Svetlana Alexievich: Belarusian Language is Rural and Literary Unripe

Svetlana Alexievich. Photo: lichnosti.net

Last week, the Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of German Publishers and Booksellers Association have chosen the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich as the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize.

In a subsequent interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Alexievich said that she did not write in Belarusian as this language was “a rural language”, which led to discussions in the Belarusian media with many people questioning whether Alexievich was a good choice for this award.

The association has awarded the prize yearly since 1950. It comes with €25,000 prize money, and the award ceremony will take place in October in the historically-charged St. Paul’s Church of Frankfurt (Main) during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Over the past years, awardees have been writers from countries where freedom of speech and press is threatened: In 2011, during the Arab spring, the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal received the prize, and last year the dissident Liao Yiwu from China. It is the aim of the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers to support writers who give, by means of their works, a voice to the population which might otherwise remain unheard.

Award gives a voice to suppressed people

Svetlana Alexievich distinguishes herself as one of few writers who show the sufferings of individuals during the Soviet Union and its aftermath as an alternative to its official historiography. The writer, born in 1948 in the Western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk is daughter of a local and a Belarusian communist, grew up in a Belarusian village. She concentrates on topics which are kept quiet by the official historiography, like the catastrophe of Chernobyl and the war in Afghanistan as well as the Stalin era. Official discourses do not deal with the feelings and consequences of those traumatic events on the population.

After completing her studies of journalism at Belarusian State University, Svetlana Alexievich worked as a teacher and a journalist in Minsk. She tried several literary genres and soon developed a literary method to enable "the closest possible portrayal of life as it truly is". Alexievich applied this method for the first time in her book "War’s Unwomanly Face"  which she completed in 1983. In this book, the author uses a series of interviews to examine the fate of female Soviet soldiers in the Second World War.

For her subsequent work, "Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War"(Tsinkovye mal'chiki, 1989) she completed more than five hundred interviews with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan as well as with the mothers of soldiers who died in that war – the so-called "zinky boys" whose remains were brought home in zinc coffins. Publication of this book forced her to appear several times before a court in Minsk starting in 1992, although she was ultimately never convicted of any crime. That happened before Lukashenka came to power in 1994, in what was then a relatively democratic Belarus. 

Alexievich’s approach: oral history from the bottom up

During an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the writer recalled how one of the soldiers’ mothers accused her of having invented all she wrote in the interview after her son, who died during his first mission in Afghanistan, had been declared a hero post mortem.

With growing attacks on her work and her person, the writer went into exile and lived in France, Sweden and Germany. Alexievich moved back to Minsk in 2012 where she is working on her next book which will be published in German in September and shortly afterwards in Russia.

While Belarusians consider Svetlana Alexievich a courageous woman - she is often labelled the moral memory of the Soviet Union - her interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung provoked heated discussions in Belarusian independent media. Since it was published last week, the writer has made a series of statements that raised questions about her understanding of contemporary Belarus.

It is symbolic that the award for one of the most famous Belarusian contemporary writers has not been mentioned in any Belarusian media until the publication of this interview. Alexievich has problems in Minsk, she is not allowed to appear in public and it is impossible to buy her books in official stores. They are, however, distributed through online shops.

FAZ interview: Correspondent does not speak Russian well enough?

A wave of protest went through the Belarusian independent media when Alexievich was quoted to have said the the Belarusian language was “rural and literary unripe” («Беларуская мова вельмі вясковая і літаратурна нявысьпелая»,), which is why she chose to write in Russian only and considered herself to belong to Russian culture.

The Belarusian Radio Svaboda asked Alexievich for a statement. The writer denied having said something like this. Alexievich emphasised that she was interviewed by the Moscow correspondent of the newspaper, Kerstin Holms, and assumed that the journalist either did not speak Russian well enough to understand her correctly or that she interpreted what she wanted to hear. She could not have said such a thing, Alexievich affirmed, as it did not at all correspond to her convictions. The writer claimed that she had always said she had “two mothers: The Belarusian village, in which I grew up, and the Russian culture, in which I was educated”.

This reaction of the writer seems very astonishing as it casts a shadow on the judgement of the famous writer. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the most reputable German daily. Its Moscow correspondent has been working on Russia and with the Russian language for a long time. Even if the journalist failed to understand what Alexievich meant, she could have easily asked a colleague for help, as the interview was recorded, as it is common journalistic practise. Kerstin Holms, in a statement to Radio Svaboda, emphasised this fact and pointed out that the “two mothers” were not mentioned in this interview.

The more statements the writer makes to clarify attitude towards Belarusian culture and language, the more confusing it gets.

Even after this calm reaction from the German journalist, Alexievich did not refrain from further challenging her in a subsequent interview to Belarusian news web site naviny.by. According to the writer, the lack of knowledge of the situation in Belarus by the Moscow correspondent lead to the alleged interpretation of Alexievich's words.

After this interview, however, questions occur whether Alexievich herself knows Belarus well. She says that it is "a miracle if you hear anyone speaking Belarusian in the streets". In another part of the interview she explained that "there [was] nothing offensive in calling the Belarusian culture a village culture, i.e. people's culture". The more statements the writer makes to clarify attitude towards Belarusian culture and language, the more confusing it gets. This casts shadows over her work, as her documentary style of writing relies on interviews and their exact transcription.

Unfortunately, open and broad discussions about tragedies of the past and present remain difficult in Belarus. The great majority of Belarusians neither heard about the prize awarded to Alexievich, nor about her new book, nor about her statements. Moreover, the interview Alexievich gave to FAZ and her subsequent statements considered by many as evidence of lack of integrity that may put her whole work into question.

So far it remains unclear whether the writer and the German journalist have misunderstood each other or whether Alexievich for some reason chose to make a provocative statement.

Nadine Lashuk is a German political scientist, currently working on the first German-Belarusian binational PhD thesis.

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