Updated at 14:37,26-01-2021

The Guardian: Svetlana Alexievich on Orlando: 'There is not really a place you can run to'

Svetlana Alexievich, The Guardian

In New York, the Nobel prize-winning Belarusian writer also spoke about chronicling politics and suffering – and why she’s turning her attention to love

It is almost certain, Svetlana Alexievich said last night, that the force driving her stories is “a deep childhood trauma”. Alexievich was not referring to her nonfiction work and the oral histories of the former Soviet Union that won her the Nobel prize in literature. She was talking about the events in her own history that pushed her into a lifetime of chronicling politics and suffering.

“I grew up in a village after the war and in the village there were almost only women” – because every fourth man was killed in the resistance, Alexievich added. “I do not remember any questions in my childhood other than questions about death and about loss, and it was clear that the books that filled the house were not as interesting as the conversations outside.”

By the time Alexievich graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she had already decided that it was these oral histories “not required by the newspaper” that were most interesting to her. Her Nobel win, in 2015, marked the first time the prize has ever been given to a writer from Belarus. Speaking with the journalist Masha Gessen in June at the New York Public Library (Anatoli Samochornov translated her answers into English), Alexievich discussed the particular joys of that form, the danger of demonizing Putin, and the morality of art.

Much of Alexievich’s work deals with rewritten memory, and what she calls “small executioners”, or the millions who denounced others and later had to live next to those they sent to the gulag. Politics, then and now, often loses focus on these “absolutely normal, everyday people” who are able to excuse themselves in every situation, even as they become prison guards. “We have always lived in that upside-down world where good and evil were mixed up,” says Alexievich. “Today we are saying ‘Putin! Putin! Putin!’ all the time, and I see caricatures where Putin is portrayed as Putin. But we need to talk about a collective Putin, a Putin that is in every human being.”

The danger today, according to Alexievich, is not any one person like Putin, or even Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president who persecuted Alexievich until she left the country (and yet who congratulated her on last year’s Nobel win). Instead, Alexievich worries about the myth of patriotism and the character of the “red man”, whom she likens to her own father. He studied journalism, fought in the second world war and until the end of his life remained a communist. He raised his children to believe that they lived in the best country in the world and should be ready to give up their lives for it at first notice.

But when Alexievich returned from reporting on the Soviet-Afghan war and said to him, “Father, we are murderers. This is not the great country you told us,” he had no reply. He, an “honest and clever man”, began to cry, because he knew the truth.

Alexievich hopes to make all this machinery of power clear through conversations with ordinary people, which she sees as very different from a traditional journalistic endeavor. “I come to them as a friend, I come to them as a neighbor in time,” she says. “It’s not an interview. We talk about life.”

Her subjects share intimate stories that are never “just about” Chernobyl or war. They’re about life, love, betrayal, and often topics that Alexievich herself says she might not have divulged. Still, she remains clear-eyed about the so-called dark side of art because there is always the danger of aestheticizing suffering. “Art is always kind of snooping and listening in,” she says, recounting a story about Leo Tolstoy. It is said that when Tolstoy was doing research for The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he would go to the the houses of acquaintances and sit there for a long time, watching as people died. “At one point, one elderly man chased him away and said, ‘Go away, you evil man, this is my personal business and I am doing it alone,’” Alexievich says. “But because of his action, this genius of a story is written. I don’t think we should be deceived that art is such a moral thing.”

Gessen, noting that Alexievich’s speciality is “talking to people who are looking for safety”, asked for her thoughts about the murder of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando this past weekend. Many LGBT people from the former Soviet Union came to the US for safety, but where is that safety now? “I think that that feeling of security is perhaps lost and is an illusion,” Alexievich replies. “In Belarus, we had a woman who basically fled to Israel for security and then to Spain, and in Spain she got caught up in this horrible terrorist attack. There is not really a place where you can run to.”

Now, after writing about nuclear disaster and pain, Alexievich is turning her attention to a different subject: love, in “every combination possible”. But in some ways, the love angle is not so different from those of her other books: “I want to explore,” she says, “what happens when people live without it.”