On the Dangers of Greatness: A Conversation with Svetlana Alexievich

An escape from history seems impossible for 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. After chronicling the Soviet Union through her “documentary novels,” her own genre often mistaken for oral history, since 1985, she had begun working on two new books, one on love and another on aging and death. She saw these topics as an opportunity for something different, untethered to the history of what she calls the “Red Person” in the former Soviet Union.

But following the explosive 2019 revolution in Belarus, her subsequent flight into exile (her second in a little more than two decades) in which she had to abandon her manuscripts, and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, she realized that her project is not yet over.

Alexievich is, for once, setting her sights more concretely on the present moment by documenting the revolution and Belarusian opposite in emigration. And yet, the past lingers. Chornobyl was held by invading Russian forces for weeks, calling to mind the dangers and concerns present in her famous book, Chernobyl Prayer. Horrifying accounts of the brutalities and monstrosities of war echo those of her war trilogy: The Unwomanly Face of War, Last Witnesses, and Zinky Boys. She claimed to have written the end of the Soviet Union into Secondhand Time, but now she is rethinking the situation—both her own and that of the region she once called home. These histories have always been personal to Alexievich.

Now, however, the Russian government declares the Ukrainian state illegitimate and its people Nazis or worse, just as Vladimir Putin claims that it’s all Russia anyway. So to hear Alexievich, a Russian-speaker born to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother, discuss the traumas afflicting the region she once called home is to understand the absurdity of the propaganda machine. Her battle now, as it’s always been, is with the push toward oversimplification. This interview was conducted on March 25 over Zoom.


José Vergara: We were all recently reminded that we live in the world of Chornobyl, whether we’re aware of it or not, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among all the other tragic news, what was your response to the Russian takeover of the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear plants?

Svetlana Alexievich: You know, my book, Chornobyl Prayer, has a subtitle: Chronicle of the Future. I wrote it quite a while ago, but even then it already presumed a new world. It was clear that a new world was coming, a world which did not correspond to our knowledge and our morality. Of course, there would be other explosions. There was Fukushima. When I went there, I thought about terrorism, of course, and how they’ll use nuclear power stations. Any nuclear power station is a huge nuclear bomb.

The Zaporizhzhia power station could have destroyed the whole of Europe, if the people there hadn’t contained the fire in the middle of the night. It wasn’t just a matter of fear. This was fear magnified by the fact that our technogenic abilities to fight what we created with our own minds are insufficient. If a fire reached the power station, we can’t do anything about it.

Yes, the takeover was terrible, particularly since one of the same shifts is still working at the Chornobyl station since they were captured by the Russian military. They are fed, and they can rest, but otherwise the same people are working there. Can you imagine how tired those people are? How depressed they are? So, we have the human factor coming into play here.

It was customary not to bomb nuclear stations, not to fight there, but of course, it does happen, and we’re not protected from such madness, as we now see. There’s no mechanism that can find these insane people and stop them from doing the things that come into their mad minds. It’s a very worrying condition in which we all live—along with the coronavirus, the revolution in Belarus. The things happening in Ukraine—that’s even worse.

We need to rid ourselves of this arrogance, of the primitiveness of the authoritarian systems, which still remain, still linger and threaten us.

JV: When rereading Chornobyl Prayer with my students recently, we discussed their relationship to 9/11 as a possible analogy to the younger generations’ relationship to Chornobyl in Belarus and Ukraine as something remarkably vast in scope and significance that they didn’t witness themselves but that has been firmly integrated into culture and developed its own mythology. Nearly three decades since completing the first version of the Prayer, what are your impressions of what Chornobyl means to younger generations and their environmental concerns?

SA: I think that Chornobyl will return for every generation, because after Chornobyl we entered a completely different world, a world that is beyond the familiar culture of war, whose violence, its limits, its possibilities, people were aware of. However cruel it was, it was not the same as Chornobyl. Many of the radioactive particles will exist for thousands of years, and now there’s a lot of active material. For example, the villages in that closed, dead zone may burn. There are a lot of fires and storms. There are people who hide from the authorities out there. It’s all very dangerous. That’s beyond our imaginations. If we have a war, people return from war and start a new life.

But as far as Chornobyl is concerned, we cannot return, because it will exist for hundreds of years in this active phase. I’m from Belarus, and in Belarus, we drink Chornobyl, we eat Chornobyl, we breathe Chornobyl. Chornobyl particles have penetrated our soil, our earth, our water. Everything is contaminated. Belarus is huge Chornobyl laboratory, a laboratory of the future.

But how can you imagine what Chornobyl is for younger generations today? That’s difficult to say, although I think they should pull away from that technogenic world their minds are in. What they are watching, what they’re interested in. I think they can imagine how dangerous this is and how intriguing it is, because they will have to live in this world, and humankind cannot contain it yet. After four days the Chornobyl clouds were already in Africa. Chornobyl destroyed the concepts of far and near. What is far when the clouds were already over Africa, when they were already over Sweden?

Not only is modern science unable to solve these issues, but it also cannot imagine any technological options to contain, to manage it—the same as Fukushima. We don’t fully understand what Fukushima is. I went there last year, and you can’t get any closer than ten kilometers. It’s all restricted territory. It’s restricted information whether there’s any exhaust, any dangerous particles, anything in the ocean, in our food. I’ll say it again: we have created technologies that don’t equal our morality or our human preconceptions, for which we go to war. They all pale in comparison to the cosmic scale of these problems.

JV: This strikes me as the key issue when it comes to Chornobyl: how to represent what happened, how to understand something that’s so vast and long-lasting and impossible to depict in traditional ways. It’s an artistic challenge and existential challenge, and it reminds me of something you wrote in Chornobyl Prayer—that Chornobyl marked the first time you questioned whether you should write at all because the Zone is “more powerful than anything literature has to say.” In light of the things you described, how do you think Chornobyl has changed art or literature or culture in general these past 35 years?

SA: Unfortunately, I would say neither Chornobyl nor Fukushima generated the explosion in art, in philosophy, in literature that they should have. It’s probably related to the fact that humanity hasn’t yet made the effort, hasn’t really penetrated this problem, and it hasn’t done so, because it’s not able to. But I think that, although our technologies cannot protect us from these catastrophes we produce, we still need to try to comprehend them.

For instance, one of my protagonists in Chornobyl Prayer said that all our culture is this treasure chest of old manuscripts. I couldn’t find anything there that would help me, because people never used to wash firewood. They couldn’t eat what they had eaten with peace of mind for centuries, they never had to take children out of schools, and there are a lot of such examples of this completely different life, but we managed to reckon with it only partially, in a medical and anti-communist sense. That was communism smashing the door when departing and not leaving us an inheritance. But we’ve never thought through this issue, certainly not in philosophical terms.

JV: How do you think the memory of Chornobyl and the myth of Chornobyl should be or might be addressed in art moving forward if we haven’t already managed to do it? What are some means to do so in the future?

SA: Hollywood has rehearsed the end of the world for a long time now, trying to construct a reality around it, but when I came to Chornobyl, what I saw there was much stronger than any Hollywood films or conjectures. The reality was much more complicated. I think about what I saw there. You approach a river, and you feel like touching the water there, and you see a herd of cows coming close to the river, and they immediately turn away from it, because they can smell that they shouldn’t even come close to it.

People who know about bees say that bees haven’t come out of their hives for weeks, while people went to the demonstrations days after and ate piroshki on the streets. The bees knew. It turned out that bees, their organisms, are more robust somehow, they have a better instinct for survival. It’s as if they have a better ancestral memory that humanity lacks. We went out very soon after, driving around the Chornobyl Zone. People played soccer with children in the street. Humans can’t change their lives like that. People continued just the way they had before. What happened was beyond their comprehension.

For me at least, my challenge in art was how to approach this new reality. Thinking about my earlier writing, it was easier in a way, because there is a whole literary culture of writing about war. It’s understandable: good, evil. But as for Chornobyl, it’s a completely different kind of evil. You breathe air, and this air kills. You want to eat an apple, and this apple is going to kill you. You want to sit on the grass, it will kill you.

So, you’re entirely at the mercy of this new world, and you can’t win against this catastrophe. You don’t have the language for it. You don’t have the right sense of smell. Radiation doesn’t smell. You don’t have any sensory organ to feel radiation. Radiation can’t tell you what’s terrifying and what’s not. Death is all around you in all these forms.

I only had the option of asking people how they understand this whole situation in the moment. It happened today: how do they understand how people are dying, how they’re getting sick, how people feel and think, how they’re trying to save their children. I had to take this path: speaking to people. At that time, we were traumatized by these events, and people spoke, trying to find a way to comprehend it. Philosophy was silent. Culture was silent. People were trying to survive. It was fascinating to speak with them.

JV: One thing that struck me in rereading your work recently is that so much of these stories is about the bodily, the corporeal, the way these events—war, Chornobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, hunger, radiation—affected people’s bodies.

And yet, the structure of the book strips everything down to your interviewees’ voices without descriptions or narration (beyond what they themselves say). What relationship do you see between these two aspects—the voices and the transformed bodies—of your interviewees?

SA: In Chornobyl Prayer, there is this story from the wife of a dying liquidator about how he’s dying horribly. When she wants to approach him at the hospital, they don’t let her. They tell her, “Forget that it’s a human being you love; it’s matter that needs to be deactivated.” I was struck by her words—her texts—and captured them. It was on the level of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

The things that people said were unique. These were texts from some new life of another world that is approaching very fast now. We have Chornobyl, coronavirus, the revolution, war. We are approaching a new reality for which we are not prepared. But Chornobyl is beyond all that because of the cosmic scale of the catastrophe, cosmic in the sense that it’s a shock to our understanding, our worldview. It’s something entirely new.

Why is this theme so important to me? Because when people can’t understand what’s really happening with their mind, you have to listen to the language of their bodies, how they speak about it themselves, how they try to translate their feelings into words. The body is also a text, so I tried to combine two texts: culture, which didn’t really help me much in this situation, with the text of the body.

JV: On the subject of knowledge, it’s fascinating to hear about your process and motivations for how you have written your books. I think there are many assumptions and ideas about how you work and how you piece together these books and the understanding that you come to through writing them. What do you think is the biggest misconception about your work?

SA: I often hear from journalists that I just showed up and recorded what I heard. That’s it. The book is ready. That’s nonsense, of course. To create these books, I have to weave together the world from a multitude of details. You have to seize the life of nature; you have to capture people in moments of upheaval.

People often ask me, “Why do people talk so beautifully in your books?” I answer that I capture moments of love, of the greatest upheavals, of death: war, Chornobyl. Such a person speaks beautifully. He pulls out of himself all the limits of what he’s able to do. Even my protagonists have sometimes told me, “I didn’t even know that I knew that.” It’s important for me to reach people in this way.

A lot of time is spent peeling off this veil of banality, because we exist in a world of banalities: newspapers, most books are like that. This banality must be peeled off a person to reach their own text, so that they say those things that other people have not said, others have not known. When they’re able to see it, I have to be prepared to grow antennas to see to hear it, because to hear something new, you have to ask something in a new way.

People will say, “You just show up and write things down—the existential dirt that is our life.” No, you have to remove all the excess from our life, all the superficial, the banal, then together with the person dive into this self-knowledge. This is immense, difficult work. That collection of stories must absolutely include men, women, old men, children. They should have different points of view, different professions, because your profession changes your perspective, every one of us. You’re used to seeing the world in a particular way. You have to gather all of it together, give it an architectural structure—that of real life in process.

The most difficult thing is everyone thinks that this is documentary fiction, as if I just took everything from the people I listened to. No, everything in my books is what people really said, but you have to give all that this form, you have to weave it together, so that it’s really a work of art.

JV: Speaking about professions, how has your understanding of your mission or your identity as a writer changed over these several decades, particularly in light of the disappointment of the 1990s about which you’ve spoken as a failed opportunity to recognize people’s suffering in the aftermath of the Soviet Union? In your view, how can words affect meaningful change and aid today in the war?

SA: What I’ve been writing for forty years is the story of the Red Person, of the Red Idea. I began with the very start of that idea. I met people who had seen Lenin and Stalin. The people who fought in Afghanistan. The people who died at Chornobyl. All those people. I eventually realized I was so careless to write my book Secondhand Time about the fall of the empire and to write about the end of the Red Person. As it turned out, it was very naïve of me.

Back then, in the 90s, we thought communism was dead, that this idea would never be recreated in any form, not imperial, not anything else. It turned out it was wrong. The communist is not dead. The Red Person is changing forms again, transforming.

I think about what must have happened to this person, so that he would just destroy Kharkiv, completely wipe it off the face of the earth. This beautiful city I loved to visit. I had a very personal relationship to this city. How could you destroy it, wipe it from the face of the earth? How could you try to demolish this other world, this civilization? All of Ukrainian civilization, the Ukrainian world. How can you deny its right to exist? Why?

If you could imagine aliens—I’m not even talking about real nations—if they said, “Well, the Russian people do not exist; the Russian world is just a myth.” What would happen to Russia? How would Russians feel? What happened to them? What humiliation did they endure to fall so low? And now I understand the strength, the dignity of Ukrainians who are dying but defend themselves, defend their world, defend the right of their children to be Ukrainian, to speak their own language.

Now, it’s turned out that I’m going further with this Red Person, and I see how they’re nearing something I’m even afraid to say out loud—fascism. We’re dealing with Russian fascism, and it’s being created in front of our eyes.

JV: One aspect of this fascist problem that we’ve encountered a great deal recently is the fascination with the idea of “The Great:” all things great, Make America Great Again, the obsession with greatness in Russia that we’re seeing in the war and in propaganda, Russian velichie. A two-part question. First, how do you diagnose its appeal? What keeps such a myth, metanarrative alive in our times? Second, how should this reckoning with “greatness” alter our relationship with Russian culture, if it indeed should change?

SA: Yes, that’s a very interesting question. I’m afraid of the word “great,” especially now. I was once in the war in Serbia, and I heard about “Great Serbia.” We know how that ended. We all know how “Great Germany” ended. Now we have “Great Russia.” It always only ends in blood. There’s no other way, because the human perspective is built on diversity. We’re all different. Even our neighbors, even the people of a single nation, we are all different. How different we are!

Azerbaijani, Armenians, Ukrainians, whoever—it’s this completely colorful, bright world. It’s not accidental that the Lord has even made us dissimilar from the outside. You can say, well, one person looks like another externally, but they’re really different: different eyes, different eyelashes, different ears, everything else. Thus, this desire to unify the world is, I think, a simplification that is lowering the level of culture.

In the past, it was possible to understand such activities as atavistic, but nowadays, in the 21st century, those things are completely unacceptable. It just means that Russia has not managed to join our big, shared world. It remained in the outskirts of civilization, and it shows us the most aggressive form possible. Many people are already uncomfortable with the phrase “Russian world,” because what does a different world, a better world mean? It’s when we are different, when we have many different ideas, when we have many interesting thoughts, forms, attempts to find the meaning of life.

When I was back home, I couldn’t switch on the TV, because every hour you would hear that now we have new rockets, some new fantastic ship, some unbelievable submarine, a tank, which not even the Americans have. This was always said with a particular excitement. When I was listening to it all, I was thinking, “My God, it’s not even the nineteenth century, which at least tried to leave material culture behind and uplift this great Russian culture in the 19th century.”

We simply have to overcome this threat.

Today not even Russian culture exists on that level, because the overall spiritual level, it seems, has fallen. Now all the world, perhaps, experiences this fall, because the human secret—this is just my hypothesis—has been replaced by information, and the secret of life has nothing to do with this information. The secret of life is something more complex, something which cannot be understood; we can just dance around it, look, wonder, but not replace it with this information, with kilobytes, gigabytes. I think technology, on the one hand, has made our world more complex. On the other hand, it has also made it simpler intellectually.

JV: I think, too, we can consider the threat of propaganda a form of this information problem. There’s the idea that propaganda is only successful if the population shares its basic assumptions, and Mikhail Zygar, “founding editor of Dozhd,” the last independent Russian news channel, recently wrote that Russia increasingly resembles its president. Do you agree that ideologically the Russian population as a whole increasingly shares its president’s stance and goals?

SA: No, I don’t think so. In the end, the fridge will win out against the TV set. But I’d say the problem is also that we, the democrats of the 90s, didn’t talk to the people enough. We thought that the fall of communism was so obvious and that this victory, our victory against the old world will arrive tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll be free. We ran around the city squares, we shouted, “Freedom, freedom!” But we had no idea what that was, that it was a lot of work, that it’s a very long process, and that we won’t have it tomorrow. It doesn’t work like that.

Can you imagine that if people lived in a prison camp their entire life, and then they were let out near the gates of the camp, that at this moment they become free? No, they have simply entered a different space. In fact, they have brought the camp into normal life, and they will rebuild the camp there. That’s what Russia is doing now. It’s building this camp. It’s building the Soviet Union even worse than it was before.

I think Putin’s idea might be the Russian empire, the tsarist empire. He has shown us our mistakes. You must talk to the people. He spent a huge sum of money on two things during the fat years of oil: propaganda and the military. People didn’t even notice how he militarized the country. Well, we’ve seen it wasn’t that successful, the blitzkrieg in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, he spent a lot of money on that. We don’t know what else he spent it on and what else he would use it for. We didn’t even notice it. Living there, we didn’t see how our life was replaced with something else. This wasn’t why we went to those huge demonstrations in the 90s. We wanted some different, a free life, but what did we get? We got the same thing we had left behind. The Red Person got tired very quickly of what he thought was freedom, of that complicated process. It’s a difficult thing—needing to think a lot, making a lot of decisions. We hadn’t had such an experience.

Therefore today, I don’t know how, but 67 percent, according to those state sociological services, or even what simple surveys of people on the street say, you will see that more than 50 percent support Putin. I was amazed: a journalist went around Red Square and surveyed people. Every other person says, “Yes, he’s my president. Yes, we believe that it’s a preventive operation.”

All these horrible things, this nightmare. Then one person, a very cultured, educated person by the look of her, says, “Yes, it’s a pity. My sister, she lives in Kharkiv. It’s a pity she lost her apartment there. I feel awful for her, but I believe our president. We had to do this, the preventative measure, otherwise they would have conquered us, gone to war.” So, all these things that have been dragged from the bottom of the abyss into daylight, all these Solovevsand Kiselevs, everything that they say, it’s not journalism. It’s a crime.

JV: To end on a more optimistic note, if we can imagine a post-war Ukraine and Europe, what do you hope to see?

SA: I hope that Europe, the whole world, America will help Ukraine. It’s very important for Ukraine to win. If Ukraine wins, then Belarus will also be free, and I think that the Russian people will also wake up from their lethargic sleep, especially now when Europe has stood together steadfastly like this for the first time. I can’t recall another time when everyone recognized a danger and acted in unison like this.

I’ll say it again: we’re witnessing before our eyes the birth of fascism, and we must fight it. If Ukraine wins, that will be the beginning. We’ll live in a different country. All of us will help Ukraine rebuild. We’ll help the new generations recover. We’ll put education front and center, because that’s the only way to catch up, but for that we need, first and foremost, philosophers.

We need to somehow offer new meaning, new options, not to stand in one place and not to call things, Putin, by their names. Let’s say why it happened, why a person who tossed out communism did not have the stamina to really kill it, why they couldn’t leave the past behind, why they seemed to me moving forward but in fact ended up where they started, why the past ended up in front of them.

This will be a time when we’ll see the birth of many artistic, creative things. What was born in our revolution, for example. I was amazed when I went to the first march. My God, where did these people come from? I have never seen so many beautiful people, beautiful women, white dresses with flowers, and everyone is smiling, children walking around. It was a world I couldn’t have imagined. It was hidden. I didn’t see it before. I think that humanity has a lot of hidden energy. We just need to rid ourselves of this arrogance, of the primitiveness of the authoritarian systems, which still remain, still linger and threaten us. We simply have to overcome this threat.