No sooner had the uproar caused by Svetlana Alexievich’s pronouncement about Belarusian Catholics (see EDM, June 15) calmed down, than a new scandal broke. Now, Russians are the offended party.
Alexievich is the 2015 Nobel Prize laureate in literature. Born in 1948, in Ukraine, to a Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father, she moved to Belarus in the early 1950s. She currently resides in Minsk. Alexievich writes in Russian and she routinely, including in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, identifies as a person of Russian culture. Nevertheless, a collision between Alexievich’s current worldview and Russian grievances regarding the West were at the core of the new controversy.
Alexievich was approached for an interview by Sergei Gourkin of Delovoi Peterburg (DP), a Russian daily. Like her, he was born in Ukraine. Gourkin warned Alexievich he did not share her opinions, but that did not discourage her. As the questioning proceeded, however, Alexievich became irritated; she eventually forbade the material to be published. DP honored Alexievich’s demand, but Gourkin offered the text of the interview to Regnum, a “patriotic” Russian press agency, for which he was freelancing. Regnum published it (Regnum, June 19), whereas DP fired Gourkin.
The publication triggered an uproar all across Russian media and social networks. The Belarusian service of Radio Liberty (RL) called it an information war against Alexievich (Svaboda.org, June 23).
Only recently, on May 18, a number of Russian media outlets published what turned out to be a false story about Alexievich’s untimely death (RIA Novosti, May 18). Therefore, many readers of the June interview published in Regnum initially believed this article might also be fake. That feeling was bolstered by Alexievich’s apparent unsophisticated language and clichéd observations (like that people that you normally meet on Broadway, in New York City, come across as free individuals whereas those you meet in Moscow seem enslaved). However, the Russian service of Radio Liberty conducted a comparison (Svaboda.org, June 21) of the text and the audio recording (YouTube, June 21), at which point, doubts as to the authenticity of the publication vanished. Additionally, attempts by RL to prove that transcribed deviations from the original recording had distorted Alexievich’s opinion also failed. The deviations in the text do not seem consequential. One of Alexievich’s supporters even referred to Vladimir Nabokov’s pronouncement—“I think as a genius, I write as an outstanding man of letters, but I speak as a child”—as a putative explanation for her controversial remarks (Svaboda.org, June 23).
It is, however, the content of the interview that raised eyebrows in the first place. Nominally, it is a confrontation between Russian traditional grievances about the West allegedly undermining Russia’s national interests, on the one hand, and the West’s professed respect for small nations, their territorial integrity, and for throwing off the shackles of Russian domination, on the other. The point, however, is that in the interview with Gourkin, Alexievich’s rage seemingly goes beyond the usual basis for Western condemnation of Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine—i.e., that Russia exaggerated the local discrimination against Ukraine’s Russian speakers, used it as a pretext for aggression, and then sold it to the rest of the world as a civil war within the targeted country.
As if deliberately setting out to match and justify Russian grievances, Alexievich claims in the interview that she “understands the motives” of those who, in 2015, killed Oles Buzina, a Ukrainian journalist and writer known for his strong pro-Russian views. She also concedes that, in Ukraine and Belarus, the Russian language should be abolished in the interest of nation-building. “You say that when 100 years ago Russian culture was implanted […] this was bad; but when today Ukrainian culture is being implanted, it is good,” posits the interviewer. “It is not being implanted. That state wants to enter Europe. It does not want to stay with you,” replies Alexievich. “And for this purpose Russian should be banned?” asks the journalist. “No; but perhaps for the time being yes—in order to cement the nation. You are welcome to speak Russian, but all schools will use Ukrainian,” responds the Nobel laureate. “There is no other way to create a nation,” she adds, apparently conceding that radicalism in defense of liberty is justified.
It is then little wonder that such statements allowed Alexievich’s detractors to claim that a writer whose creativity, according to her resume, “is permeated by compassion and humanism” has delivered a series of unfiltered revelations purportedly echoing the Western view of Russians. “That is what Westerners really think of us if you look beyond their convoluted and mischievous declamations,” writes one of those detractors. “Because it is only amidst “free” people with their European mindset that justifications of murder, removal of monuments, and ban on languages are out of the question… Russians do not appreciate freedom […] and so those justifications appear valid as long as they pertain to Russians” (RIA Novosti, June 21).
Not only self-proclaimed Russian “patriots” took issue with Alexievich’s statements. One of the most liberal and West-friendly journalists, Oleg Kashin starkly described the Belarusian writer’s interview as that by “an old-fashioned and primitive person, in whose cannibalistic pronouncements one discerns neither refined provocation nor cruel irony. She exposed herself as a […] Soviet everyman who attempts to bring his/her Young Communist League baggage into the big world [and translates it] into a desire to, say, kill all Arabs once [she] finds [herself] in Israel or drop a nuclear bomb on Moscow if [she] finds [herself] in the USA” (Znak, June 21). To this effect, some of Alexievich’s critics unearthed her 1977 non-fiction work Revolutionary Sword and Flame, which glorified Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Soviet secret police, in the most obsequious terms possible (Vesti, June 22). What they imply is that one sort of zealotry can easily morph into another.
As per Thornton Wilder, “many great writers have been extraordinarily awkward in daily exchange.” One can only hope that such awkwardness will restrain its assault on greatness. But while some of Alexievich’s staunchest supporters suggest that scandals will fade while the stature of a Nobel Prize laureate will remain (Svaboda.org, June 23), this recent controversy may nonetheless continue to reverberate for a long time to come.