Svetlana Alexievich: Suffering is More Abundant Than Oil in the Russian World

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 for building a “monument to suffering and courage in our era“.  This was the first time that the award went to a professional journalist, but other circumstances were pretty much standard for the “Russian writer and Nobel Prize” scenario, writes  Official and unofficial voices in Russia criticized Aleksievich without even having read her work, and Prime Minister Medvedev revoked his congratulatory note after Aleksievich referred to the annexation of Crimea as “political banditry”.  Her books were translated to more than 70 languages, and “Chernobyl Prayer” alone was printed in four million copies.  On the occasion of her U.S. book tour, Random House published a hardcover edition of “Secondhand Time”.  During her visit to a Brooklyn library earlier in June, Alexievich talked to Sophie Pinkham, journalist and expert on contemporary Eastern European history.
Alexievich focused on the history of the “red civilization”, talking to hundreds of people who lived under the communist ideology in the former USSR, including some witnesses who interacted with Lenin and Stalin.  Her most disturbing realization is that the communist mentality is very much alive regardless of the dramatic fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The nineties were a period of economic troubles and rampant crime, but nobody foresaw that the next millennium will bring back the ideology of besieged fortress and Russian chauvinisim.  As Alexievich said, “Once again we hear that we’re surrounded by enemies, that Russia represents a separate civilization, that the entire world is alien to us… Russia permanently needs some big idea, it is always a hostage to some super-idea. It is boring to build roads, decent homes – we’re building big Russia, we’re saving Europe.”  Alexievich talks about the new Cold War paradigm and asks herself how come deceived Russians turned their hatred toward the West instead of the oligarchs and the Kremlin authorities.
Explaining why she looked for victims and sufferers, Alexievich stated that human beings express themselves beautifully and profoundly either when they’re in love or close to death.  All her books feature testimonies of people who are at the very limits of their abilities.  She says it wasn’t difficult to find such individuals, as suffering is more abundant than oil in the Russian world.  If there is a ray of hope in her works, it is contained in the testimonies of people who managed to retain human traits regardless of the cruel circumstances.  This is usually characteristic of women, who tend to view human suffering and death from a higher, cosmic vantage point, disregarding the historic perspective.  Alexievich found a particularly disturbing story about a woman who informed on her own brother during the purges of 1937, putting him away in a labor camp where he perished.  When she was faced with her misdeed years later, she attempted to justify herself by saying that it was very difficult to find a honest individual in the Stalin era.  However, when asked about what was 1937 like for her, she replied: “My God, those were the happiest years of my life. I loved and was loved back.”  Describing the faces of labor camp commanders exhibited in the Victims of Political Oppression Museum in Irkutsk , Alexievich remarks that they weren’t beasts, but looked like ordinary human beings.  Evil is more sophisticated than we can imagine, she concludes. 

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