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2015 Nobel Prize for literature winner Svetlana Alexievich's life and writing, explained

A brief primer on the Belarusian writer, her most famous work, and why it deserved to win.

The Nobel Committee loves nothing like a dissident novelist, laboring under and against authoritarianism, but even with that track record today's Nobel Prize for Literature is unusual: Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus.

This is unusual because the award traditionally goes to a novelist or poet, but Alexievich is neither. She writes nonfiction; her work could be best described as narrative or even investigative journalism. She's not afraid of politics, but her work is about so much more than just the political.

She is acclaimed not just in Belarus but in the larger post-Soviet world, including Russia, for her work — which, though you may not know it, you have likely already encountered. What follows is a brief primer on Alexievich, her work, and why it won.

Who is Svetlana Alexievich?

Svetlana Alexievich is a writer and journalist born in 1948 in Ukraine but raised in Belarus, both at the time part of the Soviet Union.

Her work chronicles many of the most important and traumatic events of Soviet history, telling those stories through the narratives of individuals who experienced them. She produces what you might call oral histories of Soviet life, and of life in post-Soviet republics since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Typically, Alexievich's work reads like a series of interviews: Subjects who experienced something firsthand, like the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, tell their stories directly to the reader. The stories are often very personal.

Her work would be powerful and beautifully written in any country, but it is especially valuable in a country (and countries) where individual narratives have been suppressed, and where the suffering has been so terrible.

The Nobel Committee, in announcing the award, said only that it was "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time."

Eleonora Goldman of Russia Beyond the Headlines summarized Alexievich well, writing that she'd "spent the past 35 years exploring Soviet identity through the more challenging and less charted terrain of the interior life. Through real voices, she explores the psychological journey of the Soviet, and more importantly, post-Soviet, people."

What is Svetlana Alexievich's most famous work?

Her most famous work in the US is probably the 2005 Voices From Chernobyl, in which Alexievich chronicles the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (in what is now Ukraine) by interviewing hundreds of people who experienced the event.

Voices From Chernobyl is gut-wrenching to read; the testimonies are often so matter-of-fact even as they describe terrible events and traumatic personal losses. You may have heard it excerpted in a 2011 episode of This American Life, in which two actors read first-person accounts told by survivors. The magazine N+1, whose editor Keith Gessen translated the book into English, excerpted an emotional testimony from a Soviet scientist who now oversees a museum on Chernobyl:

But my real child is the museum: the Chernobyl Museum. [He is silent.] Sometimes I think that we’ll have a funeral parlor here, not a museum. I serve on the funeral committee. This morning I haven’t even taken off my coat when a woman comes in, she’s crying, not even crying but yelling: "Take his medals and his certificates! Take all the benefits! Give me my husband!" She yelled a long time. And left his medals, his certificates. Well, they’ll be in the museum, on display. People can look at them. But her cry, no one heard her cry but me, and when I put these certificates on display I’ll remember it.

[...]

Chernobyl—we won’t have another world now. At first, it tore the ground from under our feet, and it flung pain at us for real, but now we realize that there won’t be another world, and there’s nowhere to turn to. The sense of having settled, tragically, on this land—it’s a completely different worldview. People returning from the war were called a "lost" generation. We’re also lost. The only thing that hasn’t changed is human suffering. It’s our only capital. It’s invaluable! I come home after everything—my wife listens to me—and then she says quietly: "I love you, but I won’t let you have my son. I won’t let anyone have him. Not Chernobyl, not Chechnya. Not anyone!" The fear has already settled into her.

This was a tremendous work of historical scholarship as well as investigative journalism. The Soviet government suppressed what happened in Chernobyl — everything from why the nuclear plant melted down to the bungled cleanup effort to the still-lingering aftereffects. Alexievich, over a decade of work, produced the definitive account of the disaster. But her book also captured the experience of living under Soviet authoritarianism, what life was like for the millions of citizens who suffered and persevered under its rule.

American readers may also know Alexievich from her 1992 book Zinky Boys, about Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The title refers to the zinc coffins in which war dead, many of them young conscripts, were returned home. Alexievich interviews many Soviets affected by the war, most famously the mothers of soldiers who'd been killed.

She is also well-known, particularly within former Soviet countries, for her 1988 book War’s Unwomanly Face, which tells the stories of Soviet women who fought in World War II — narratives that, though often heroic, acknowledge the particular Soviet sufferings of that war and do not have the same cheery, made-for-Hollywood varnish typical of Western war accounts.

Why is Svetlana Alexievich so important?

One of Alexievich's most important contributions is as a historian but one who, like a great novelist, chronicles not just what happened but the lived experiences of regular people.

Her book on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as the New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch has written, "made that war as all-encompassingly present and personal — as real — as any fictional account ever did for any other war, and with the same singularity and originality of style and passion, of political intelligence and tragic vision."

While her work is often described as that of a political dissident, there is more to it than that. Gourevitch put this well: "Although her work is often hot with the passion and outrage of independent witness, it is wonderfully free of any polemical or activist agenda. She serves no ideology, only an ideal: to listen closely enough to the ordinary voices of her time to orchestrate them into extraordinary books."

Yet she has still demonstrated the bravery of the political dissident. She was harassed and persecuted in Belarus for her work. She has endured real backlash for dredging up painful memories that many would rather forget.

"She was seen as a traitor, as unpatriotic," Gerald Howard, the executive editor at Doubleday, which published the English translation of Zinky Boys, told the New York Times. "She was vilified all over the place for this book, and she didn’t back down for a second."

Alexievich's work also explores life in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, and she has been an outspoken critic of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, particularly in her home country of Belarus, which she left for several years in the 2000s out of a fear of reprisal. Belarus has been ruled for 21 years by the dictator Alexander Lukashenko; political oppression is widespread.

Alexievich is an outspoken critic of Lukashenko, as well as of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She has said of Russia's growing nationalism, "It’s not just Putin. It’s the Putin who is in every Russian."

But the person who has best described what Alexievich does and why it is so valuable is perhaps Alexievich herself:

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.