Drawing upon the stories of generations of Russian people, Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich weaves a complex picture of Russian history.
Interim President Hunter Rawlings introduced Alexievich at Statler Hall, Monday evening, calling it a privilege to hear her speak.
“It’s an opportunity for the Cornell community, to hear from someone who’s making an enormous difference in the world,” Rawlings said.
Alexievich began her lecture by introducing the focus of her study — human narrative.
“I chose the genre of the human voice,” Alexievich said. “The story of one person is fate, the story of hundreds of people is history.”
Alexievich spoke about the background of several of her books, addressing issues throughout 20th and 21st century Russia. She defined her books as “novels of voices”, in which she chronicles a documentarian narrative based on hundreds of interviews.
“For over 30 years I chronicled the ‘Red Empire’,” Alexievich said. “This chronicle comprises five books, but they are really one book about the history of the Russian-Soviet soul. They cover a period of almost 100 years and nearly 12 generations.”
Her subjects include Soviet women who took active combat roles in WWII, Soviet veterans that fought in Afghanistan, the former inhabitants of Chernobyl, and people living in a post-Soviet Russia.
“In my books, ordinary people talk about themselves,” Alexievich said. “The protagonists of my more recent books are different … they talked about fighting in Afghanistan, but didn’t understand what cause they were supposed to be dying for — they talked about shoveling melted graphite off the roof of the Chernobyl reactor… about the collapse of the mighty ‘Red Empire,’ and how they were left behind, disoriented in this new world.”
Addressing each group of subjects, Alexievich delivered emotional remembrances of their stories and experiences.
“Sometimes I am reproached because the people in my books are said to speak too beautifully,” Alexievich said. “In love, and in contact with death, people always speak beautifully … I look out for life, for people who have been shaken to the core by life.”
Alexievich said she has experienced significant hardship as a writer, as she has received resistance in the past for her criticisms of political ideologies. Her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, was not published for three years. She was accused of reflecting “naturalism,” and “pacifism” in her perspectives on history.
“I study missing history, the things that history usually overlooks,” Alexievich said. “History is often arrogant, and dismissive of what is small and human.”
Many censors felt that many of the stories she wrote were not properly representative of history.
“I see the witness as the main protagonist in literature. People say to me: well, you know, memories, recollections — that’s not history and not literature either. It’s just life, rubbish that the artist hasn’t polished,” Alexievich recounted. “Shouts and sobs can’t be polished, or the main thing will be neither the tears nor shouts, but the polish.”
Alexievich described her own struggles as a writer and a citizen of Soviet Russia, especially remembering the time she spent in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.
“I have been in war only once — in Afghanistan,” Alexievich said. “I saw people killed, and to me, it is total madness.”
She also discussed how her perspective changed following her visit to Afghanistan.
“Before Afghanistan, I believed that we were building socialism with a human face. That is what my father taught me,” Alexievich said. “I returned from Afghanistan free of all illusions.”
Alexievich said she views her works as a reflection of life.
“I don’t like to call what I do interviews — it’s conversation about life,” Alexievich said. “We just talk. About good and evil, about socialism and capitalism, about freedom … I’ve heard hundreds of answers to my questions. All of them represent us as we are at this moment.”
Alexievich voiced her passion for the Russian story, indicating that she is still eager to hear about people’s lives and to continue talking about the unwritten history of the Russian people.
“I am not a politician, nor an economist, I am an artist,” Alexievich said. “I follow the times, and the human being.”
The Bartels World Affairs Fellowship hosted the renowned Russian writer’s guest lecture.