It is right, but also not quite right, to celebrate the journalist and contemporary historian, Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a Belarusian writer. The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union. She is connected to Russia and Ukraine as well as Belarus and is a writer of all three nations; the passage from Soviet state to national state was experienced by them all, and her life has been divided among them. Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union. Polish has a nice term for this approach, literatura faktu, “the literature of fact.” Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her a major critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia.
To say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1948 is already to indulge in the kind of simplification she has sought to expose from the beginning. Her home city, Stanislaviv, was in a region known as Galicia, which had been part of Poland from the fourteenth century, part of the Habsburg monarchy in the nineteenth, and part of the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. It fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then under German power in 1941 when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Jews were the largest population in Stanislaviv before the war; almost every single one was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the city’s Poles and Ukrainians were killed or deported by either the Germans or the Soviets during the war, and others were drafted into service in the Red Army and died in combat. The Stanislaviv where Alexievich spent the first few years of her life was thus a new Soviet city, both in its administration and its population.
Perhaps it mattered that essentially everything about the city of her birth was a suppression but also an invocation of an unremembered past, and that her family was involved on both sides in disputes that could never be fully articulated. Her Belarusian father had fought against Ukrainian nationalists who were trying to win Galicia for an independent Ukraine. Her Ukrainian maternal grandmother told her about what Ukrainians call the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s political famine, which had killed more than three million people in Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. That was crucial knowledge, because the collectivization of agriculture, whose purported success was a central myth of Soviet history, was one of the causes of the famine. Ukrainians were blamed for the misery and subjected to harsh requisitions and reprisals that channeled starvation on to their territory, whereas Soviet citizens as a whole were told that collectivization was a grand success hindered only by nationalists and saboteurs.
It was collectivization, along with World War II (known as the “Great Fatherland War”), that created the Soviet Union that people of Alexievich’s generation experienced. Both were calamities that were covered in beautiful myths, myths that worked in part because people wanted individual suffering and death to have meaning. Collectivization was said, in retrospect, to have been necessary for victory in war, and victory in war was taken to demonstrate the legitimacy of the system as such. Collectivization was the founding stone of a new kind of society, which after the war could be brought to new places such as Stanislaviv. Alexievich’s family moved from Stanislaviv in Soviet Ukraine to the Polesian region of southern Belarus in the 1950s, a land known for the ambiguous national identity of its inhabitants. As a very young woman Alexievich taught school and worked at a local newspaper in these provinces; in the late 1960s, she went to Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, to study journalism, but returned again to the provinces when she finished, working in Biaroza in the southwest, in another town that had been in Poland before the war. In the meantime, the name of her hometown, Stanislaviv, was changed to the one it still bears now, in independent Ukraine: Ivano-Frankivsk.