We can't be confused: Alexievich on dark times and the new book

Svetlana Alexievich / Radio Liberty
Svetlana Alexievich / Radio Liberty

"Today, it is important to reflect on what happened to us and why, and to what extent Belarusian society is ready to confront what is happening," says Nobel laureate and writer Svetlana Alexievich. 

After the presentation of the book "Belarusian National Idea on the March" in Berlin, Svetlana told its author and Euroradio editor Zmitser Lukashuk why the search for the national idea in our country remains relevant even (or maybe especially) during the war in Ukraine.

Will they start burning books on the Belarusian squares? What is Lukashenka capable and incapable of doing? How to save ourselves and how to help each other when "brothers are working" and our hearts have already been wounded by the shrapnel of Russian missiles?

You can read about this, as well as how the writer's working on her new book about the events of 2020 in Belarus, in an interview with Euroradio.

Svetlana Alexievich: I think that the book "Belarusian National Idea on the March" was published right on time. We need to think about what awaits us and what resources the Belarusian nation has today. How desperate are the Belarusians, and how paralyzing is this despair? The worst thing that happens is the paralysis of thought. 

We need new meanings and new explanations. It is important not just to repeat what we are used to hearing, but actually to hear our elite who respond to a specific moment and comprehend what is going on more deeply and offer new meanings. So I think this is a very modern book, and I am glad that it has been successfully presented.

Zmitser Lukashuk: Today in Belarus, the situation with literature is bizarre. Not only was the first book about the Belarusian national idea recognized as extremist, but the book by Alhierd Bakharevich, "Dogs of Europe," has the same fate. Books by heraldic artist Viktar Liakhor are also "extremist,". They have already been withdrawn from libraries. So one is wondering what is going on! Maybe Belarusian literature will soon be burnt on the squares? 

Svetlana Alexievich: We are not far from it, of course, but I think this is an attempt to disorient people completely. An attempt to remove exactly those books that can make society think differently than the state suggests. And of course, the books you're talking about, in general, are like that: by reading [them], people start to think. And the state doesn't need that today. That's why they decided that these are harmful and unnecessary books. There's nothing to be surprised about. 

Zmitser Lukashuk: Yes, we just have to remember how you were not congratulated on winning the Nobel Prize. In theory, the Nobel Prize winner's books should have been everywhere afterward. I want to rememeber how the authorities did not express any sympathy for the death of Stanislau Shushkevich. Such is the attitude.

Svetlana Alexievich: It means that soon our history will start from the Soviet Union period. There will be no other history; it is being crossed out. Dozens of organizations and unions have been liquidated, including the PEN Center. 

These are the very bodies that could have influenced the nation's spiritual strength and the people's spiritual formation because 2020 was a big flashpoint for all of us. We saw that we were becoming a nation, and of course this frightened the authorities. They felt that it was all alien and unnecessary, that it should be destroyed as soon as possible. 

In general, it's scary to think about what kind of state the Belarusian authorities want to build and what it will be based on. On the President's decrees or some servant running around him? Is this our entire history? Is it the whole spiritual life of the nation? I would say that today we have a rather disastrous situation. 

A lot depends on educators, how much they manage and how much courage they have to tell schoolchildren and students something after all. It's hard to imagine them succeeding.

What can writers domanage? Some have gone away. But if you try to publish a book now and bring it into Belarus, there will be problems, including for the readers who will have it. None of us thought that we would be living in the era of the underground, in the era of war. It turned out that all this happened to us too. 

I am now very interested in the experience of the 1930s; I read a lot about it, including letters. I'm thinking about collective guilt. I think collective guilt also exists, but I'm reflecting more on the person's responsibility as a writer. Each of us has a choice: we can make it or not.

Zmitser Lukashuk: Executions, exiles, other repressions. Destruction of intellectuals. Do you think Lukashenka will be able to do the same thing as the Soviet authorities did in the 1930s? 

Svetlana Alexievich: Everything depends on how events in Ukraine will develop. If Ukraine wins, there will be completely different processes, including ours. In Russia, too. I think that people there will not sleep indefinitely and will not be as if in the dark. Today, I'm terrified of hearing the recordings of conversations between Russian soldiers and their parents. Because if these are Russian people, the propaganda has really done its job. 

The people in Belarus, in my opinion, are not like that. Lukashenka wants to make it like in Russia, but our people don't want war with Ukraine. Our people want to live in their own country, with their own concepts and ideas. 

It's true, after the repressions of 2020, everyone is a little bit desperate. I can say that we mustn't despair, we must simply raise a human being inside of ourselves calmly. Raise your children, explain, protect. This is the only way out. In this way, we will save the state.

Zmitser Lukashuk: I have noticed that Belarusians often argue with each other. This is true even for those who have the same political stance and wait for changes. Is it possible to cope with it?

Svetlana Alexievich: "Divide and rule" is a well-known principle of any totalitarian state. One should bear this in mind and understand that we have one goal -- an independent Belarus. We have nothing to divide, so there is nothing to argue about and accuse each other of something. On the contrary, we must gather strength in ourselves, in society, in its small cells. 

This will help us resist -- not just go to the barricades today, but also accumulate feelings of confrontation, which will work, maybe in a year, maybe in five years. And it needs to be accumulated. In squabbling, in resentment, we only make ourselves weaker. This is a mistake. Once again: we have one goal and we have nothing to argue about. 

Zmitser Lukashuk: You are writing a book on the year 2020. How difficult is it to work on it from the point of view of emotions? 

Svetlana Alexievich: It is very difficult because I write the book not only about catastrophes and sufferings. I am trying to offer some spiritual answers to the questions that arise in society. I am gathering spiritual knowledge and strength. This is more difficult to do today because I can't say defeat, but something close to that paralyzes us. 

We have to deal with it by all means. And we need to think about it. So as an author, I need to offer what you also tried to do in your book -- new insights, knowledge, and insights into what is happening. Books like this are not written quickly. It can take up to ten years to find a new perspective on life. 

Today we find ourselves in completely new circumstances. People are confused. And we are not allowed to be confused. We have too little time to afford to be desperate all the time. We can't. We have to remember that we did a lot then, in 2020. It was a powerful breakthrough. And we must not lose this energy and potential but keep it in our hearts and understand that it is crucial.  

Zmitser Lukashuk: We hope that your book will come out not in ten years but sooner.

Svetlana Alexievich: I'm working on it.

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