“We Will Live in a Completely Different World”: A Conversation With Svetlana Alexievich

The Nobel laureate on a new wave of repressions in Belarus, the role of women in revolution, and life after the pandemic.

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina

Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Literature Laureate at the Hay Festival, on May 28, 2016, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.  (Photo by David Levenson / Getty Images)

NADEZHDA AZHGIKHINA: Svetlana, human rights organizations are concerned by the new wave of repressions in Belarus; the independent press and civil society are being targeted. The Belarus Association of Journalists is in danger of being shut down, and so is the Belarus PEN Center

SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: It’s true, there are almost no independent voices left. Websites are being shut down, and the oldest Belarus newspaper has closed. The PEN Center is accused of collaborating with a foreign agent, that is, with me, because I am living in Germany. But when I was head of PEN and used my own funds to set up our office and our informational work, I lived in Belarus. We were on our feet and when the revolution began, we gave regular updates on events, including who was arrested and how things were moving. We helped organize legal aid for prisoners, paying for lawyers. Today that is a crime.

NA: After you received the Nobel Prize for Literature, you became a national treasure. Even the in-flight magazines of Belarus airlines wrote about you as the pride of the country. Is this still so after you became one of the symbols of the opposition, joined the coordinating committee, and called on [Belarus President] Lukashenko to leave with dignity?

SA: Here’s something that happened recently. Some schoolchildren wrote compositions based on materials from my books. The next day the teacher came to class with the compositions and a picture of me. She said the country did not need me and that I was dangerous. That I got the Nobel by betraying Belarus. She tore the photo of me in front of the class. All the newspapers of Belarus carried the story.

NA: What can you say about the present state of Belarus society? What do people feel after a year of resistance?

SA: Civil society is almost completely wiped out. The opposition is wiped out. Some are in prison, others abroad. People today are simply paralyzed not even by fear but by despair, I would say. Anything at all can be done to them.

NA: What is the opposition strategy? [Human rights activist and politician] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has met with European leaders and recently visited the US. What are the results?

SA: She is trying to do everything possible. She meets, travels, explains. She must have expected more from her trip to the US, for she did not get any firm commitments. But it is important that the US is introducing sanctions against the Belarus authorities. That the US and Europe are united on the sanctions. Especially after the incident with the forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair jetliner traveling from Athens to Vilnius simply in order to arrest activist and blogger Roman Protasevich. That finally opened everyone’s eyes.

NA: Do you think sanctions are an effective way of influencing the situation?

SA: The opposition sees no other means. I agree. The Belarus authorities really fear sanctions. Of course, the sanctions are introduced gradually and their effectiveness will not appear before next year, but the economy will feel them. Yes, many people will lose their jobs and there will be difficulties. But many who are still hesitating will start thinking. There is no other way.

NA: You have often said that the Belarus opposition has a woman’s face. What does that mean?

SA: I couldn’t say that women composed the absolute majority of the protesters. Of the leaders, yes. When we think of our revolution, we think primarily of women in white on our streets and squares, women with white flowers calling for a peaceful solution. I am certain that if men had been in charge of the revolution, there would have been bloodshed. Minsk was stuffed with military equipment, military troops were brought to the city, and young people were ready to fight for freedom. The merit of our revolution is that women did not allow bloodshed. I was against violent methods from the start. We did not win victory, but we vanquished the dictatorship morally.

NA: The world was shocked by the police brutality, the torture. Hundreds are still in prison. At the same time, a significant part of the public continues to support Lukashenko or is passive. Did this come as a surprise?

SA: I keep thinking about what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote. We seem to be reliving 1937—the year of the height of Stalin’s repression in the USSR. People behave in different ways. When protesters ran from the police, many residents of Minsk opened their doors so they could hide. Others denounced the people who hid them. The police arrested the helpers along with the protesters. I’m writing a book about our revolution. One of the questions I’m trying to resolve is how does the beast arise in humans? Where did that brutality come from in policemen? We don’t have a complete understanding of human nature yet.

NA: Many people say that humanity will change after the pandemic, which is in its second year of sending us new trials. Do you see a similarity with life post-Chernobyl?

SA: Of course. Chernobyl was a local trial that we still have not understood. This was a completely new danger, not cannons or tanks or missiles. After Chernobyl, cows refused to drink from a poisoned river. Bees did not leave their hives for five days. The flowers bloomed, trees grew, the river flowed, everything was beautiful, but you couldn’t pick the flowers or eat the berries or drink from the river…. Our culture, our experience, our knowledge of the world was not ready to comprehend this. The pandemic is global and you can’t hide from it in Australia, New Zealand, or Antarctica. People’s relationships are changing, connections are lost, and isolation affects people differently. People are isolated and loneliness is a huge problem. I think that after the pandemic we will live in a completely different world, inexplicable, which we will have to comprehend. There are security questions, too. Not only from bombs, not only from surveillance. The security of our world, the environment, in which we live, of everything living—that is the important thing.

NA: What does the West not understand about Belarus?

SA: It is important to understand how serious the situation is. The country is on the brink of civil war. The way it was in former Yugoslavia. It is important to prevent a war in the center of Europe. If we were one-on-one with Lukashenko, it would be different. But Lukashenko has Putin’s support, which changes everything. I watch anxiously as Russia Russifies Belarus. We need the support of the West.

NA: Thirty years ago, the reactionary putsch in the USSR was quashed. I remember we often said that our dreams for a free development did not come to pass in many things but at least a return to the Stalin model was impossible. Do you still think so?

SA: Neither Lukashenko nor anyone else can stop the course of history and turn it backward. Progress is inevitable. Belarus will be a free country. It’s another question how long it will take. When young Belarusians ask me what they should be doing today, I say: Study languages, master a profession. Prepare for new times. Revolution is a temporary phenomenon. I don’t want my dentist or my children’s teachers to be professional revolutionaries. We must prepare for the future.

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

Text: The Nation