Wednesday, December 9, 2015

On the battle lost: Full text of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich’s speech

NB: This is one of the most moving evocations of a national tragedy that I have ever read. The history of Russia's encounters with war and revolution in the twentieth century is a saga of human suffering, ruthlessness and heroism. Thank you Svetlana. I am sure many Russians, as indeed many others like you all over the world still know how to love. Thank you, and salaam. Dilip

“I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia”

I do not stand alone at this podium… There are voices around me, hundreds of voices. They have always been with me, since childhood. I grew up in the countryside. As children, we loved to play outdoors, but come evening, the voices of tired village women who gathered on benches near their cottages drew us like magnets.

None of them had husbands, fathers or brothers. I don’t remember men in our village after World War II: during the war, one out of four Belarusians perished, either fighting at the front or with the partisans. After the war, we children lived in a world of women. What I remember most, is that women talked about love, not death.

They would tell stories about saying goodbye to the men they loved the day before they went to war, they would talk about waiting for them, and how they were still waiting. Years had passed, but they continued to wait: “I don’t care if he lost his arms and legs, I’ll carry him.” No arms… no legs… I think I’ve known what love is since childhood…

Here are a few sad melodies from the choir that I hear…

First voice:
“Why do you want to know all this? It’s so sad. I met my husband during the war. I was in a tank crew that made it all the way to Berlin. I remember, we were standing near the Reichstag – he wasn’t my husband yet – and he says to me: ‘Let’s get married. I love you.’ I was so upset – we’d been living in filth, dirt, and blood the whole war, heard nothing but obscenities.

“I answered: ‘First make a woman of me: give me flowers, whisper sweet nothings. When I’m demobilised, I’ll make myself a dress.’ I was so upset I wanted to hit him. He felt all of it. One of his cheeks had been badly burned, it was scarred over, and I saw tears running down the scars. ‘Alright, I’ll marry you,’ I said. Just like that… I couldn’t believe I said it… All around us there was nothing but ashes and smashed bricks, in short – war.”

Second voice:
“We lived near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I was working at a bakery, making pasties. My husband was a fireman. We had just gotten married, and we held hands even when we went to the store. The day the reactor exploded, my husband was on duty at the firе station. They responded to the call in their shirtsleeves, in regular clothes – there was an explosion at the nuclear power station, but they weren’t given any special clothing. That’s just the way we lived… You know…

“They worked all night putting out the fire, and received doses of radiation incompatible with life. The next morning they were flown straight to Moscow. Severe radiation sickness… you don’t live for more than a few weeks… My husband was strong, an athlete, and he was the last to die. When I got to Moscow, they told me that he was in a special isolation chamber and no one was allowed in. ‘But I love him,’ I begged. ‘Soldiers are taking care of them. Where do you think you’re going?’ ‘I love him.’

“They argued with me: ‘This isn’t the man you love anymore, he’s an object requiring decontamination. You get it?’ I kept telling myself the same thing over and over: I love, I love… At night, I would climb up the fire escape to see him… Or I’d ask the night janitors… I paid them money so they’d let me in… I didn’t abandon him, I was with him until the end…

“A few months after his death, I gave birth to a little girl, but she lived only a few days. She… We were so excited about her, and I killed her… She saved me, she absorbed all the radiation herself. She was so little… teeny-tiny… But I loved them both. How can love be killed? Why are love and death so close? They always come together. Who can explain it? At the grave I go down on my knees…”

Third Voice:
“The first time I killed a German… I was ten years old, and the partisans were already taking me on missions. This German was lying on the ground, wounded… I was told to take his pistol. I ran over, and he clutched the pistol with two hands and was aiming it at my face. But he didn’t manage to fire first, I did…

“It didn’t scare me to kill someone… And I never thought about him during the war. A lot of people were killed, we lived among the dead. I was surprised when I suddenly had a dream about that German many years later.

“It came out of the blue… I kept dreaming the same thing over and over… I would be flying, and he wouldn’t let me go. Lifting off… flying, flying… He catches up, and I fall down with him. I fall into some sort of pit. Or, I want to get up… stand up… But he won’t let me ... Because of him, I can’t fly away ...

“The same dream ... It haunted me for decades ...

“I couldn’t tell my son about that dream. He was young – I couldn’t. I read fairy tales to him. My son is grown now – but I still can’t…”

Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear.

When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk… I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.

The road to this podium has been long – almost forty years, going from person to person, from voice to voice. I can’t say that I have always been up to following this path. Many times I have been shocked and frightened by human beings. I have experienced delight and revulsion. I have sometimes wanted to forget what I heard, to return to a time when I lived in ignorance. More than once, however, I have seen the sublime in people, and wanted to cry.

I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood. We were taught death. We were told that human beings exist in order to give everything they have, to burn out, to sacrifice themselves. We were taught to love people with weapons. Had I grown up in a different country, I couldn’t have traveled this path. Evil is cruel, you have to be inoculated against it. We grew up among executioners and victims. Even if our parents lived in fear and didn’t tell us everything – and more often than not they told us nothing – the very air of our life was poisoned. Evil kept a watchful eye on us.

I have written five books, but I feel that they are all one book. A book about the history of a utopia… Varlam Shalamov once wrote: “I was a participant in the colossal battle, a battle that was lost, for the genuine renewal of humanity.” I reconstruct the history of that battle, its victories and its defeats. The history of how people wanted to build the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. Paradise! The City of the Sun!

In the end, all that remained was a sea of blood, millions of ruined human lives. There was a time, however, when no political idea of the 20th Century was comparable to communism (or the October Revolution as its symbol), a time when nothing attracted Western intellectuals and people all around the world more powerfully or emotionally.

Raymond Aron called the Russian Revolution the “opium of intellectuals.” But the idea of Communism is at least two thousand years old. We can find it in Plato’s teachings about an ideal, correct state; in Aristophanes’ dreams about a time when “everything will belong to everyone.”… In Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella… Later in Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen. There is something in the Russian spirit that compels it to try to turn these dreams into reality.

Twenty years ago, we bid farewell to the “Red Empire” of the Soviets with curses and tears… 

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See also
Book review: new biography of Stalin Reviewed by Donald Rayfield