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Svetlana Alexievich: There are periods in history when the reason of an entire nation becomes clouded

Event for the 2015 Nobel Prize winner for literature held in Tel Aviv

Svetlana Alexievich, who visited Israel recently as part of the project “Open Lecture” was clearly unlucky: the weather was hardly suitable for making excursions around the country. But even if it had been, it’s still impossible to learn about local realities and get a full impression about them in a few days. And nevertheless, the discussion with the writer on the 7th of February in Tel Aviv proved interesting, and deserves to be covered in detail.

At the beginning of the discussion, this author, Jewishnews.com.ua special correspondent Pyotr Lyukimson, asked Svetlana Alexandrovna three questions: firstly, under what circumstances did she learn that she had won the Nobel Prize; secondly, does she see her win as a sign that in the modern world non-fiction literature has pushed fiction into the background; and thirdly, as a resident of Europe, how does she regard what is happening in Israel today?

“I had known for some time that I had been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but it wouldn’t be true to say that I was just sitting around waiting to be awarded it. I didn’t expect this. On that day the girl who helps me around the house had gone to her native Bulgaria for a holiday. I was doing the ironing when the secretary of the Swedish Academy rang me and congratulated me on winning the award.

“Lukashenko and the Belarussian authorities preferred to be silent, but I know that the reaction of the people was unequivocal. People celebrated and rejoiced. People spontaneously held parties at home and at work, and the plan for drinking champagne was exceeded. People saw my winning the Nobel Prize as an achievement of the entire Belarussian people, and I, considering myself to be a Belarussian, undoubtedly share this feeling.

“But if I didn’t expect the Nobel Prize, even less did I expect the aggression that this news drew in the Russian press. They remembered that I had criticized Putin in the western press, and that in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict I had taken Ukraine’s side.

“They also mentioned that I was born in West Ukraine. But I had never concealed this. On the contrary, an incident which happened to me during those years is very important for me. My father was an officer in the Soviet army, and in West Ukraine at that time people refused to sell food to “’Russian officers’. And he went to the head of a nunnery and said: ‘I know that you see me as an enemy. But you are a servant of God, do you really believe that my daughter also deserves to die?!’ And after this conservation, for half a year the nunnery provided me with half a liter of goat’s milk every day.
“I was especially surprised that for telling this story I was criticized in Russia by a person who supposedly stands on the side of good. In his opinion, evidently, it is a crime to arouse any sympathy for the Ukrainians.

“I think that we all often lack the audacity to admit that we are all to a certain extent infected by the superstitions and hatred of the times we live in., And when in the 22nd century historians will examine our attitude to human life and to many other things from their perspective, it will seem barbaric and senseless to them. At any rate, writers are obliged to think this, as for them human life should be the highest value. Unfortunately, in modern Russia a writer who mentions this is automatically declared an enemy, a traitor and part of the “fifth column”. Evidently, there are periods in history when the reason of an entire nation becomes clouded, and hatred and human darkness come to the fore, and we are experiencing such a time now.

“I think that the aggression of Russian society towards me was also connected with the fact that Russia has shut itself off from the world; it has not let the world in.

“And now we reach your second question, whether non-fiction is winning over fiction? I think that in recent years our life has accelerated, huge masses of information have descended upon us, but at the same time none of this has anything to do with the secret of the human soul, and this is what art deals with. But in this new situation, art should look for new forms. This concerns painting, music and literature alike. But for some reason in Russian society we observe an extremely conservative attitude towards form, while in Europe these new literary forms have long been acknowledged. And I believe that by awarding the Nobel Prize to me, the jury members of the Swedish Academy showed that they are open to this new spirit of the times. I think that this was quite a bold decision on their part.

“As for your question about the Arab-Israeli conflict… I arrived in Israel on the day when a young border guard was killed in the old city of Jerusalem. I was in the old city on that day, not far from the Shechem gates, and later I saw her portrait on the Internet. And several days afterwards, I was pursued by that beautiful young face, and I thought about the madness which causes these young lives to be cut short.

“I believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a vicious circle of hatred, from which there will be no way out for many, many years. I was recently in Kiev, and I was amazed by the hatred that the Ukrainians have developed for the Russians in just a few years. My mother is Ukrainian, my father is Belarussian, and I can say for certain that none of this used to exist. And I think that the Ukrainian-Russian conflict will also be with us for many, many years. I believe that hatred is a kind of essence that enters us at a mythological level and feeds on mythology, and so it is easy to be infected by it, but very hard to get rid of it…

Then came a question as to whether parts of the book “War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face” concerning Jews were censored, and whether Alexievich intended to write a book about the catastrophe of Belarussian Jewry – including the role that the Belarussians played in the extermination of the Jews.

“I’ve written five books, but essentially they are one large book, ‘The Encyclopedia of Red Civilization’,” the writer replied. ‘It was important for me to show what happened to the Soviet person at key moments in history.’

“And in all of my books there are heroes of Jewish nationality. They contain stories about Jewish women, who went to the war together with men; I tried to put an end to the myth that “Jews didn’t fight”; there are stories about Jewish children who were exterminated. My latest book, “Second Hand”, contains stories that I heard from Jews which did not previously appear in our history: how children and teenagers crawled out from under a heap of corpses and went to look for partisans, and how these partisans then shot them or abused them. This is all here, but writing a separate book about the Jews was not part of my plans, as my intention was wider.

“As for the involvement of Belarussians in the extermination of the Jews, all historians agree that in Belarus the local population saved Jews more frequently than in other places. But of course there were different cases. When people in a village knew that a certain family was hiding a Jewish child, some people kept silent about it, while others may have given up this child for a sack of flour, which the Germans provided as a reward for informing. Unfortunately, there were many cases of this nature, and they were discussed in my book, but when it was going to the press, these stories drew antagonism and were removed. The same thing is happening now in Poland, where a book has been published about how the Poles treated the Jews during the war years. This book drew a storm of indignation from the Poles, and now the writer who wrote it is literally being forced out of Poland. You understand, no one wants to know the truth about themselves. I have lived in France, and I know that the French also don’t want to know the truth about how they behaved during the war years. But someone must tell this truth…

A question was asked at the press conference about how Svetlana Alexievich reacted to the ban by the Israeli Ministry of education to teaching a novel in schools by an Israeli writer about the love of an Arab man for a Jewish woman. Obviously, Alexievich did not know about this incident and what it was connected with, but the correspondent of the newspaper “Haaretz” evidently felt it was extremely important to ask this question for ideological reasons. Especially as it did not seem difficult to guess what the answer would be.

Alexievich said she was opposed to censorship; that in the clash between the person and the “juggernaut” of state ideology, her sympathies were always on the side of the person:

“So of course I am on the side of this writer,” Alexievich continued. “Because hatred will not save us. Hatred can only give birth to new hatred. Only love will save us. And this doesn’t just concern what is happening in your country, but also what is happening in Russia and in Belarus. We are all prisoners of the superstitions of our time, of fanaticism, and I cannot call what is happening in Russia now anything other than fanaticism. Quite recently in Russia a Russian father forbade his son to marry a Ukrainian woman. I think this is also a subject that could interest a writer. In the book “Second Hand” I give another similar story: a Chechen woman married a Russian pilot and ran away with him. Several years later, when she had two children, she decided to make peace with her family and wrote a letter. And then her two Chechen brothers came to visit, murdered her and took her home – in a coffin…”

Here this author must make a brief digression and say that this was a truly brilliant answer – even if Svetlana Alexandrovna did not realize this herself. The fact is that stories about love between Arab men and Jew women are common in Israeli literature, and their literary level leaves much to be desired in almost all cases. But the level is not important: for some reason no Israeli writer has yet to write about the love between an Arab woman and a Jewish man – not even a hypothetical one. At the same time, this story would end in exactly the same way as it did between the Chechen woman and Russian pilot. This is because for a Muslim to take a wife of another faith and convert her to Islam means to fulfill a great commandment and ensure oneself a place in paradise. But if a Muslim woman abandons the “truth faith” and marries a man of another religion, then she deserves nothing but death. This is why in Russia so many women marry Muslims, but there are hardly any cases when a Muslim woman marries a Russian man, or if they do these marriages end very sadly.
But that’s by the by. In response to the writer’s comment that we live in truly bleak times, one young journalist quite justly asked if there had ever been any other times, and received a wonderful answer.

“Yes, you’re right, humanity has yet to experience any other sort of times. There have even been worse times. But at all times there have been ideas and signs of genuine humanity, which inspire hope. And on their foundation, I believe, any person must develop their own soul, the conglomeration of energy or information that will remain when their body has gone. And to remain a human being – at any time… In the 1990s, like many others, I hoped that everything would now be different. We thought that the main problem lay in the communists, but the problem lay in people. The fact that a person has left a prison does not mean that they have become free. They carry the prison in themselves – in genes, memory, words, books, and they don’t change quickly. I lived abroad for several years, now I’ve come home, to Belarus, and I see that nothing has changed, time in my country has stopped. But an artist, I think, cannot take part in any dictatorship. And so again and again I ask a question which has no answer: ‘Why aren’t our sufferings converted into freedom?’ Why is it sufficient just for someone to raise their voice – and a person goes back to the stall?!

Svetlana Alexievich had a very interesting reaction to the question about how she sees the role of women in history and the transformation of human society. She recalled her own post-war childhood – she grew up in a village where there were practically no men; they only began returning in the early 1950s.

“This world without men was much fairer, more flexible, more humane. In remembering the war, women might talk about how animals had suffered; they might feel pity for an injured German – things that men would never permit themselves to do. This women’s world made a lasting impression on me. And that makes sense: women have always been on the side of life. A woman is always closer to this transition from non-existence to existence, and so I believe that the future lies with a woman’s view of the world. It will be a better world, and we can see this today in Scandinavia, where women hold many key positions.

“In my book ‘Zinc Boys’ I tried to show two different views of the war – male and female. And I can well remember how women asked me to tell the truth about the war that took away their husbands and sons, the truth that was hidden… The most terrible thing is that in modern Russia something similar is taking place. Nameless graves appear once more, and coffins are arriving – this time from Ukraine. But if women asked me to tell the truth back then, now they say that their loved ones perished because “it was necessary”, that they were carrying out “their patriotic duty” etc. The most honest of them say that they are afraid to talk to me about what they think, because in that case they won’t receive the one million rubles in compensation which is paid to the families of the dead. And for me this means a new level of the moral decline of Russian society.

In conclusion, Svetlana Alexievich repeated several times that “a writer must be on the side of Good” – evidently this statement has special significance for her. It is just a shame that there was no time to ask her what she thought about another well-known but very debatable statement – that “you can’t do good without using your fists”…

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