Svetlana Alexievich: Literature can prevent humans from becoming savage beasts

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BERLIN—Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner, could not stop crying when she heard that Russia had invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

“My mother is Ukrainian and my father is Belarusian,” she said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in late November. “I truly love Russia and grew up within its culture. I absolutely could not believe that a war would begin.”

Alexievich, 74, won the Nobel Literature Prize for her works, which include one about German-Soviet battles during World War II (“The Unwomanly Face of War,” published in 1985) and about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (“Boys in Zinc,” 1989).

The interview was conducted at her home in Berlin, where she effectively lives in political exile.

Alexievich was born in western Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. All of her works are written in Russian, and she often focuses on those who were sacrificed by the times they lived in or by society.

“Chernobyl Prayer” (1997), for example, is based on interviews with those who tried to contain the nuclear accident of 1986 as well as bereaved family members.

She described what unfolded in Ukraine in 2022 as “savage beasts crawling out of human beings.”

Reports of inhumane acts by Russian troops have been prevalent, including gruesome evidence of torture, rape and murder in Bucha, near Kyiv, when it was temporarily occupied by Russia.

Alexievich was asked about similarities between what has been going on in Ukraine and what she heard from those who fought in World War II and Afghanistan.

“I still clearly remember one man who I interviewed saying how ‘beautiful war was,’” she said. “He said, ‘Cannon shells flying at night in the open field are very beautiful. There are some moments of beauty, not just people being killed.’

“His description of the groan by someone stabbed in the throat was almost poetic. War contains various trials for humans. It is capable of dominating the souls of people.”

With no signs of a cease-fire in Ukraine, Alexievich was asked what role literature could play in a time of war and to help the many people suffering from it.

“Writers work to help foster growth in people,” she said. “As (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky pointed out, writers work to ensure that humanity as much as possible can remain inside people.”

“We live in an age of loneliness,” Alexievich said. “Every one of us is very lonely. That is why we must all search for something that we can rely on in order to not lose our humanity.”

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Question: There have been many instances of brutal acts committed by Russian troops in parts of Ukraine that they occupied. What do you think of that?

Alexievich: Why does the cultural part of humans disappear so quickly? Dostoyevsky and (Leo) Tolstoy tried to understand why humans suddenly turned into beasts.

I believe it was television that turned Russians into beasts. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has been preparing for war over the past few years. Television depicted Ukraine as the enemy and worked in various ways to turn the people into beasts that hated Ukraine.

Q: Since Putin became president in 2000, the Russian government has increasingly clamped down on the media. Hasn’t there been a lot of propaganda that follows the state line regarding the invasion of Ukraine?

Alexievich: Many Russians trust television. A Ukrainian soldier told a Russian soldier taken prisoner, “We will set you free if you call your mother and tell her what the situation is really like.” The Russian soldier told his mother that “there are no Nazis here.” She shouted back: “What are you saying? Who told you that nonsense?”

What the mother said was exactly the same as what was broadcast on Russian television. We have underestimated the power of television.

Q: Do you sense any change among Ukrainians since February 2022?

Alexievich: There are many Ukrainians in Berlin where I live. They hold incredible hatred toward Russia. They would probably not understand if someone told them now that cease-fire talks with Russia should begin.

I have also heard such sad talk from young Ukrainians about their unwillingness to read anything written in Russian and how they all hate Dostoyevsky, (Anton) Chekhov and (Ilyich) Tchaikovsky.

Q: As a writer, how do you feel about the movement to exclude Russian culture?

Alexievich: While I cannot agree with the attempt by Ukrainians to exclude Russian culture, I truly understand the background to that movement.

There are moments when I become deeply despaired about whether words have any significance at all. But still, our mission does not change. Literature must foster humans and make the souls of people stronger in order to overcome the loneliness that may swallow up humans when they face atrocious fates.

Q: What can Ukrainians rely on now?

Alexievich: All the Ukrainians I have met believe that Ukraine will win the war soon. All Ukrainians are putting up resistance to protect their homeland. This is likely what Ukrainians are relying on to overcome (their despair) and endure.

Q: How do you think the war will end?

Alexievich: I believe it will end in a form that gives Ukraine some sort of victory. The world is united against Russian fascism. Russian fascism is dangerous, and its reach will not necessarily end with Ukraine.

Q: How did Russia end up producing someone like Putin?

Alexievich: I am constantly trying to find the answer to that question. Many of the Russians I have spoken with feel that after perestroika in Russia, their nation has been treated with indignity, became poorer and is no longer respected by others.

Food and jobs were not available (during the period of confusion after the Soviet Union collapsed). What lay at the end of such poverty was fascism.

Q: Putin also appears dissatisfied about not gaining the respect of Western nations that matches the huge contribution the Soviet Union made to the world by toppling Adolf Hitler. What do you think about that?

Alexievich: “Great Russia,” a terrifying thought. When we look back on what “Greater Germanic Reich” and “Great Serbia” produced, it was only bloodshed.

What is important to remember is that no dictator can stop time. They will never win. But until then, a great deal of time might need to pass.

I am now writing a book about people who start and command wars. An age of such barbarians represents a new Middle Ages. Tanks once again drive through the streets and cities are destroyed. People are killed and oppressed. I thought such things would no longer occur.

We have to think very seriously about the kind of age in which we now live.

Q: In 2022 in Japan, a former prime minister was assassinated. The suspect supposedly held a grudge against a religious group that his mother had become deeply involved in. He blamed the group for the destruction of his family.
He is believed to have carried out the act because he thought there were ties between the former prime minister and the religious group. Can I ask your view about this?

Alexievich: A madness known as hatred is prevalent around the world. It is being transmitted to others. Such incidents occur even in nations where military conflict is not happening.

I would say we are living in an age of loneliness. Every one of us is very lonely. We must find something in culture and the arts that we can rely on in order to not lose our humanity.

(With the continued development of technology) humans live in two realities. One reality is the war in Ukraine that is something from the Middle Ages in which people and cities are being destroyed. The other is artificial intelligence and spaceships. We are living in these two worlds that the human consciousness simply cannot accept.

Q: You have interviewed people who have gone through disastrous experiences, such as mothers of Soviet soldiers who died fighting in Afghanistan and bereaved family members of those who died in the Chernobyl nuclear accident. How can people be saved from such hopelessness?

Alexievich: The only thing that people who have lost those close to them or who are standing on the brink of hopelessness can rely on is nothing other than their daily lives. For example, patting the head of their grandchild or having a cup of coffee in the morning.

Humans are saved by such simple acts of being human.

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