By Vladimir Golstein
So Svetlana Aleksievich is in the news again. The Literature Nobel Prize winner from Belarus, is now in the Committee of National Salvation, trying to figure out how to save the country from the evil Soviets and deliver it to the noble West under the leadership of the ever-so-noble Poland.
All this is rather disturbing. Not sure, any of today’s leaders of Belarus opposition are anything but the second rate western puppets, conscious or subconscious, doesn’t really matter. With such leaders of opposition, I am not sure the country is ready to embark on the right course, but if the country has decided to walk away from the brutal embrace of Lukashenko, into a much more gentle one of Aleksievich, let them discover how gentle it is, by themselves.
Being a figure of authority and influence (how many Belorussians get Nobel prizes after all), she will have her imprint on the future of the country. Below are two of my entries from October of 2015, which comment on her Nobel prize and on her political and cultural outlook. These writings eventually lead to a small book on Aleksievich which was published only in Swedish. In any case, if you don’t read Swedish, here is the slightly edited version of my comments.
(Oct. 14, 2015)
So at our department we were thinking of having some sort of round-table about this freshly minted Nobel prize laureate in literature. After all, it does not happen that frequently that a Russian language writer wins such a prize. Consequently, I spent some time going through her stuff, and I think I got her secret.
Aleksievich’s writings reminds me the most of Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion, the chapter in which he methodically tortures his brother, Alyosha, with the detailed and graphic descriptions of all kinds of evil that the grown ups inflict upon children, the descriptions, that he claims, he picked from newspapers. These snippets of the news are very powerful and moving, but they serve a very nefarious purpose. Ivan wants Alyosha to turn away from God and from Alyosha’s teacher, Zosima. In other words, all these graphic descriptions serve a rather evil purpose: to shake one’s faith in the benevolence of the universe. Ivan succeeds for a while, but eventually, Alyosha finds his lost path.
Well, Ivan’s rebellion has a profound philosophical and theological purpose. It is part of very important and profound tradition, what some people call, theomachy.
Now we have Svetlana Alekseevich who methodically depicts all these stories of abuse that people inflict upon each other. They are also — “reports”, something that other people tell her. But there is a rub.
While Ivan — in his rebellion — wants to get even with God, wants to prove that the world is senseless, Alekseevich has a much smaller and more obvious and banal fish to fry.
In the first book about WWII, she was at her most Soviet. All the stories of evil that she compiles are done to reveal the evil of Nazism. Well, isn’t it a bit obvious? What kind of a rebellion is this? From a distance, and despite its moving and hair-raising descriptions, it looks like conformity rather than rebellion.
She clearly knew what she was doing, however, as she quoted Ivan Karamazov in her next book, this one on Soviet War in Afghanistan, when she cites his musings on human cruelty. Here, I am afraid, she is beating the dead horse again. In 1991, it was vary fashionable to expose the evils of the Soviet system. All former party-apparatchiks and other conformists were falling over backwards trying to be the first to expose one more Soviet evil, which they themselves perpetuated and from which they themselves have benefited. So her compilations of terrors that the Soviets imposed upon themselves and others — are accomplishing exactly what? Debunking the discredited Soviet system? Well, wasn’t it a bit obvious by 1990?
Same can be said about her Chernobyl book. And she is clearly articulate about her purpose: which she reiterates again and again: this country is evil, this system is impossible and so on. But is it? Shouldn’t be there an element of doubt, of realization, that bad as the Soviets were, I am part of them. They gave me education, and values, and childhood memories.
Let’s keep in mind, that Ivan is a tortured and tormented individual. That the reason he “tempts” Alyosha, is to make his younger brother as miserable as he is. Eventually, Ivan is losing his mind. It is clear, that this methodical fixation on evil, this laceration of wounds comes with a price attached: despair and cynicism.
So why exactly, Alekseevich is playing this role? What is being achieved through these compilations? She probably tells herself that she is a crusader for good, that she wants to expose the evils of Stalinism, socialism and turn people away from those evils. Well, they’ve been exposed before her, by numerous other people, including another compiler of various sadistic acts, Solzhenitsyn.
Dostoevsky, a brilliant creator of Ivan Karamazov, knew very well, that this compulsive rebellion can produce only despair, madness, and suicide. Is that’s where Alekseevich is heading? Somehow, I doubt it.
I am afraid, she is much more pragmatic. She simply figured it out that exposing Soviet evils, the evils of “bolshevism” – pays, while exposing the western ones, does not. If her purpose is to compile evil acts, there is plenty of material in the west. There are wars, exploitation, racism, abuse, poverty. One can compile tons of books like that: from Rwanda, to Sudan, from Latin America to Middle East. I am sure there are compilations begging to be published and awarded Nobel Prize for their exposition of evil done in Vietnam, Israel, Indonesia, Donbass.
I cannot answer these questions for her. It is great to imagine oneself a crusader against evil. It is even better when this crusade is awarded with money and prestige. But yet I feel, that these lacerations, these endless expositions, this compulsive need to stare and make others to stare at evil, is somehow demonic, petty, and ignoble.
(October 9, 2015)·
Long time ago some Russian cynic (and there are plenty of them around) had joked that Soviets had to kill all great poets to let Brodsky win his Nobel Prize. Without any desire to argue about Brodsky (he ain’t match to great Russian poets for sure), I can say, that thousands of innocent people had to die all over former Soviet Union, from Afghanistan and Chernobyl, to Donbass, Odessa, and so on, so that Aleksievich can get her Nobel prize. Not dissimilar to another apparatchik, Solzhenitsyn, who composed his fairy tales on the blood of thousands working to death at Gulag). She is a typical Russian liberal intelligent — born in Western Ukraine of all places –with the usual set of complaints: oh, Stalin, oh, War, oh, Afghanistan, oh, Chernobyl, oh, Lukashenko. That’s all fine, and all these complaints have their legitimacy, except that it is all extremely dated, this is the stuff children study in high school.
Times change, and one has to change and learn from it. She didn’t. In her recent Polish interview the only thing she could say, that there is a little Putin in every Russian, and that Russia just started on the road – -where Belorussia is now: The Soviet-Mafioso state.
So she lived in Europe for ten years, and returned to Belorussia, without really noticing how different the world is. Her clichés about Russia are not worthy of the ink, as she simply repeats the traditional western accusations of the last year. But she claims to be Belorussian, she returned to her country. Did she make any effort to see what is going on? That’s it is poor country, without any resources, yet, it is doing extremely well. That its people are happy, that Russians, who drive through Belorussia are amazed at how prosperous and well-groomed it looks. That Lukashenko did not close any factories, that people have jobs and food on their tables, as the country manages to stay afloat by selling a lot of their industrial and agricultural products to Russia. I wish Putin took care of common Russians the way Lukashenko does with common Belorussians. Didn’t it all make her wonder? Not really. It is much easier to blubber the European bullshit about human rights and liberal values, the bullshit that none of the serious Europeans believe any more.
If Belorussia for her is the mixture of Soviets and Mafiosi, her type of a Russian liberal is the mixture of Soviet pretentious intellectuals who know it all, and can’t wait to teach the west about evils of Stalin and Socialism, and European smug and know-it-all bureaucrats. So it is hardly surprising that some party-apparatchicks in Stockholm decided to give a prize to one of their own. BFD.