The History of the Red Man

15. 3. 2017

Nobel Prize for Svetlana Aleksievich is a litmus paper for the post-Soviet cultures.

The announcement of the decision to award this years’ Nobel Prize in Literature to Svetlana Aleksievich initiated discussions and debates that mirrored all the paradoxes and controversies of the perception of this writer in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Surely, for the Nobel committee Svetlana Aleksievich is a Belarusian writer, while this award always signifies recognition that work of the Prize’s recipient has much wider, if not universal, appeal and value. The universal prominence of Aleksievich’s works has been achieved by her radical turn towards human aspects of social and collective phenomena. She writes about the individual ways of living through traumas and suffering. On her way to the individual she reached the point, at which ideological, national, or cultural belongings fail to matter… Any form of collectivity, she seems to demonstrate, is just a curtain that hides the reality of individual human beings.

In spite of this seemingly obvious fact, at least for those who have read Aleksievich’s books, the belonging of Aleksievich became a matter of true contest, paradoxically, both among her adherents and adversaries. Thus, the Ukrainian President Poroshenko proclaimed her Ukrainian, a native of Ivano-Frankivsk, stressing that “no matter where we are, what language we speak or write—we remain Ukrainians.” Russian media immediately proclaimed Aleksievich a Russian writer, including her into the list of Russian Nobel Prize for Literature winners, and just as it happened before to Boris Pasternak, Ivan Bunin, Josef Brodsky, or Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, speculations begun on the political implications of the Nobel Prize for Svetlana Aleksievich.

Belarus has certainly most legitimate rights to claim Aleksievich’s belonging. It would be logical to expect that Belarusian cultural elites will be delighted and proud to have the Belarusian author among the Noble Prize recipients. And many of them were, for they understand that Nobel Prize brings to the country prestige, recognition and makes Belarus more distinguishable on the international cultural and literary scene. And yet, there were also those who felt otherwise. Some called Aleksievich “our own stranger,” pointing out that she was not engaged in the cause of the Belarusian national revival, she has never written in Belarusian, and, from this perspective, does not deserve to be called Belarusian. Some even went further in their pessimistic speculations and wrote about the harm that the Nobel Prize of Russophone Aleksievich will inflict on the Belarusian literature. From now on, they foresee, the Belarusian language literature will be in even worse situation then it was before. “Our first Nobel winner,” wrote Algerd Bakharevich, “is also the last one. The victory of Aleksievich means the ultimate failure of the Belarusian literature.”

Such polarization in the Belarusian cultural scene, caused by the Nobel Prize for Aleksievich, makes us wonder, together with the Belarusian writer Viktor Martsinovich, “what kind of a nation Belarusians are, if even the Nobel Prize does not unify people, but further splits them.” Of course, the question should be reformulated, for it was not the people of Belarus who became divided by this Nobel Prize for Aleksievich, since most of them have never even read Aleksievich’s books. These were the Belarus’s cultural elites that one more time demonstrated their fundamental inability to overcome internal cultural conflicts and ideological division lines. They never did so when in distress, and they proved unable to do so in delight. Their thinking about the Belarus— its culture, tradition, literature or nation—lacks inclusivity and tolerance. In fact, it lacks real people and this is what makes Aleksievich so markedly different.

More predictable was the reserved official reaction of the Belarusian authorities. During the first day when the official announcement of the name of Nobel Prize winner was made, the official channels in Minsk kept their silence, while journalists widely speculated whether the Belarusian president is going to congratulate Aleksievich at all. In the end he did, at the end of the day, and made it in an explicitly reserved manner, combining formal congratulation with the expression of hope that the whole country will benefit from the Prize, whatever that meant. In the light of the president’s particular attention to the achievements of the Belarusian sportsmen abroad, when the Olympic gold winner biathlete Domracheva was given the Hero of Belarus medal, the restrained reaction on Nobel Prize for Svetlana Aleksievich showed how uncomfortable is this Prize for the official Belarus.

Aleksievich had never kept in secret her opinion on the political situation in her country, publicly criticized the president for the repressive means he employs to remain in power. In 2010 she wrote him an open letter, asking him a rhetorical question about the atmosphere of fear and desperation in the Belarusian society that became the major outcome of 2010 presidential election.

Taking all this into account, it almost is not surprising that the last publication of Aleksievich’s book by state Belarusian publishers (that dominate Belarusian publishing market in general) happened in 1993, before Lukashenko came to power. Only twice she was published in her country after that: in 1999 in 2013, in both cases by non-state publishers. According to the information on the official website of Aleksievich, her books were published 154 times—in Russia, Germany, Georgia, Norway, China, Japan, and others. Most often—over twenty times—she was published in Russia. She has also received various awards both in Russia and in Europe, among which the earliest was the Order of the Badge of Honor of the USSR in 1984, followed by various Soviet and Russian literary awards, PEN Award, Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage in Poland, Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and so on and so forth.

She is indeed more present on the Russian literary scene than on the Belarusian one. However, the reaction to the Nobel Prize for Aleksievich in Russia was similarly tense and controversial. On the one hand, many unconditionally accepted her as “Russian writer,” readily ascribing her a place in the Russian liberal dissident tradition. In the atmosphere of the escalated tension between Russian and Western world, liberal intellectuals greeted the Prize from the Nobel Committee as a sign of support for Russian liberalism. On the other side of the political barricade, present-day Russian patriots accused the Nobel Prize Committee of making a decision driven purely by political motivation, as a gesture meant to humiliate contemporary Russia. In their view, this Nobel Prize is comparable with an extension of NATO’s soft power.

In most of her works, Aleksievich writes about the Soviet life that constitutes common past for Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and other post-Soviet people. Her focus has always been on the painful and difficult aspects of the Soviet life, such as the women during the great Patriotic War in The War’s Unwomanly Face, Soviet children’s memories about the war they survived in Last Witnesses: 100 Unchildish Lullabies, the soldiers who participated in Afghanistan War in Zinky Boys, on the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in Chernobyl Prayer, the fate of the Soviet man after the end of Socialism in her most recent work Second-Hand Time, not yet translated into English. The way in which Svetlana Aleksievich approached each of these difficult aspects of Soviet past and post-Soviet present were hardly compatible both with the Soviet grand narrative and with the official rhetoric generated by post-Soviet state ideologies. These narratives talk about communities (the people, society, and community), yet Aleksievich turns her attention towards human individual hidden behind those abstract names.

Altogether, Alexievich’s six books make up a series that she calls “The Chronicle of the Big Utopia, or The History of the Red Man.” This phenomenon of “red man” is certainly not exclusively Belarusian, Ukrainian, or Russian. As a matter of fact, Aleksievich demonstrated how various identities formed in the Soviet past and re-formed in present have been combined, re-worked, and developed to correspond to logic of new era. But she also demonstrates that newly re-framed identities preserve their previous lives even if in a hidden, tacit mode. Those traumas she investigates in her works continue to impact people’s lives and will—as the silent conclusion that Aleksievich seems to imply—never vanish. Aleksievich transfers this discovered truth to her readers via multiple voices of people she interviewed for her books.

Aleksievich based her books on conversations with five to seven hundred individuals across the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet countries. These oral histories with their unique experiences and dilemmas are presented as first- person monologues. The way in which these individual voices have been reworked in the polyphonic narrative of Aleksievich’s book, is a unique narration technique close to verbatim. The unity of the author’s story in each of her books is achieved not by means of generalization or suppressing the original individual voices, but by the drawing for them their common ground. It is common reason, or more often, the lack of any reason or rationale, that bonds human stories of absurd and unjustified suffering into the cohesive literary narrative.

The method of Aleksievich storytelling is believed to be introduced by Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who together with Janka Bryl and Vladimir Kolesnikov used individual interviews with villagers who survived the atrocities of Nazi occupants and their collaborators in Belarus in the documentary book I Am from the Burning Village published in 1975. In Adamovich’s work the voice of the author also plays an unusual role of mediator between the different modes of individual experience of trauma and the collective frame of perception and presentation of the trauma. He called this method “a supra-literature” emphasizing the priority of human experience even in the literary text. Aleksievich not simply applied the idea of Adamovich to a new subject areas; she thoughtfully re-worked and developed it to become a new form of vivisection of people’s memory of the Soviet epoch. The “monologue of witness” in her books has been transformed into the discourse of the Soviet or post-Soviet societies. This way of generating the picture is in fact the opposite of the work of any ideology, which means to indoctrinate people by giving them means, tools, and frame for understanding themselves.

From this perspective, her books became written memorials to human suffering and to courage required to survive. Paradoxical aspect of these books lies in revealing the genuine sense of the individual memory. They show that in spite of overwhelming presence of state in the socialist being and the total control that held people’s life at that time, the power turned out to be minimal in controlling what and how people experience and remember in practice.

The both entangled and intangible division line between the social and the individual finds its expression also in the phenomenon of the long-lasting Soviet man, someone who unwillingly became a creation of the social engineering project and continues his after-life when the system that invented him failed and collapsed. Durable catastrophe of the Soviet (like any other totalitarian) system is not in its aggressively imposed nature, but in the life of individuals who had it internalized. Their humanness thus becomes transformed into a stage where the anti-imperial struggle has been waged.

Aleksievich repeatedly described herself as a Belarusian, as a Ukrainian, as a person belonging to Russian cultural world, as a cosmopolitan. The problem is that in the present day post-Soviet reality dominated by rigid division lines and politics of exclusion, this type of hyphenated identity sounds like a challenge to both new and old national or state ideologies. This is why this Nobel Prize for Aleksievich has one more unintended meaning—it adds legitimacy to her work and life in the all those places where she wants to be and feel at home. This is what Aleksievich meant by saying that “The Nobel Prize will give me freedom.”

Nelly Bekus

holds a PhD in Sociology (2007) and currently works at the University of Exeter in the project 1989 after 1989, Rethinking the Fall of Socialism from a Global Perspective. She is the author of the book Struggle over Identity. The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness” (2010). She has also published numerous articles on the post-Soviet nation and state-building, religious and linguistic policies, history, and memory.

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