Told by Anna Borisov
(Abridged and reprinted)
Svetlana, how did you feel when you realized that your name was listed along with the great Russian writers who have received the Nobel Prize over the years, including Bunin, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky?
I really have not internalized this yet. Of course, it was a great day. Truly it was the best day of my life. For what I am doing – it is enormous work and often very hard. Since 1978, I have tried to realize my aim, which has demanded a lot of time and energy. It’s been a difficult path, and I have not always been sure that I have the strength to pursue it. The realization of what I was doing took hold little by little. After I finished my second book, War’s Unwomanly Face, and while I was writing Zinky Boys about the war in Afghanistan, I recognized that this book would not be my last. It became clear that I was following a Soviet person, that I was creating an outright encyclopedia of the “Red civilization.” Ten the empire collapsed, and that world broke into so many atoms.
You always emphasize that your work is not journalism, that it is literature, art. But hasn’t it grown out of journalism?
I must admit that I have the ability to find journalistic materials. I was born and raised in a Ukrainian village, and then my family moved to Belarus. At that time, the war had finished only 10 or 15 years earlier. People still talked about their dead loved ones as if they were alive. All in all, it was like some secret – a secret about life and death. And nothing was true in the books. At that moment I knew I would write about this, and it was a woman’s voice that I could hear all the time in my head. And I started looking for people, talking to people, and then the work started, a picture formed and the literary fabric came together. For this I needed a plan; I needed a new perspective on events. Otherwise it would end up being journalistic or simply bad literature. I interviewed hundreds of people. Only 1 in 10 became a hero in the book. At first they talked “as they must;” they gave only what was necessary, as it seemed to them — the pathos, and they followed a canon. But I tried to talk to them with the language of the soul. I wasn’t trying to get them to convey horror stories. What I wanted was for them to answer these questions: What was this all for? For what are we crying and suffering? And each person had a bit of knowledge about this. In each of my five books, I have tried to understand, why did everything start out so beautifully and end so badly? I’ve always been interested in the theme of utopia and man.
Can one consider the wonderful Belarusian writer, Ales Adamovich, your teacher?
Yes, he has a brilliant and unfairly forgotten book about the war, Out of the Fire.
What is it like for you to go through all this pain? You write terrible things about war, about Chernobyl, about the dehumanization of man.
I always say, “How can a person work as an oncologist for children?” I don’t think that writers are saints. Yes, it’s hard work, and yes, it is what I do. I’ve been in the war through my listening of thousands of stories. Yes, it’s hard. I was writing the book on Chernobyl for 11 years, and it was important to me to show that the world was collapsing anew for people, when they silently left their homes, not understanding why they had to when we weren’t even at war. They had to leave their dogs and cats; they were infected. I remember the story of a freighter’s wife; her husband put out the reactor. They had not been married for long, and she was not allowed to see him in the hospital. The soldiers said, “Tis is not your love. He is an object, subject to decontamination.” Tis story needed to be heard.
You have touched Jewish people all over the world, in particular the residents of Israel, with the resounding Jewish themes within your books. And you write about this with a sort of genuine pain. It’s impossible to forget the story of the tortured Jewish girl in your latest book, Second-Hand Time.
As you know, I live in Belarus. We know fully that the destruction of part of the Jewish population [during World War II] seriously lowered the cultural level of society. Until the war, we had magazines, newspapers, books and theater in Yiddish. Tis all disappeared. In the villages, people still remember the tailors, shoe makers, doctors… And then in the 90s, we had a huge wave of emigration, and you can really feel that now. If so many Jewish people had not left in the 90s, our society might be different.
And why, after 10 years of living elsewhere in Europe, did you come back to Belarus?
When the writer Vasil Bykov and I left, we hoped that it would be temporary. I can’t say that I left only for political reasons. No. I left because it seemed to me, as an artist, that I would soon become one of those “favored” writers. When you are close to events, they deafen you, spoil your hearing and also your vision. For an artist this is a catastrophe. I left to preserve my vision, so that I could see the world, as well as other people. An artist needs “colorful people.” Ten, both the executioner and the victim become equally interesting. But if you are in a barricade, the only people that exist for you are your people or strangers. Therefore, ideology had to win. Eventually, however, I had to return to my land.
You’ve said in lectures that today’s world is increasingly “moving right,” or becoming more polarizing…
Yes, we live in a time when there is a lot of wrongdoing in the world; it infects everything around us, and it’s hard for even the strongest man to escape it. What can you say about the people who have fallen for these ideological epidemics? They are totally infected. Just recently a great director was saying that what’s going on is right – that Crimea should be Russian. Really? How can that be? It’s madness! And once I was asked about my attitude towards the “Russian World.” I said, to me, the Great Russian world is cultural, and not the political world of Russia.
That brings up the next question, do you think that the polarization of society can be reversed?
I think so, yes. In the end, if you read the letters of German intellectuals in the 1930s, we can see that they were in despair. It was a terrible time and it lasted around 20 years, but it ended. It’s true that human life is not long.
At one of your lectures, why did you talk about the “dark side of art”?
We learn about the world through depravity. It is much more refined than good, and its mechanism more polished. Unfortunately, the human condition is more accustomed to depravity. Here’s an example: A person will say, “I am not Mother Teresa,” thinking only about self-preservation, only about their own well-being, finding a thousand reasons to justify whatever they do. Look, during World War II, the Germans never asked the French to send Jewish children to the camps. They only asked for adults. But the French rounded up even the children and sent them of to certain death! You know, when Joseph Goebbles first started saying to Germans, “Don’t go to Jewish doctors or to Jewish tailors,” they didn’t pay any attention to his speeches. However, after only four years, they were already completely behind him.
So where does mankind stand?
We are still here. After all, there were and are virtuous people. There were and are these kind of people in Belarus. There are people who are true to themselves. They salvage human dignity. You have to say that there is good, that there is truth.
Are your new books related to mankind’s search for this? Do you plan to write about love?
No, I simply finished the cycle. My genre requires a lot of range, epic canvases, symphonies… If you move away from the social and political themes, what else is life made of? What is important? Love and death. There’s nothing else. I will try to write about this in my work. I am going to write a book about love and also a book about old age. After all, we are aging. In any European city you can see it. And not only in the European cities. I was in Japan recently, and there is such a huge number of people over 90. Old age is a new chapter of a person’s life, and you need to understand the philosophy of that new life. I am looking for people, I call them “colorful” or “shaken.” These are people who understand this philosophy and are trying to articulate what it means.
Stories of love exist in the books you have already written. I remember the story of the woman from your last book. She is in love with a man who has gone to a Soviet concentration camp.
Yes, that was love – pity, suffering. There is a popular, old song with the phrase, “A woman says, ‘I do not love you, I pity you.’” That’s certainly a Russian line. Women are always healing, because men are either at war or in prisons. Unfortunately, that’s our history. Russian and Belarusian society is made up of this. There have been victims of small wars, Chernobyl, and political upheavals. I know this world well, but at the same time, I am interested in the “eternal human.” You remember how the Russian modernist poet Anna Akhmatova said, “the naked man is on the naked Earth.” I’ve always been bothered by these two sides, what is eternal in man, and what is the here and now. Yes, he is subject to the superstitions of his time, but there is something in our nature that is shared and eternal – that is the same in Ancient Greece as in present day. For the books, I am looking for that person who is “shaken,” and who can break out of the stream and think about what is going on in his life. He needs to stand on his tiptoes.
There are many people who say there is an impending disaster. Do you also feel this is coming?
My friends are reading German literature about 1905 and also the 1930s, when people believed or didn’t believe that something horrible would happen. Yes, I have also had the feeling that there are dark forces that we might not be able to fend off. All we can do is hope for the best.
How can one survive in this increasingly cruel world?
You just need to keep going on without reservation. Teach children virtue. Live. I don’t think hatred and bigotry will save anyone. Hatred only leads to hatred. You need to keep your humanity. My grandmother used to say, “It’s important to carry a candle within your soul….”