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Chernobyl creator Svetlana Alexievich on telling the human stories of war: ‘How could people kill and not go mad?’

Soviet children in an air raid shelter during the Second World War
Soviet children in an air raid shelter during the Second World War

Some time in the early Eighties, Svetlana Alexievich, who would go on to become the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, had a conversation with a Soviet censor. She had written and was attempting to publish a book about women who had fought in the Soviet army during the Second World War, of whom there were close to a million. Alexievich had recorded the voices of more than 500. The censor had deleted many of them from the manuscript.

“We don’t need your little history,” said the censor. “We need the big history. You don’t love our heroes! You don’t love our great ideas.”

“True,” Alexievich said. “I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.”

An uncensored edition of that first book was translated into English two years ago, under the title The Unwomanly Face of War. For many readers, myself included, it was by far the best book published that year – not only an oral history but a long-term project that posed an urgent set of questions for the present: how do we listen? Who are we not hearing? What are the stories under the story, and to whom do they belong?

Now the second book Alexievich wrote, Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories – which takes in the testimony of Russians who experienced the war as children – is being published, and completes the collection of her work available in English. Though they have been translated out of their original sequence, it’s possible to see all five books – on women, children, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, and post-Soviet reality – as she intended them: “novels in voices”, which provide a single choral account of postwar Russia. Even if her 2015 Nobel Prize hadn’t led us to anticipate it, the experience of reading these thousands of human confessions would have an astonishingly powerful impact.

I meet Alexievich at her home in a high-rise apartment building in Minsk. Though she grew up here in Belarus, she had lived all over Europe for many years before returning in 2011 to be near her daughter and granddaughter. Her apartment is warm, brown and full of books: dark wood cabinets line the walls behind generous leather furniture and a heavy, old-fashioned desk. At intervals in the bookcases, a single old hardback has been turned around so that the black and white portrait on the cover is visible: Alexievich in a flak jacket in younger days; her mentor Ales Adamovich, from whose oral history of a village razed by the Nazis her entire project was born. The windows look out on to an artificial lake – much of Minsk is artificial now, since most of the city was destroyed during the war. Faux-19th-century blocks in pastel-coloured concrete sit alongside ambitious vertical mazes such as this one, built more recently by oligarchs.

It’s a sweltering June day and the air conditioning isn’t working, but Alexievich makes tea for the interpreter, Yury, and me. Now 71, she operates with a gentle demeanour and careful speech. There is a tin of Danish biscuits on the table, and a small bowl of liqueur-filled Russian chocolates. Her mobile phone keeps ringing. “It’s a crazy time,” she says, “I must leave town.” Everyone wants to ask her about the television series, Chernobyl, which dramatises events covered in a book she wrote in 1997. The creators bought the rights but failed to credit her, and she’s only seen a couple of episodes. “I had to use the services of pirates,” she says good-naturedly.

Svetlana Alexievich, at home in Minsk Credit:  Gaby Wood

Belarus gives Alexievich a chilling prism through which to look at destruction. During the war, one in four Belarusian lives were lost. After Chernobyl, one in five found themselves living on contaminated land. Though the nuclear plant was in Ukraine, 70 per cent of the radiation released by the disaster in 1986 fell across the border in Belarus.

Read in combination, Last Witnesses and Chernobyl Prayer have a curious effect. In the case of the children, you feel very much transported to the past. Chernobyl is ongoing: “The radionuclides strewn cross our earth will live for 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 years,” Alexievich writes. And because the people she interviewed knew things no one else was yet prepared to see, “I felt like I was recording the future.” Her work straddles time. She hopes that now, with the HBO series, a new ecologically minded generation will sense the threat to nature: “I believe they will have in mind the rehearsal of an apocalypse.”

With her Nobel Prize and her HBO deal, Alexievich is the bridge between Solzhenitsyn and The Sopranos. That has led some critics to question her journalistic rigour. In a 2016 essay in The New Republic, Sophie Pinkham described certain passages of Second-hand Time, her epic evocation of life in Russia after the fall of communism, as having been rearranged or removed – more as if they were theatrical monologues than recorded fact.

But that’s in keeping with Alexievich’s asserted method: she is open about her editing and reordering of the material she gathers. She’s really composing a score: showing the shape and sound of memory – both individual and collective. She often revises her books substantially after their first publication, a practice she describes to me as being necessary because interviewees contact her with a desire to say more towards the end of their lives. Her purpose is to go beyond what she calls “mechanical facts”. “Why repeat the facts,” she writes in the first edition of the book on Chernobyl. “They cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts, is what fascinates me.”

Alexievich often speaks about “feelings”. She sees her project as “the history of how socialism played out in the human soul”. This is not the manifesto of a mere recorder. To hear Alexievich tell it, the fiction she was raised on is precisely what gave her the courage to tell uglier truths. In her books, she often quotes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and her work is presented to us in that vein. Two of her books have been translated into English by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, well-known translators of both of those 19th-century authors. Journalism, in the USSR, was up to something else.

“I’m from a family of teachers,” she tells me. “I grew up in a village and my father was a communist true believer. I only started to realise a lot of things were hidden when I started to work as a journalist. But I couldn’t write about that in a newspaper – that’s why I left. They wanted me to write about the war but I wanted to write something different: how people could kill other people, and not go mad.”

The first time she paused and wondered whether she should use something she’d been told was when she was writing up her experiences in Afghanistan for the book that became Boys in Zinc (2017). Looking at a landmine, she had remarked on how perfectly formed it was. The Russian officer next to her said that if someone were to step on it “there would be nothing left of them but a bucket of meat. You’d have to scrape them off the ground with a spoon.” She had gone to Kabul still believing in “socialism with a human face”; the war tore that out of her. “We are murderers, Papa,” she told her father on her return, and drove him to tears. At her keyboard, Alexievich hesitated over the meat. Was that going too far? She thought about the 19th-century Russian novelists, and put it in.

Last Witnesses is so powerful – and in a way so innocent, since all the experiences belong to children – that it’s hard to imagine exactly which passages the censors would have wanted removed. (That second book grew out of the first, on women – some of the women were the mothers of the children interviewed later.) “It was connected to patriotism, you know,” Alexievich replies when I ask, before pointing out a few, now reinstated. One boy tells a story about being shocked to have shot his first German; children in an orphanage mistake German soldiers for their fathers coming to rescue them; a child hides under a bed after his mother is shot. “The censor shouted at me,” Alexievich says calmly. “He said: that could not have happened – where is the boy’s patriotic gesture? You have to delete it from the book.”

The censor’s response is the foundation of the witnesses’ shame. Of course they couldn’t speak. The question of silence comes up again and again, both as a shock reaction during the war and as a survival strategy afterwards. “Aren’t you afraid to listen to me?” one interviewee asks Alexievich. The book is a breaking of silence.

“Well exactly,” Alexievich says. “All the women and children: they were talking about a war we’d never experienced. We never saw that war. No stories like that were told.” She remembers in particular one woman who complained about having to wear men’s underpants. “You’re preparing to die for the Motherland,” a former rifleman called Lola Akhmetova told her, “and you’re wearing men’s underpants… For four years.” At the end of this passage in the book, Akhmetova says something that makes you picture Alexievich on the other side of the tape recorder. “Why aren’t you laughing?” Akhmetova says. “You’re crying… Why?”

The question of Alexievich’s own place in the narratives she constructs is one she puts in plain sight. She refers to herself as a “witness”, or an “accomplice”, or simply as a “neighbour in memory”. She wonders what to call her interviewees: narrators? Interlocutors? Guides? Sometimes she’ll make clear that she is one of them (adjusting to post-communist life, for instance). At others she’ll be frank about the fact that she isn’t – quoting a soldier, at one point, as saying she shouldn’t be the one writing their story. The overall project makes itself up as it goes along. “How do you simultaneously experience history and write about it?” she asks aloud. You have to “crack open the times”. As a result, she has found herself physically and psychologically exhausted, and requires, she tells me, periods of silence.

Even before the censors did their early work, the women she interviewed would be censored by their husbands. “You make the tea, and I’ll tell her,” Alexievich remembers one man telling his wife. She chuckles at the memory: “This was a woman who had been a sniper!” Then the women would censor themselves. Alexievich used to offer transcripts to her interviewees for verification, but they’d be returned with all sorts of patriotic sentiments inserted, so she stopped: “I believe that the book, and the truth, should not depend on the mythology of the current time,” she explains. “I had all the tapes. I composed the stories differently but on the basis of their voices.”

A 15-year-old Red Army scout in 1942 Credit: Heritage Images

After her first book was published in 1985, many of the women in it got in touch with her to complain that she’d left out all the heroic stuff. But this is a form of heroism, she tried to tell them. In 1992 she stood trial for something similar, when Boys in Zinc was thought by some of its interviewees to have misrepresented their valour. (One of the cases was dismissed; another was found to be defamatory and Alexievich was fined, though the judges refused to hear the expert evidence she had requested.) “As a human being,” Alexievich said as she left the courtroom, “I have asked forgiveness for causing pain, for this imperfect world… But as a writer, I cannot, I have no right to, ask forgiveness for my book. For the truth!”

At one point in our interview I ask Alexievich whether she thinks her work is of greater value to history or to literature. Her reply falls on the side of the latter. “Today, things move so fast you don’t have as much time as Tolstoy had to think it over,” she says. “I wanted to create these ‘novels in voices’. I believe that this is an appropriate modern method.”

The word “novel” raises the question, though: what would happen if they weren’t true? What difference would it make?

Alexievich smiles at this. “Real life is so unexpected. I wouldn’t be able to give so many details or tell so many stories,” she says evenly, of the fictional alternative. “And secondly, they wouldn’t be magical any more.”

She’s very clear: the magic is in the real. Yet I can’t help pursuing the point. Does she, I ask, have journalistic obligations to the truth?

“Yes, of course,” Alexievich replies firmly. “That’s what I’ve done all my life.” There’s a pause, and another smile. “As far as I understand the truth.”

As these questions come out of my mouth, I wonder if the distinction is arbitrary. Alexievich’s books can be structurally sophisticated: voices and commentary are layered over each other, along with extracts from her journal or notes on conversations with the censor about earlier editions. In that respect they are time-honoured documents salvaged from (what are to most readers) unfamiliar worlds. Yet in other ways they are grippingly recognisable, and there’s an odd sort of comfort in this. In some books, the sections have titles such as “Amazed by Sadness”, “The Consolation of Apocalypse” or “Monologue on Cartesian philosophy and on eating a radioactive sandwich with someone so as not to be ashamed”. If that composed element seems suspect, consider the rawness of the testimonies, their deranging detail, the complexity of the shame contained within them. “Forgive me,” more than one person says at the end of an interview, sideswiping the reader years later. To have wrapped all that in a package that allows others to feel something about history is what makes it literature.

Svetlana Alexievich Credit: Gaby Wood

Alexievich has been an outspoken critic of Putin and Lukashenko. She says now that she feels it’s like “the new middle ages – like living in darkness again”. She cites the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who once said that fascism was a small tasteless operetta but communism, which was still alive, was a threat to humanity. Now, she says, “Communism has entered people’s minds in a different dress.”

These views have led to her persecution by internet trolls, and the odd crazy placard at political demonstrations. In Moscow she saw a man in his 40s holding a sign that read: “All Nobel Prizewinners are CIA agents being paid a million dollars for their work”. She thought: “Who else is a Nobel Prizewinner around here?”

She says the Belarusian government behaves as though she doesn’t exist – she’s not allowed to make public appearances, and her books are not published in her own country. Once, a Belarusian banker paid for her books to be printed and distributed for free, and even then libraries refused to stock them, for fear of government reprisal.

The real risk to Alexievich’s life is not clear to her. Her sense is that the Nobel protects her. She was a close friend of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who told her she was receiving death threats before she was murdered in 2006, in a contract killing whose ultimate author remains unidentified. 

Inside Alexievich's home Credit: Gaby Wood

“We spoke a lot,” Alexievich recalls. “I told her she had to stop for a while – go somewhere, live somewhere else, or she’d go crazy. She was emotionally and psychologically exhausted. I never imagined though that they would kill a woman. There is nothing that can stop them. They could get any Afghan veteran to kill me, because some of them have psychological problems after the war, of course. It wouldn’t be hard to find a hit man.”

To get away from Minsk, she bought a house in the countryside, and the woman who helped her with the cleaning told her there was a former KGB officer living in the same village. “He said: ‘We’d kill Svetlana immediately but she’s publicly known, so it’s better to let her live. If we kill her it would make too much noise.’”

Alexievich admits that she finds her personal life hardest to talk about. She tells me she has “never been married officially”. As for the unofficial version: “Yes – life is long.” Her daughter Natasha, who arrives in the apartment as I am leaving, was not originally her daughter but her niece. Alexievich’s sister died of cancer at the age of 35; Natasha was four, and Alexievich raised her as her own.

Just as this story reveals itself as one you’d like to hear, Alexievich says her next book will be about love. She has been working on it for years. “I wanted to write the stories of 50 men and 50 women,” she says, “but I realised I couldn’t work with men. It’s difficult for me to understand them.”

So what will you write instead? I ask.

“Women’s love stories. I believe they will be much more interesting.” She smiles, a little mischievously. “Men will read it,” she says.