From Chernobyl to the experience of children during the second world war … Alexievich has produced her own remarkable version of Soviet history
In 1993, two years after Svetlana Alexievich published Boys in Zinc, her oral history of Russias war in Afghanistan, she was sued by a number of the people she had interviewed. They accused her of offending their honour and dignity and of portraying their soldier sons as soulless killer-robots, pillagers, drug addicts and racists. Though the case was in part thrown out, it said much about the fickleness of memory and the way that the rawness of grief conveyed to Alexievich during the interviews had quickly been overlaid by a more bearable narrative, in which the war had been a heroic venture to help Afghanistan create a new society: their sons and husbands had not died uselessly but for a noble cause. Alexievich would not have attended the court hearing, she wrote later, except that she felt it her duty to confront her accusers, not to apologise to them, but to ask their forgiveness for the fact that it is not possible to get at the truth without pain.
All non-fiction writers are vulnerable to charges of invention and distortion, and none more so than Alexievich, who has spent more than 40 years producing her own remarkable version of recent Soviet history, one based exclusively on interviews, strung together as a series of monologues, unmediated by commentaries. Oral history was not recognised as professional research by the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Alexievichs books have attracted repeated criticism in a country where the state has kept tight control of its history through the media, school books and anniversary celebrations, ensuring a shared, tidy and victorious collective memory of the past. Her subversive, anguished testimonies, taken from ordinary people, have not been appreciated. When, in 2015, she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature the first journalist to be so honoured and credited with inventing a new literary genre it was greeted with outrage in the state-controlled Russian media, which claimed that she had won it only on account of her anti-Putin views.
Lost Witnesses, now published in English for the first time, and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, first appeared in 1985. A logical sequel to her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War interviews with the women who served in the Red Army, which sold more than 2m copies it captures the memories of people who had been children, aged between three and 14, during the second world war.
Many of her hundred or so testimonies open on the day the war broke out, a time recalled as cheerful: the weather was good and children were out playing with friends or picking mushrooms. All too soon, horrors accumulate. Safety is brutally replaced by fear, pain and hunger. With the arrival of the Germans, in their stomping iron-shod boots, fathers are lined up and shot, mothers killed by bombs, houses set on fire. For most of these children, the war was spent in an orphanage, living with a grandparent, or being put to work in a hospital. They forgot that they were children. There are accounts of entire villages being torched, of people eating dirt and grass, or seeing the families of partisans hanging from trees and frozen stiff, so that the bodies tinkled when they swung in the wind.
Like her Red Army female soldiers, who survived to return home in 1945, few of the people Alexievich interviewed found the end of the war easy. They came back to their villages in which all the men were dead, and where unexploded mines continued to cause casualties. The sense of loss, ever present in Alexievichs work, is the theme that binds these memories loss of siblings, pets, possessions and above all mothers along with an abiding feeling of being too afraid ever to be happy again, because happiness is something that cannot last.
Alexievich is not the first person to draw on oral history in Russia. The writer she considers her mentor, the fellow Belarusian Ales Adamovich, put together in the 1970s a history of the siege of Leningrad, based on epic choruses provided by interviews and diaries. Like hers, his work was sufficiently unpopular with the authorities for them to delay publication for several years. But it differs from Alexievichs books in that she almost never intersperses her narrative with an authorial comment, preferring to see herself as a historian of the untraceable, tracking not events but the feelings that people experienced during them, and reclaiming the small, the personal and the specific. Like the great Russian novels, these testimonials ring with emotional truth.
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