Svetlana Alexievich captured the psyche – and trauma – of a Soviet people and nation

Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich. Reuters

Though Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich has been the recipient of multiple European book awards, her work has gone largely unrecognized in the United States. It’s probably due to the fact that she writes in Russian, and only four of her books have been translated into English.

Now she’s about to have a legion of new readers.

On Thursday, Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of work that straddles the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, with a focus on its points of trauma: World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Together, Alexievich’s six books make up a series that she calls “The Chronicle of the Big Utopia, or The History of the Red Man.”

Each deals with trauma; through individual memories, she gives a voice to an entire Soviet society that has strained to make sense of the enormous suffering it experienced during the 20th century.

Touchstones of tragedy

Alexievich is known for her unique literary method, one that blurs the genres of oral history and documentary prose. For each book, she’ll conduct between 500 and 700 interviews with witness-participants or their surviving family members, weaving excerpts from these interviews into her narratives.

They include:

  • The War’s Unwomanly Face (1985), a book based on the narratives of Soviet women who had fought in World War II.

  • Shortly thereafter, she wrote Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildish Lullabies, which incorporated the fragmented memories of Soviet children who had endured the war.

  • In 1991 Alexievich published Zinky Boys, which is based on the narratives of surviving soldiers who participated in a decade-long military campaign in Afghanistan. She also included the memories of friends and family members of the war’s fallen soldiers (whose bodies were sent home in zinc coffins, hence the title).

  • Enchanted by Death (1994) followed, a book that told the story of suicides and suicide attempts by (often elderly) Soviets after the fall of their state. Alexievich gives voice to those whose moral suffering is so acute that they found it nearly impossible to continue living.

  • The Chernobyl Prayer (1997) chronicled two parallel catastrophes, one technological, one social: the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant juxtaposed with the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union.

  • Finally, there’s Alexievich’s latest book, 2013’s Time Second-Hand.

A national narrative of suffering

According to Jewish moral philosopher Victor Frankl, suffering is no longer suffering when it finds a meaning.

Ingrained in the Soviet worldview was the powerful idea of overcoming suffering. The idea was that one suffered for a reason, for a greater cause, whether it was building an unrivaled communist state, achieving social justice, or winning World War II.

In other words, no one’s suffering was futile.

But War’s Unwomanly Face – the first of Alexievich’s books – is the only one where suffering does retain meaning: the narrators are actively involved in the war effort, united in defending their nation from Nazi Germany. While they suffered tremendously and lost their loved ones, they were ultimately victorious.

In all her other books, though, the “cause” is missing; suffering arises out of a calamity, a disaster, human cruelty or incompetence, technological imperfection or bad luck. One after another, interviewees seem to ponder over one question: Why me? Why us? Why my husband, mother, son? And what now?

There’s no answer. Their suffering, absurd and unjustified, is in vain.

When things fall apart

Alexievich’s most recent book, Time Second-Hand – the result of years of research and hundreds of interviews – recreates the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Using the voices of narrators coming from all walks of life and corners of the region, it tells the story of Soviet collapse, and the subsequent ethnic cleansing, civil wars, impoverishment, and the loss of meaning for the millions of former Soviet citizens.

The cover for the Belarusian edition of Time Second-Hand.

It’s also about how the communist way of life vanished and, with it, how a general apathy settled into the psyche of millions who now questioned what they had suffered for.

As one of the narrators in Time Second-Hand explains, “We were building socialism. Now socialism is gone, and we are left.”

Time Second-Hand recalls another book by a Nobel laureate: the novel Things Fall Apart (1958) by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

While Achebe’s novel detailed a very different time and place, despair, tragedy and loss are also at the center of his story, which depicts an African civilization that starts to disintegrate after its encounter with whites.

The “Soviet man” in Time Second-Hand finds himself (and herself) in a similar situation.

Alexievich explains:

Over the course of seventy years, a new human specimen was bred in the laboratory of Marxism-Leninism: Homo Soveticus. Some believe that this is a tragic character; others call him a “sovok.” I think I know this person. I know him really well, I have lived next to him for many years. This person is me. He is the people I know, my friends, my parents.

After the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alexievich, Eastern Europeans took to social media. Many hailed her work, while others denounced it, saying that she didn’t give the Soviet experience the tribute it deserved.

But it’s hard to argue that – over the course of thousands of interviews – Alexievich didn’t capture the general sentiment of a people at a striking moment in their country’s history.