who by chance still has a copy from the Perestroika years; they can even find some copies in second-hand bookstores or independent booksellers, i.e. not owned by the state, in Minsk, like Igar Lohvinau.

However, all of the above aren’t as easy as they sound — as one would easily imagine in a modern dictatorship like Belarus: online shopping websites are restricted in the country, and some have even been banned; while Alexievich’s books were published in the 80s, they were never printed in large numbers; and independent booksellers are constantly under the prying eye of the authorities. In early 2015, Lohvinau was fined with €55.000 for selling books in his store in central Minsk which included photographs of police brutality in the electoral evening in 2011 — the same when Sannikov got arrested.

The easiest way to find Alexievich’s books could be in the state-owned bookstores, which dominate the the market and are represented in all corners of Belarus. Such is not in case because the name of this award-winning author has never been on those shelves. “The Belarusian government pretends that I don’t exist”, Alexievich mentioned in her first press conference as a Nobel prize holder. “My work doesn’t get published anywhere, I’m quoted by nobody. At least I can’t remember any occasion when the Belarusian state television has called me.”

In case there was any doubt that Alexievich’s statement was accurate, one would only have to watch the newscast on the evening of October 8th. Even though the news of the first Belarusian receiving a Nobel prize were still fresh, they were only deserving of 23 seconds of airtime. Contrastingly, in the same newscast, 3:26 minutes were devoted to a ceremony where Lukashenko handed out official condecorations.

It was only towards the end of the day that the Belarusian president congratulated Alexievich through a letter. “Your creative work has touched the feelings of Belarusian and other readers throughout the world… I’m sincerely happy for you. I hope that this award may serve the Belarusian state and the nation”, he wrote. It would be naïve to expect any other message from him — after all, it was quintessential Lukashenko. First, the mention to the “Belarusian state and the nation”, which are undisputably ever-present elements in his rhetoric. Finally, because he describes Alexievich’s work as “creative”, regardless of the fact that she’s a journalist who writes solely nonfiction. This hasn’t been the first time that the Belarusian president gave proof of not being very well.read. In 2003, when called to comment on the death of Vassil Bykov, one of Belarus’s more acclaimed writers, Lukashenko scored an own goal. “I really liked his poems”, he said, not knowing that Bykov, a former soldier in World War II, only wrote prose.

Ironically, Alexievich got more most limitations after the end of the Soviet Union — an event that many would guess would bring more democracy to all the nations until then controlled by Moscow — than in the days when Europe was split up in two blocks. Her first works were written in the Perestroika and Glasnost years, in the second half of the 1980s, when the Soviet regime was more open to what could become compromising readings. However, her task became harder with Lukashenko’s rise to power in 1994.

Few years after Lukashenko’s election, and when her books couldn’t be found in bookstores anymore, Alexievich was called to court to respond for interviews she had made for her second book, Zinky Boys. In 2000, she decided to leave Belarus “in protest”. After 11 years, she lived in five different countries: Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and France. She won important literary prizes throughout Europe, like the Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage (Poland) or the Book Of The Year Award of Lire magazine (France). Meanwhile, all she got from Belarus was silence.

In 2011, she returned to Belarus. “I came back because as writer I needed to breathe this air, I needed to talk with these people, to see her… I came back because I missed everything. I wanted to see my granddaughter Yanka grow up. I wanted to see our people and our landscapes. Yet, it’s hard to live here. It’s a closed space”, Alexievich said in a conference in May.


Svetlana Alexievich was born in May 31st, 1948, in Ivano-Frankovsk, in West Ukraine, to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother. After her dad, a military man, finished his mission in Ukraine, the whole family moved to Komarovichi, a village in southern Belarus. Her parents worked as teachers in the local elementary school — the same job which, years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexievich’s daughter would take up on.

At age 18, Alexievich enrolled in Journalism in Minsk University. After she finished her studies, and after a brief stint in elementary school teaching, she started writing for the nonfiction sections of different Soviet literary magazines.

In 1985, she published her first book under the title of War’s Unwomanly Face, in which she tells the stories of women who fought and survived World War II, still referred to in former-USSR countries as the Great Patriotic War. The book includes dozens of interviews in which women remembered episodes of that traumatic chapter which led to the deaths of 2.3 out of the 9 million who lived in Belarus then — making it the country which proportionally has lost the most population from all that fought the war. The enormity of these numbers, and their meaning, marked every generation that followed the war, as Alexievich wrote in the introduction of War’s Unwomanly Face:

“I, too, was born after the war when the trenches had already been overgrown with grass, when three-layered dug-outs had crumbled and when soldiers’ helmets left behind in the forests had gone rusty. But the war’s deadly breath has affected my life, too. We still belong to the generations that have their own accounts to settle with the war. Our family lost eleven of its members: my Ukrainian grandfather Petro, my mother’s father, is buried somewhere outside Budapest, my Byelorussian grandmother Yevdokia, my father’s mother, died from starvation and typhus when the Nazis had sealed off partisan-controlled zones, two families of our distant relatives together with their children were burned alive by the Nazis in a shed in my native village of Komarovichi, Petrikov district, Gomel Region, and father’s brother Ivan, who had volunteered for active duty, went missing in action in 1941.”

Alexievich’s first book marked the establishment of her style, the same she would use for the next three decades to come. The foundation of the author’s writing consists on a long, strenuous interviewing process where she focuses on dissecting the Soviet Union’s biggest traumas through the voices of regular people who lived through them. “I perceive the world through human voices”, she wrote in the afterword to an American edition of Zinky Boys. “They never cease to hypnotize, deafen, and bewitch me at one and the same time.”

Above all, it’s when she reproduces the voices of women when Alexievich captures the most anguish -- and it’s also in those occasions when one is more exposed to “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”, like the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences acknowledged this thursday when announcing this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A good example of that is in excerpts of Zinky Boys including the testimonies of mothers whose sons and daughters died in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- a war that began in 1979 and only ended in 1989 and from which the average Soviet citizen got little to no information.

There’s one passage which tells the story of a mother who, after losing her daughter to the war, began searching the floor for her stray hairs, to eventually collect them in a matchbox to the dislike of her husband. “Leave me be. It’s all I have left of her”, she would reply.

In the same book, Alexievich tells the story of a mother who raised her son according to Soviet role-models. In a moment of doubt expressed by the young man who was already in college, she insisted on the same idea: “I sat with him all night in the kitchen. What could I tell him? I told him yet again that our Soviet life was wonderful and our people were good. I believed it.” But later, she was struck by her son’s death in Afghanistan, in a war which propaganda attributed to same values she tried to instill in her son from a young age. “I can’t carry any longer, I just can’t. I’ve been dying for two years now. I’m not ill, but I’m dying. My whole body is dead. I didn’t burn myself on Red Square and my husband didn’t tear up his party card and throw the bits in their faces. I suppose we’re already dead but nobody knows. Even we don’t know…”

Alexievich also wrote about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, in 1986. Although it took place in Ukraine, the biggest toll was taken by Belarus due to northbound winds. Her family and the village they lived in, very close to the Ukrainian border, fell victim to the waves of nuclear waste -- and also to the fact that the Soviet authorities only officially alerted the general population of the accident 19 days before it occurred.

More recently, Alexievich has written about the years which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Time Second Hand, arguably her magnum opus. Not that the theme is much different than in her previous books. In fact, it all revolves around the trauma felt by this “people chosen by God”, as one of her heroes says. Mostly, it deals with the shock that followed the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991. “We lived a secluded life, we didn’t know much about what was happening around the world. We were like indoor plants… A Russia like the one we read about in books and talked about in our kitchens (one of the few private places where families and friends could discuss politics without fearing any backlash) has never existed. Only in our minds”, another character in Time Second Hand says.


Although Alexievich rarely writes her own words, something that she much prefers to do while using the voices and testimonies of others, her works could still be considered to the antithesis of the Lukashenko. Alexievich reaches that by denying the utopian nostalgia that the dictador insists on keeping from the Soviet Union and from al that it represents -- the unquestionable heroism of the soldiers in the Great Patriotic War, the unshakable fraternity amongst the peoples of all Soviet republics, and the unfailable immortality of the values of Marxism-Leninism. And, most of all, she is Lukashenko’s antithesis because she uses the voices of “small men against the great utopias”, as she has mentioned in a past interview.

In another interview from 2009, Alexievich pointed that Belarus is the country from the former USSR which remains the most unchanged since 1991. “It’s no coincidence that the other Eastern Bloc countries refer to Belarus as ‘Jurassic Park’. In other Eastern Bloc countries such as Ukraine, Estonia and even Russia, something fundamental has been changed, reforms have been implemented. But Alexander Lukashenko has preserved the old ways in Belarus. The wealthy people in Belarus today, who drive a Mercedes or Bentley, are mentally the same as during the Soviet period. It it is now 16 years since Lukashenko came to power. The other Eastern Bloc countries have used those 16 years to build a new mentality, but this has not happened in Belarus.”

In her press conference after the news of the award were made public, and hours before Lukashenko made note of her “creative work”, Alexievich asked something. The tone in which she posed it made it very clear that it was a rhetorical questions. “What will Lukashenko make of this?... I’m curious to find out.”

To Andrei Sannikov, the former presidential candidate in 2011, has no doubts: “In a way, in his very particular way, Lukashenko will find a way to turn this in his own advantage and profit from the Nobel prize.”

Igar Lohvinau’s guess points in the same direction. “It’s possible that the regime will finally change their attitude towards Svetlana Alexievich, because now it’s undeniable that she is a notorious person. She is now a part of who we are to the whole world”, he begins to say, only to add something to the contrary later when the topic of the upcoming presidential elections is brought up. “On sunday we’ll learn once again -- as if we didn’t know it already -- that Lukashenko has won the elections. So, in reality, there won’t be major changes, not even modest ones”, he predicts. “Neither in the regime nor in people’s minds.”

Viktor Martynovitch, the young writer who the Nobel laureate to-be invited to drink a cup of coffee someday, doesn’t have any illusions regarding the elections either. “On Sunday we’ll watch a story that doesn’t stray a single millimeter from the usual script. It will be once again a glorious episode to Lukashenko. That’s what elections in Belarus are for.”

But on the other hand, he argues, starting in October 8th 2015, the day Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, something has changed, even if only symbolically -- which, in a dictatorship like Belarus, means more than in usual situations. “Finally, after 20 years of dictatorship, there will be someone whose words are as important as Lukashenko’s.”

Originally published: http://observador.pt/especiais/nobel-na-ultima-ditadura-da-europa/