Svetlana Alexandrovna Alexievich (born 31 May 1948) is a Belarusian investigative journalist and non-fiction prose writer who writes in Russian. She was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. She is the first writer from Belarus to receive the award.
Born in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislav (since 1962 Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in Belarus. After finishing school she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers before graduating from Belarusian State University (1972) and becoming a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman in Minsk (1976).
During her career in journalism, Alexievich specialised in crafting narratives based on witness testimonies. In the process, she wrote oral histories of several dramatic events in Soviet history: the Second World War, the Afghan War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. After political persecution by the Lukashenko administration, she left Belarus in 2000. The International Cities of Refuge Network offered her sanctuary and during the following decade she lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin. In 2011, Alexievich moved back to Minsk.
Alexievich’s books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual through carefully constructed collages of interviews. According to Russian writer and critic Dmitry Bykov, her books owe much to the ideas of Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses. Belarusian poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew called Adamovich “her literary godfather”. He also named the documentary novel I’m from the Burned Village (Belarusian: ) by Ales Adamovich, Janka Bryl and Uladzimir Kalesnik, about the villages burned by the German troops during the occupation of Belarus, as the main single book that has influenced Alexievich’s attitude to literature. Alexievich has confirmed the influence of Adamovich and Belarusian writer Vasil Byka, among others. She regards Varlam Shalamov as the best writer of the 20th century.
Her most notable works in English translation include a collection of first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War) and an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl). Alexievich describes the theme of her works this way:
If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath. An eternal dialog of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.
Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies. The book was finished in 1983 and published (in short edition) in Oktyabr, a Soviet monthly literary magazine, in February 1984. In 1985, the book was published by several publishers, and the number of printed copies reached 2,000,000 in the next five years. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before. Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, describes personal memories of children during wartime. The war seen through women’s and children’s eyes revealed a new world of feelings. In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted and completed suicides due to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order surely and the newly interpreted history.
Her books were not published by Belarusian state-owned publishing houses after 1993, while private publishers in Belarus have only published two of her books: Chernobyl Prayer in 1999 and Second-hand Time in 2013, both translated into Belarusian. As a result, Alexievich has been better known in the rest of world than in Belarus.
She has been described as the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She herself rejects the notion that she is a journalist, and, in fact, what appears in her books as witnesses, are fiction and are changed between different editions of the same book.
Awards and honours
Alexievich has been awarded many awards, including:
- Order of the Badge of Honour (USSR, 1984)
- Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk Medal ( )
- Nikolay Ostrovskiy literary award of the Union of Soviet Writers (1984)
- Oktyabr Magazine Prize (1984)
- of the Union of Soviet Writers (1985)
- Lenin Komsomol Prize (1986)
- Literaturnaya Gazeta Prize (1987)
- of Novaya Gazeta (1997)
- Friendship of the Peoples Magazine Prize (1997)
- () (Russia, 1997)
- 1996 Tucholsky-Preis (Swedish PEN)
- 1997 Andrei Sinyavsky Prize
- 1998 Leipziger Book Prize on European Understanding
- 1998 Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung-Preis
- 1999 Herder Prize
- 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award, Voices from Chernobyl
- 2007 Oxfam Novib/PEN Award
- 2011 Ryszard Kapuciski Award for literary reportage (Poland)
- 2011 Angelus Award (Poland)
- 2013 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
- 2013 Prix Mdicis essai, La Fin de l’homme rouge ou le temps du dsenchantement ( )
- 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature
- 2017 Arthur Ross Book Award Bronze Medal given by the Council on Foreign Relations for her book Secondhand Time
She is a member of the advisory committee of the Lettre Ulysses Award.
- (U voyny ne zhenskoe litso, War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face), Minsk: Mastatskaya litaratura, 1985.
- (English) The Unwomanly Face of War, (extracts), from Always a Woman: Stories by Soviet Women Writers, Raduga Publishers, 1987.
- (English) Wars Unwomanly Face, Moscow : Progress Publishers, 1988, ISBN 5-01-000494-1.
- (English) The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, Random House, 2017, ISBN 978-0399588723
- (German) Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht. Henschel, Berlin 1987, ISBN 978-3-362-00159-5.
- (German) New, expanded edition; bersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Hanser Berlin, Mnchen 2013, ISBN 978-3-446-24525-9.
- (Portuguese) A Guerra no Tem Rosto de Mulher. Elsinore, 2016. ISBN 9789898843579
- : (Poslednie svideteli: sto nedetskikh kolybelnykh, The Last Witnesses: A Hundred of Unchildlike Lullabys), Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1985
- (Russian) : . Moscow, Palmira, 2004, ISBN 5-94957-040-5
- (German) Die letzten Zeugen. Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Neues Leben, Berlin 1989; neu: Aufbau, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-7466-8133-2. (Originaltitel: Poslednyje swedeteli). Neubearbeitung und Aktualisierung 2008. Aus dem Russischen von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Berlin: Hanser-Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3446246478
- (Portuguese) As ltimas Testemunhas: Cem histrias sem infncia. Elsinore, 2017. ISBN 9789898864178
- (Tsinkovye malchiki, Boys in Zinc), Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1991.
- (English, US) Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. W W Norton 1992 (ISBN 0-393-03415-1), translated by Julia and Robin Whitby.
- (English, UK) Boys in Zinc. Penguin Modern Classics 2016, translated by Andrew Bromfield.
- (German) Zinkjungen. Afghanistan und die Folgen. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 978-3-10-000816-9.
- (German) New, expanded edition; Hanser Berlin, Mnchen 2014, ISBN 978-3-446-24528-0.* (Zacharovannye smertyu, Enchanted with Death), Moscow: Slovo, 1994. ISBN 5-85050-357-9
- (Portuguese). Rapazes de Zinco: A gerao sovitica cada na guerra do Afeganisto. Elsinore, 2017. ISBN 9789898864000
- (Zacharovannye Smertyu, Enchanted with Death) (Belarusian: 1993, Russian: 1994)
- (Chernobylskaya molitva, Chernobyl Prayer), Moscow: Ostozhye, 1997. ISBN 5-86095-088-8
- (English, US) Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Dalkey Archive Press 2005 (ISBN 1-56478-401-0), translated by Keith Gessen.
- (English, UK) Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future. Penguin Modern Classics 2016 (ISBN 978-0241270530), translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. New translation of the revised edition published in 2013.
- (German) Tschernobyl. Eine Chronik der Zukunft. Aufbau, Berlin 2006, ISBN 3-7466-7023-3.
- (Portuguese). Vozes de Chernobyl: Histrias de um desastre nuclear., Elsinore, 2016. ISBN 9789898831828
- (Vremya sekond khend, Second-hand Time), Moscow: Vremia, 2013. ISBN 978-5-9691-1129-5
- (Belarusian) – ( ) / . . . . , . . .: , 2014. 384 . ( ; 46). ISBN 978-985-562-096-0.
- (German) Secondhand-Zeit. Leben auf den Trmmern des Sozialismus. Hanser Berlin, Mnchen 2013, ISBN 978-3-446-24150-3; als Taschenbuch: Suhrkamp, Berlin 2015, ISBN 978-3-518-46572-1.
- (English, US) Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Random House 2016 (ISBN 978-0399588808), translated by Bela Shayevich.
- (Portuguese) O Fim do Homem Sovitico. Elsinore, 2017, ISBN 978-972-0-04740-3