“Power needs truth to never be known”: Svetlana Alexievich

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Translated by José Carlos Martínez


Literature Nobel Award Svetlana Alexievich was in Mexico on March 2003 for a series of conferences in Russian during the “Letters from Exile” series of presentations organized by the Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl in the Palace of the Fine Arts. Thanks to the courtesy of the Literature Coordination of the National Fine Arts Institute, we present this transcription of Alexievich’s chat with her Mexican audience.


“My desire to write a book about the war in the view of women comes from the fact that I belong to a generation that disliked the sterile answers we were given about life. It was clear that such pompous war was just a justification for the system and all the blood being spilled was covering its true nature. Our reality was something totally different.


“I remember the way my book was brought to life. I went to a town once … In Russia there is a day of commemoration for the dead, just like here in Mexico. Everybody goes to the cemetery to remember their dead. They try to talk to the sky, with the people that are no longer there. I realized that something was wrong … In general, the Russian and Belarusian people get together, even in the cemetery. For some reason, all the people in that town were ignoring a woman. I asked them why. It took a while for them to reveal the story to me. Finally, they told me that during the war, when the Germans were about to burn the whole town, people ran in fear to the forest. They ran away with their children and, of course, with no food. They hid in the swamp. That woman, a mother of five, had nothing to feed them with. The smallest girl would not stop crying. Everybody was afraid that they would be killed because of her, that because of her crying they would find where they were hiding. During the night, they heard the little girl telling her, ‘Mom, please, don’t drown me. I will never ask for food again’. When the day came, the little girl was gone. That mother saved the whole town, but they turned their backs on her.


“When they told me that, and I saw that old woman, I went to her and hugged her, and we sat together beside her graves. I understood that life sometimes present situations like that. Sometimes you can’t keep on lying. Lies sometimes can have many facets. Those facets can be nice, pretty convincing … The truth is not immutable either, it has many faces, and many things come to us in her name. It was then when I decided to write a book about war, about what women told me. Those first stories surprised me. Their war was in no way the same the men were talking about. When men talk about the war the conviction that war has a reason to be continues to be the same (you just have to turn the TV on to listen to what the men say). But when women talk about the war they only talk about murders. They talk about …


“I remember the story of a woman … During the war the Russian and Belarusian women were not just nurses and communications officers, they also served as machine gunners, tank operators, snippers. I mean, they killed … That woman remembered that the most terrible moment after a combat is when you walk through the battlefield. People are lying all over the place, like potatoes which had fallen from a basket. Just the way they were running away, that’s the way they end up lying on the ground. You are preparing some gruel, she said, you make a bowl of soup, and there is no-one to feed. They are all dead. Out of 200 people, only two or three return. She also told me that after the war she was unable to go to the butcher and see the freshly cut meat, her body was covered with eczema. After seeing that sea of blood during the war, she was unable to see anything red.


“And when I wrote that book and presented it for its publication, two years passed before it saw the light. It turned out that the war was no longer needed for the world in which I was living, the world of the belligerent socialism. Because we were and we still are a belligerent people. We are always either getting ready for war or fighting it. The female views on my book revealed all that human madness we call war. Finally, the book saw the light when Gorbachev rose to power. And he even used some of the phrases in the book for his speeches. The most important thing for me is that we are again immersed in an atmosphere of belligerence. I wanted to demonstrate that our society is moving well towards liberation, well into the end of our utopia. And turned out that society was prepared to face this reality.


“The book surpassed all expectations, its print run was of two million. I saw the faces of people reading this book and how much they wanted to know what the world they were living was really like. That Soviet world of ours, even with this sea of blood and the enormous mass graves, was already settled in our being. We were all settled into that world: We were already resigned. We believed, we were feigning compliance with the rules of the game. I mean, all of us had lost our freedom. It was then when trying to decide what was our real history began to express itself: In reality, the victory in that terrible war was very expensive for us, twenty million people. The military and war literature do not tell us the truth: That we didn’t do anything but survive. But my book was written by someone who was not from that world.


“Ten years later, when I was writing a book about the war in Afghanistan, with the Soviet troops deployed there, I traveled to the area … I considered myself a dissident, I was participating in the dissident movement, but in reality I still believed in Socialism, in the one that really could exist, that our Socialism could still have a human face and that you can talk about some isolated failures, but the idea can triumph in general, that a new space can be reached.


“When I arrived in Afghanistan, I saw the war. In the beginning, I had no strength. I had written an entire book about World War II, but from an infantile view and I had no strength left to write another book about war. I mean, I was tired, exhausted in body and soul. Every time I write a book I interview two or three hundred people. The beginnings of my literature are based in life having so many variables that you have to obtain the text from every person, that a single mind is unable to cover everything, that you have to talk to the people, that each one of us owns a text. There are people able to provide half a page, some able to provide ten or five lines. For me, all these stories can be joined thanks to a particular genre, the voice novella. And the document creates new ways in art.


“Without the human testimony, without everybody’s effort to understand the world a bit, without the individual reports from each one of us, our doubts, testimonies of knowledge, etcetera, the image of the world would be incomplete. So, when a book is formed by a hundred or two hundred voices a certain image of the matter emerges, and you can already trust it. You don’t have the sensation that you are being lied to, even if we all lie, more or less.


“I remember that I had to break my silence when they brought to our city, I live in Belarus, in the city of Minsk, four dead helicopter pilots from Afganistan. The only information we had was what they said on television … All of us are exposed to it, its messages enter our brains unintentionally. And even when we resist for some time, afterward, in the end, it takes over us, if day to day they repeat something to us.


“Day after day, for ten years, they repeated that we were helping our Afghan brethren, that we were building schools and hospitals there. They were not telling us that a million Afghans had died, what the Soviet troops were really doing. And when they brought those nine helicopter pilots it turned out that one of them was my neighbor. I had never met him in person, but I had seen that handsome, strong young man in the street …


“I also went to say goodbye. In general, they were buried during the night, in hiding, the fewer people knew, the better, because the war was fought in secret. And what did I saw? I saw the generals and military men giving their speeches, the women crying, people standing in silence and a girl knocking on the coffin and saying ‘Daddy, daddy. You told me to make you some nice drawings and I made them. You promised that you would write me a tale. Where are you? Where are you going?’ And then the girl was taken away like a little dog, she was taken away from the coffin and put inside a car. On that moment, I told myself that I would not participate in that complot of silence, that I had no right to do so. Because there was only one person telling the truth: That little girl. She was being honest and all of us, one way or another, we participated in the lie.


“And then I went first to talk to the women, to the mothers, to the children of those who went to the war. And then I moved towards that same war. And, literally, the next day, all they said on television and all the illusions that still remained inside of me were blasted into the air, shattered.


“I was invited to go with nurses and soldiers to a hospital to give toys to Afghan children. When we entered that place, instead of the 200 people that it was able to hold we found about 600. And the smell was awful, as it was expected. I also took a toy and gave it to a woman holding a small child. And suddenly I saw the boy taking the toy with his teeth, not his hands. I asked her why he was not taking it with his hands. Seven years of war had passed and many spoke Russian. Seven years is a lot of time…


“The woman removed the blanket covering the boy and I saw that this small and sickly boy had no arms and legs. She told me: ‘This was done by your Russians.’ These things happen in life … That is why the artists and writers must go out to the world, move away from the banality in which we live. Because we are immersed in a dense cover of banality which is very hard to shed away, even for artists. And this banality permeates everything. Even horror has become banal. We hear the talk about the war, but in the next morning, anyway, we drink our coffee or go to concerts. In a certain fashion, banality protects us, but at the same time it makes us insensitive. But sometimes we suffer those shocks. It is like your soul is taken from the place where it is hidden… Because man is not made, in principle, to carry very heavy weights. We defend ourselves from everything which overcomes us. From sadness, from misfortune. In a way, that is understandable. In another, if we succumb to it, the world becomes a more terrible place. And then I understood how that book about the war should be made. That book would have to be about what I heard those kids saying. Those Soviet kids were killing because they wanted to survive…


“Afghanistan was the first deep crack which opened in that enormous utopical empire. And I returned from that war on a plane which was half-filled with military men returning from the front, and half with zinc coffins. And that closeness made you think about life. And I understood there, on the plane, that I was returning transformed in a completely free person. That I had to write a book about the war that would nauseate the reader with that which was an armed conflict. Not to have it being used to justify anything. And I wrote that book. And eve with the opposition of the Communists, they were still strong in those times, the book came to light.


“Those were the times of Gorbachev. And we thought and believed that the times were truly changing, that we were changing and all that would happen very fast. The book was published and it was really successful, it is still being read … As you know, in the periphery of the empire there is still war and, as it was before, Russian soldiers are dying. After two years, I was taken to court. And, to my surprise, I saw in the tribunal those who asked me to tell the truth, to tell it all. I particularly remember a mother. I was taken to her house, a small apartment with a coffin inside. And that woman, out of her mind, was beating it with her knuckles and asking: Are you there sonny? Are you there? This coffin is so small and you were so big. They told her who I was. The woman hugged me and said to me: ‘Write, write all the truth. They took my only child from me, I don’t have another one and I can’t understand why he went to die to a strange land.’



“Well, two years later I see that woman in the tribunal, accusing me and my book. I asked her: ‘What are you doing here? In any case, I wrote what you told me and I did what you wanted.’ She responded: ‘I wanted to tell you my truth, to cry with me and you would have written that my son was a hero. Otherwise, what is the point of his death?’


“Then, it makes no sense. When you talk about ostracism, there is always a conflict with power, a conflict with the government. Of course, the conflict with power is the everlasting history of the Russian and Bielorussian writer. To be always in conflict with power, because power needs the truth to remain unknown. And I think such is the case everywhere, not just in one country, but in Russia, with its terrible history, it’s even more like that.


“But I feel that the conflict with power is not the most terrible thing, even for me, living in Belarus, where a dictatorship is still going on. A provincial dictatorship, terrible… People disappear and is taken to jail. The most terrible and painful thing for me, as a writer, is to be in conflict with the mass consciousness. People lives being cheated and have them believing in myths. It is impossible to dethrone those myths without causing pain. They profess all their hate to the one who does that. Because to live without myths one has to be a free individual and, for that, you need courage.


“The people I wrote about are small, simple people, they don’t always have such courage. The intellectuals don’t have it either. In our country, we don’t even have such experience of freedom. Man always lives crushed by that ideal, just like the right to independently decide on some matters had been taken away from him. And he had delivered his soul to the state, his soul to the ideal. I mean, he wasn’t answering certain questions for himself. And, for me, this woman was a metaphor, as a personification of that …


“I had to tell the truth, write the truth, destroy the myths and, even so, love this woman, love that simple woman, deceived and unhappy, similar to a child. Even when they vote for a dictator, they love a dictator who denies them freedom. And freedom is also denied for those who preach freedom.


“In our world today there is so much hatred that if the writers would also feel hate this world would be terrible … The post-Soviet space would be no longer sustained. You cannot do more than counterpoise love. I think that the only valid weapon today are these words of love…


“In 1991, the Communist Party was banned and it was a completely different country. And we went on a different track. We moved from Socialism to Capitalism. And that is hard to explain. There was nothing like it, we had no experience. You can imagine that this is what the entire world was expecting.


“In reality, everything was more complicated. I belong to that sort of intellectuals that helped to bring down the Kremlin wall, we were romantics. We imagined, rather naively, that it was only necessary to prohibit the existing variant of the Communist Party, tell the whole truth about our history and, as we said in our own overblown way, to break down the wall of the Kremlin to be free. It would be another country.


“In fact, in 1991, when Yeltsin issued a decree on the prohibition of the Communist Party and it was dissolved, the greater majority of the population felt confused. I remember that as a great shock to us, the intellectuals, that we thought it would be a feast for the people, and, on the other hand, it was a feast only for us, the intellectuals.


“The people were disoriented. Suddenly, they had been woken up in an unknown country. They didn’t know how to live in it. People would buy three or four newspapers … They were flabbergasted, because in each newspaper there was a different interpretation of the events, and our people were accustomed to the fact that there was only one truth. Now, one had to decide, to choose. Instead of freedom, the majority perceived an aggression.


“And, of course, we were perplexed: we realized that our romance led to violence. We had in mind not the real people of flesh and blood, as it is, but an imaginary concept of people. The ideas that we venerated were unrelated to reality. And it became clear that, with Gorbachev in the lead, a group of intellectuals had carried out a revolution and that in order to build a free civil society they had to build an entire people.


“They had to do it the whole of society. But there were no free people, we had no such ‘construction material’. And, you know? I believe that this is the answer to what I often hear everywhere: ‘Why are you stagnant? Why are you not progressing?’. Without any doubt, it is because creating free men is not something that is done on one day. Bringing about freedom, of course, it is not like importing Swiss chocolate or Finnish paper, and you cannot redo an economy reading a handful of Western manuals. Even those Westerners who wanted to help us also suffered a defeat, because you cannot travel on the metro in Moscow with the map of New York.


“There were new questions for which we had no response. We lost time, lost confidence in the people, and at that time the country was looted, the people were impoverished. And now, again, just like after 1991, there has been a new wave of suicides that lasts for years…


“Probably multiple factors contribute to this. Throughout the history of Russia, the Russians have always lived in pursuit of an ideal. And without this high ideal, metaphysics, they are invaded by boredom. I remember when I was writing one of my books and I was interviewing people, I met a man in a village near Pskov, who told me: ‘Look, when there was Communism that made us sort of special. Now, instead of that ideal, we are told to go and buy a Mercedes. But I am not interested in having a Mercedes…’ One can laugh at this response, but it packs a great truth … And all the speeches about a new Russia, Russia new and large, have finished, as you know, with a war in Chechnya. ‘It is an endless war, that was never fair …


“I would like to talk now about what the artists, the writers, are today … I get the impression that we have lost the connection with the people, perhaps because we are not taking our commitments to the end. We are as confused as they are. I believe that, by virtue of our profession, we can’t afford to be so. In spite of the doubts, in spite of the errors, we have to look for new answers. All of our answers, just as old as the American bombers, do not know how to say how we should build the world of tomorrow. And it has emerged that us, the intellectuals, also live in the culture of the barricades.


“Also, I would like to add something about Belarus, where I live. Five or six years ago, between 100,000 and 200,000 people were doing demonstrations. Now just two or three thousand go out to the streets. Our society needs people with a desire to change things. Perhaps because after the utopia the people had been squeezed down to the last drop of energy, they are corrupt in a certain way.


“It seemed when the dictatorship of Lukashenko was established that it would not remain more than two or three years because life worsened day to day. But as life worsened, fewer and fewer people went on the streets. And it became clear that the barricades are an old-fashioned way of struggle. That one must seek new ways to resist.


“For example, when I speak with the young people, I tell them that all our hopes are placed in them, in the new generations to come. And I ask them to not become professional revolutionaries, to study languages, to travel, to reflect, to learn a trade or acquire a profession. Because new times will come and again we will lack professionals. We will only have professional revolutionaries.


“For example, Belarus did not fight for freedom. We were a small country and throughout its history the Belarusians lived about a hundred years under the yoke of the Lithuanians, then of the Poles, and later they were nearly three centuries subjected to the Russians. It did not fight to recover its freedom and, as a result of the collapse of the empire, it found it as if it was a gift. And what did we do with that freedom? We did not know how to handle it. We had no professional politicians or economists.


“And the power was reconfigured very quickly into a dictatorship. Our current president was a former director of a kolkhoz (collective farm). All his ideology is reduced to taking power and retaining it. And, of course, we are still dependent on Russia.


“I believe that the role of the writer today is to create room for the individual. An individual able to resist, that would not allow threats against himself by a small or a large power. But we only have, we the intellectuals as well, the experience of the struggle.


“We face a new way of thinking, new and completely different for us. It requires working conscientiously and with a slow pace for several decades. We must not become revolutionaries or spiritual guides. We need to talk more with the people about the courage to live, to tell them that we need to be reconciled with the past, pointing out where is the good and where is the evil.


“In our consciousness today, everything is screwed up. In the case of Belarus, the country is doubly tragic: On one hand, there is a dictatorship; on the other, 25% of the territory is contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident and cannot be populated. What is surprising is that the Bielorussian nation, my nation, does not have a single nuclear power plant. It is as if they had thrown it into a future, that is to say, into a new reality often treated by art, which we call Apocalipsis.


“You can imagine how it is in a dead zone. They had to evacuate the people. The animals were left to their fate. When the people departed, they were forced to abandon their animals, the ones they had domesticated: dogs, cats, horses, cows … Then came the soldiers to the villages, or special detachments of hunters, to shoot these animals. Afterward, these towns were buried. If you visit these places where there used to be towns, you will only find three cemeteries. Houses which have been bricked up, a human cemetery, graves to animals … You are assaulted by the feeling of being on another planet…


“Nature follows its course: There are apples hanging from the trees, and in the pear trees, and there are fish in the rivers, the grass grows… But these are new physiognomies of death. All of these things can kill you. You may not stay in that land. Spending too much time there is dangerous. You can’t cook and eat the fish. It is a new death… Man, as a biological system, cannot be nourished by it. And that danger is not seen. You can’t touch it, radiation is invisible. You can’t hear it or see it.


“And nothing of what has happened over the course of history can help you, nothing in the entire history of humanity. Because there are no words to name it… There are no words to describe these new feelings that overwhelm you when you’re afraid of the water and the land, when over the course of several dozens of kilometers away the top layer is cracked and the ground folds back on itself. That is to say, the sensations are all different.


“I believe that many of our intellectuals blame our people by their silence, for not going into action. And I have the impression that our conscience has been very traumatized, because there are no human forces able to survive these two disasters that occurred at the same time: On one hand, the collapse of the country of utopia; on the other hand, the Chernobyl accident.


“I believe that the writer, of course, is always condemned to loneliness, it thus has to find solitude on words to explain what happens. At times, of course, he is invaded by the impotence of his words. It may seem that the words are not capable of much, that today they are powerless. But I believe that if we do not seek these new words, the world will be more fearsome… When I put the final point of my book on Chernobyl, I thought that I had to continue typing. I understood that I should focus my attention again in the individual. That same Soviet individual whose country had disappeared. The Soviet era vanished, Soviet history evaporated. We live in the rubble, we must review all over again…


“You have to try and listen to what people are saying. To hear again about where they get the strength to live. And, in general, it is necessary to love… It is the only thing that can save you anywhere. Even in exile… I think that we live in times were a lot of courage is required, because the world is becoming increasingly unpredictable and unstable. Today one cannot feel free of danger in any place. We tend to forget that the world is full of nuclear arsenals. And that when Chernobyl exploded, after four days, the radioactive clouds loomed already over Africa and China”.

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