“Our Own Memory”: A Q&A with Svetlana Alexievich

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Svetlana Alexievich speaks at City of Asylum in September 2016.

More than information, Belarusian Nobel Prize winning author Svetlana Alexievich is interested in human mystery: conversations that reflect the small pieces of life that ordinarily disappear with the passage of time. This is reflected in her books, which treat the oral histories of ordinary people affected by forces outside of their control—the Chernobyl disaster, the collapse of the Soviet Union—with the same reverence that might usually be reserved for passages constructed by Chekov or Dostoevsky.

The author of Secondhand Time and Voices from Chernobyl came to City of Asylum in September 2016 for the opening of the Alphabet City literary center. In front of a live audience, she spoke with New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch about her infinite interest in what she refers to as “this fragile human instrument.” Svetlana Alexievich was the ICORN writer-in-residence of Gothenburg City of Refuge from 2006-2008.

This portion of their conversation published below has been transcribed and edited for Sampsonia Way Magazine.


Svetlana Alexievich: I’m very happy to know that we can all speak as friends about the instrument that is as fragile as human memory. We live in a certain time, and from the point of view of the people who will come after us, our lives will be history. Whatever they will call us we don’t know.

We have our own memory. I’ve always been interested in the memory that leaves with a person.

I was born in a city but I lived my whole life in a village. This was a Slavic village, where people lived together in a community. I always loved the way people there spoke, because what they said was much more interesting than what I read in books. When people spoke, things were born out of their speech on the fly. It was something true. Something pure. 

In books, conversation was always imbued with someone’s tales and someone’s passions. It was not a true document anymore. I thought that it was a pity that this part of our lives leaves. That there is no trace of what lovers speak about at night, what people talk about in the streets, what we talk about to ourselves, to our children, to our animals. There is no trace of this world of human contacts, of human relations, because unfortunately books clean everything out, and history even more so. And it ceases to be interesting. History treats everything as if it were not important. I was always interested in the story that was not there, that we missed. I was interested in that more than in books, because I feel that these speeches are living books.

I love conversations what I say myself what I hear maybe I’m following someone and I can guess at what people are talking about and imagine and then overhear them accidentally. It is immensely fascinating. As weird as it might sound. This is what human life is. I don’t know why history is called only something big. Only part of human life is called history. But we don’t live in these enormous things. We live in the small things. 

For instance, my father was in the horrendous Battle of Stalingrad–the most difficult battle of World War II–but when he talked about it, it was unheroic.

“There was a bomb and I was covered in earth and I was found quite accidentally. I was breathing through the snow in this little hole in the snow. A dog saw and heard it. This was my heroic feat.”

But this is human life. This is what determined whether I had a father or not. This fragile human instrument is immensely interesting, immensely untrustworthy. Reality is hypnotic.

Unfortunately, the more I live, the more I work, the more I realize I capture this world imperfectly. We can only capture external relationships. Things are deeper probably. There are probably other realities that we can guess at when we dream.

These other realities are what makes prose that is so difficult. Complicated. Complex. Not just, you know, a document of events in Rwanda, juxtaposing the victim and the perpetrator, but the fact that both groups were people who had their own paths. In history, maybe one group was cleansed by their pain, and the other went down as a beast. I’m interested in stories as they unfold on this intricate level.

Philip Gourevitch: Could you explain how you came to work in the way you work? As you say, “books don’t include this,” but you also say you love Chekhov, Pushkin, and particularly Dostoevsky, who mixed in a great deal of human speech that was, while maybe not recorded, very closely observed. And it was intensely heard in relation to other speech in dialogue between voices–the chorus. At some point, you made a decision to start writing and to write longer. You started as a journalist and a reporter and you didn’t stay with that. It wasn’t big enough for what you were trying to do and I wonder how you developed your method, your approach to transcribing these long accounts by people, and folding them together into a book that lies in a different style.

Svetlana Alexievich: Indeed, I worked as a journalist for seven years—and they were very interesting years—but I felt as though I were caught in a mousetrap. Journalism was too confined for me. Of course, it’s a wonderful profession but newspapers don’t need the same human depth. Newspapers need information. What I was interested in was human mystery. And human mystery has no relation to these gigabytes of information.

Unfortunately, we bow before information, but these forces of information, these waves of it are not enough. When I went around Belarus and talked to people as a journalist, I often felt touched. In what was once a huge country and what has now become very small pieces of that old country, people are still connected by that memory of suffering, that history of suffering, that ability to experience suffering.

If you look back at Russian history, it is a history of suffering. And all human time goes into reworking that suffering. People enter relationships. They bring suffering to each other. And then they find meaning in that—the meaning of their life. And it’s awful. Human life should not be like this! But this is our life. It’s imperfect.

You encounter a person, enter their house and see, for instance, a small woman sitting there, and suddenly you find out she was a sniper in the war. She has killed and now she’s a librarian she works with books. Here I am preparing a very banal, mundane article and suddenly she says:

“You know you keep sitting. I like you. Do you want me to tell you how scary it is to kill a person? I can see it now. I see a very young, handsome officer. I noticed his appearance because I was a very young girl and that is the way female eyes work. And I know that when I press the trigger this man will cease to exist. And then I push that trigger because I keep telling myself that he is an enemy. Then I faint, or maybe, for two days I have nausea; I cannot go on anymore. They say I am weak. That they are enemies. That I have to kill them, but I keep remembering that handsome officer.”

These things the newspaper had no need of them, but that was the essence. Because people will kill each other for as long as they live, but killing is not pleasant. Maybe if you’re in a group it gives you some energy but if you’re just one and one and if you by accident look them in the eyes it is very scary very unpleasant. And sometimes this gets lost in the news.

These mysteries were the details that interested me. Details like the ones a woman driver told me: How at Stalingrad there were so many dead people on the ground, that you could hear the sound of skulls breaking down under the car. She told me that horses could not even walk because a horse would not step upon a dead person. 

So you hear about how a horse treats life and how people experience life; how they’re connected to each other. And I realized, as a young journalist, that I had to find another job. I wanted to talk about the knowledge that every person contains within themselves—what people know but don’t have anyone to tell. They will die with these mysteries untold because at the time there was propaganda and you had to talk about something heroic. I lived in a society at war, at a time when war was revered and was the essential thing of life. It still is, to an extent.

Perestroika did not work out but we’re still good soldiers. We remember war and now and again, we want to go to war. Everything revolves around war. I belong to a generation that does not want to understand the meaning of human life. To that extent, I never wanted to go and kill someone because they thought differently than I did. Which is why I wanted to talk about the details, to that to tell people that.

Philip Gourevitch: We are talking about the decades when you’re starting to get these stories from women that became a collection of stories, a chorus of voices, of women talking about the war. But my understanding is that at that time the Soviet Union that wasn’t falling apart. Yet, you had a taboo, a great reluctance to speak about the suffering of the war. One talked about the heroic patriotism and the victory that made the Soviet Union a great world power, but the suffering goes with the village stories, the household stories. But what you’re saying is that it wasn’t difficult to get people to speak about it. They asked you to listen. 

Svetlana Alexievich: Well you see it’s not quite like that because it was still during the Soviet days. You would go to people and say mundane and banal things. Human beings, constructed in the way they are, are satisfied with simple things and banality is enough for them. But deep inside they are hiding. Maybe if you love someone–or are in a conversation between close friends—-you will tell them these secrets, these deep things. But for the most part, we live very superficially.

We are carried on by this current of time. I thought any person in my time would be interested in what I’m interested in, so the goal of my books is to show that there is something good. In the first book, for instance, I wanted to understand why the half of the world which has survived the war is now doing other things they are interested in other things. We still have these parades and war is still the only thing we talk about. I try to understand this trauma and its depth. What constituted this trauma? I try to get this out and write a book about war so that generals will be nauseated by it.

I never go to war museums, but I was at the Afghanistan War Museum and I saw how the men admired the military uniforms, especially those of the generals and commanders. I essentially wanted to break these men’s toys. In our society it is especially difficult to do this because our society was, and still is, authoritarian: Putin and Russia; Lukashenko and Belarus. It’s still a war society. We still place importance on the state and the way in which the state treats people is the same. But, what I wanted to get something from these people was not their war experiences—but the meaning of life. I wanted to say something completely opposite from the state narrative by explaining the essence of life.

I’ve always been sure that, with any given person in a room, I can ask questions and we will have very interesting conversations. I do not interview. I come to people not as a Nobel Prize winner, but I as a person, a human being who lives in this time and place. I come to a conversation as just another person who also does not understand a lot of things:

I cannot understand why we had Perestroika, got freedom and then refused that freedom. This lack of understanding led to my book, Secondhand Time, which is about the dissolution of the empire and how we realized that we did not need freedom. The book is about how, when we had freedom, we did not know what to do with it and how quickly we lost it.

These are my personal questions. I want to understand them and find some answers. But people, I would say, are not ready for those kinds of questions. They have been educated by propaganda. As a result, a lot of effort is needed to remove that cover of banality before we can start talking about their lives. Men do not really tell us the truth: they say that war is beautiful and heroic, that it is the best thing that you can do as a man. But for a woman, war is something else. War is murder. And in order to hear these new perspectives, you have to ask questions in a new way: What does it mean to kill? What is it like to be a woman at war? How do women see the color of war differently? Why do women seem to talk about a very different war?

And it’s not as if that person contains any new knowledge; any one of you contains things that maybe you yourself have forgotten. As a good psychoanalyst, I have to get to these forgotten things. A person will say, “you know I don’t even remember that happening to me. I did not even think of that. I had not thought of that.” These things get buried because what we think and say depends on the time that we live in; what everyone says we too will start saying as well. As a result, we push the most important things deep down within us. We tell ourselves that they’re not important. 

Sometimes people will be talking to me about something for a very long time. For instance, in the book, the women would keep talking to me about the men’s war until they realized I wanted something different from them. They realized that I kept asking them different questions. One person then started going back within themselves, then started saying something else.

They said, “Well, girl. I’m just saying this to you telling this to you so that you understood what war is. But you know what you need write. What books you need to write. You know you can go and read them. You need to write something different.”

The historical truth and this personal human truths are in constant conflict within everyone. And if the state is an authoritarian state, it pushes this human truth very deep down and it’s very hard to get it from underneath all of that.

Philip Gourevitch: There is, obviously, substantial writing about the horror of war. When you went to Afghanistan you seemed to have found a great deal of men who were quite willing to describe war as anything but war. They described it as beautiful. Is that a difference between generations? How do your account for men suddenly becoming aware that what they are doing is godawful?

Svetlana Alexievich: When you’re eighteen, you don’t want to die. During World War II, socialism was still really strong and powerful. But in when I was in Afghanistan those socialist values were getting old and weak. They did not have much power over people, especially the new generation. Despite that, a lot of the new generation still wanted to go to war. They knew were they going. They knew that they would become murderers. That was the main feeling that I saw.

I thought that my father’s generation treated human life, their own lives, as something not quite that significant. Their insignificance was born out of the reworking of people through the propaganda machine. But I remember that in the eighties, we no longer believed, despite the fact that we lived within this machine.

When people find themselves at war, they realize that they can die tomorrow. I saw that terror in the eyes of these boys. They did not want to die. This gave some acuteness to my vision. I went to Afghanistan because I wanted to see the differences. To what extent are humans dependent on this new weaponry? I wanted to see a person holding a weapon.

For instance, in Afghanistan, I saw a boy standing still next to me with a machine gun on his shoulder, and I saw that as he climbed up a big machine, he became a completely different person: very sure of himself and arrogant. I witnessed the boy I just saw disappear in front of my eyes.

And here is this arrogant person who looks down on you. You are weaponless and you at his mercy. I could not go to World War II, of course. I only heard stories of it, but I wanted to be in a war. Not to shoot. Despite people telling me to take a machine gun, I never fired a shot because I thought that I would lose some innocence, which, is very important for my writing. I could not afford this because I thought that with the knowledge of what it’s like to fire a gun I would lose a certain objectivity.

I was terrified when, after a battle, I saw happiness and joy on the faces of the boys when they saw the they had killed the mujahidin. How that same person I just met be that happy to see that they had killed? I would ask, “Why are you happy? Did you have any right to kill that person?”

All these conversations were perhaps dangerous to have. And these boys, who were born in an unquestioning propaganda machine, were not ready for these questions. They were also atheists so it was very easy to make killers out of them because they did not have experience of sin. They were people without reflection. Self-reflection is very important for the modern human being. How could this mystery of life be so vulnerable in the hands of these uneducated people?

In this book I have several stories about 1937, and in order to write them I looked through hundreds of files of the people who were killed during the terror of Stalin. For example, I read denunciations, and I was amazed. You’ll be reading a one-page denunciation and it has perhaps fifty mistakes in it. Completely uneducated people wrote these denunciations. A denunciation of a doctor or an engineer, for instance, would be used to justify their sentences.

What is important for me is to include all of these voices in our lives, and everything that exists in it: There’s me, there’s this boy from Moscow who killed so easily. And there’s this girl who found out that you cannot get close to men right after a battle; you have to give them a few hours to become human again. I included all of those stories into the chorus of the time.

Philip Gourevitch: You often refer in your books to using a tape recorder. Do you always use a tape recorder, and do people resist the tape recorder? I know in my experience when you sit down with a public figure they sometimes say, “Where’s your tape recorder?” They think that you might put words in their mouth without it. But if you sit down with an ordinary person who is not at all used to speaking to a writer they are often quite uneasy to see the tape recorder because it has this look of some sort of official recording device that could lead to trouble. Do you sit with a notebook? Do you jot it down later, when you go home?

Svetlana Alexievich: I come with a tape recorder with a notebook. Otherwise there would be too much of me in the text. There would be more of me than the person because I would be retelling their words from memory, and I cannot remember everything. You have to capture that living conversation, and you need to be truthful and not falsify these feelings.

You see, I talk to people for a long time. Sometimes I can be there for a whole day, or talk to them multiple times. We get to know each other. We get used to each other, and eventually the person does not notice the little machine anymore because we talk as friends about the things that they’re interested, and talk about what I’m interested in. You need create this atmosphere of trust. A person needs to understand that you are a good person, that you will not betray their trust, and that you will protect their personal lives. Sometimes they ask you to change their names if they are afraid to hurt someone.

This machine does not mean that much. If you were to make it very noticeable and put it down in a very noticeable way, and bring attention to it, then yes it becomes a problem. But for the most part, when I talk to people, we are more interested in following each other’s thoughts. This is what you have to achieve. This should not be an interview, but a conversation. 

Three hours ago, for instance, I was having lunch with some new acquaintances who I had I met here in Pittsburgh. I said, “I’m writing this book about love.” We immediately starting talking about love. Everyone stopped to think. All of these women who were having lunch with me started thinking honestly about their own views on love: how it happens to them. Then we began to talk about their different points of view and their experiences. And if there were a tape recorder there, it would not have made a difference. Everyone was interested in that path of inquiry and the path of finding yourself, so to say.

The technicalities should maybe not be emphasized. It is much more difficult to find a person who lives interestingly. It’s harder to find someone who can talk to you about what he or she feels because most of us are just carried through life by this force of time.

But for the most part, the majority of people are carried down by this wave. To find people who think—especially nowadays when all this information attacks you and people do not turn themselves on—who live separately, who treat life seriously, treat it as spiritual work, is difficult. Life is given to us not to just consume a ton of very tasty things, or to go around the world for no particular reason, but it is given to us in order to do some inside work on ourselves.

Philip Gourevitch: What are you learning about love? Your first books were organized around a kind of event: women who were in the war, people who were in Afghanistan, and who experienced Chernobyl directly. Yet, in the Chernobyl one, at least in the English version, I think the first word is “love.” It begins with a very powerful love story. And love comes up repeatedly throughout the book where this wrenching nuclear catastrophe reconfigures people’s private lives in a way that removed them from the rest of the world. I wonder what makes you organize your book around the idea of love without the event. Is that distilling all of this work from before or is it a whole new cast of characters? And how are you approaching that?

I wrote five books, and it is a cycle: I would call it an encyclopedia of Red Communist Utopia, or an encyclopedia of Russian Bolshevism or Communism. It has been about thirty years of work and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who I have talked to. These five books are about the Russian-Soviet history, when the society was sick with Communism. I wrote them in order for us to understand, and to immortalize these stories told by small people in history. The stories were told not by politicians, but by common people who were used by this Utopia. They were never asked. I decided they should finally have a say.

I think that Communism is not dead, as we thought in the Romantic 1990s. At that time we thought that it was all behind us, that we would not go back to Communism. But I went around Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus for Secondhand Time, I was amazed to see that—especially in Russia in dormitories—I saw young people reading Lenin, Marx and Trotsky again. When I asked them, “Why are your reading this, you know there’s been so much blood is it not enough are these arguments not enough?” They said, “You just were not able to do this. It will be very different with us. We will bring a just world.”

This is the same world Trump promises you. This is what they think too. That it is possible to do this. 

There is something in the human mind that will be eternal: a sense for justice. And there will always be these people who will be provoking this in people. So, there will be blood again and chaos again. Russia has been thrown back centuries backs. Everything can repeat.

I wanted to create a document to leave for the future. Then I thought, what would I want to write about? This genre that I have been working in only works when you employ very large, epic space. I asked myself. “But human life revolves around what?” 

If I ask, you will say exactly what I told myself: Human life revolves around love and death. There are two things in life that are most important. The first is love: How we’re able to encounter it in our lives, and how we work it out. And the second thing, we want to be happy. But somehow we are unable to, or not all of us are not able to, be happy. As for the Russian people, I’ve not met anyone who would say that they are happy.

I went to talk to a happy family: a young man, two kids, a beautiful wife. And as the husband saw me off, as we walked to the subway station, he said to me suddenly, “Well you know there was this time I was riding this train and I exited at this stop and I met this girl who I still remember.” And he thinks that, in fact, he does not love the wife, but that girl that he met long ago.

It’s not that an inability to be grateful and happy, but some sort of longing for the ideal. And that’s the mentality that brings us Communism: This longing for something ideal. The crazy Russian love.

It is an inability to live because the secret of life is to be happy for any reason: happy because you’re listening to someone, because you’re listening to music. God! There are just so many sources of happiness and love. But for some reason, a Russian is created this way. They always long for something that did not happen. That did not work out. Something that does not exist in their life now.

There was a time in the 90’s, after the Soviet Union had fallen, when everyone believed that they would share a unified world. Everyone believe that there the world was no longer under threat of nuclear war. And now see in our own time, this total evil that comes at us from all sides: Terrorism, ISIS, a Russia that has again turned into something scary, all of these things. Again, we’re inundated, surrounded by this energy of evil.

I can say that to write about love is more difficult than it is to write about war because war has some boundaries. In war, there are goals. In wartime something comes out of people, and there is an end to war. When people start to live without it, this fervor for war accumulates. We see this now.

About the Author

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh that seeks to protect and advocate for writers who may be endangered, to educate the public about threats to writers and literary expression, and to create a community in which endangered writers thrive and literary culture is a valued part of life.

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