I MET A MEMBER of the Russian Academy of Sciences during a diplomatic reception more than 10 years ago in Europe. At some point during our conversation, Nigeria and Russia were mentioned in the same sentence, and my interlocutor came completely undone. “What has happened to us?” he wailed. “We were once a superpower, and now we’re compared to Africa.” It would have been interesting to probe that sentiment, but I didn’t have the wherewithal. I had no idea what the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union had done to my Russian friend.
I had seen evidence of the rough transition to democracy and a market economy during my travels through Central Europe in mid-1993. Prague had mostly been restored to its prewar glory, but in Budapest currency touts accosted me as soon as I left the train station. Facades were crumbling and petty tradesmen plied their wares in the streets. In Bratislava, then the six-month-old capital of newly independent Slovakia, my brother and I restarted a rattletrap electric tram that had stalled on a vast, empty boulevard by manhandling the power coupling. Drunks were passed out on the street, the clocks and elevator in the hotel didn’t work, and we ate our fill on stacks of virtually worthless former Czechoslovak currency.
The psychological toll of the twilight of Central and Eastern European communism has not attracted broad attention in the West. While the extraordinary events of 1989–’91 have their thrilling, galvanizing moments — the election of a Solidarity majority to the Polish parliament in 1989; the January 1, 1990, inauguration speech of Czechoslovak President Václav Havel; the confrontation with Soviet troops in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1991 — the period following has been of little interest to anyone beyond the small retinue of ex-Sovietologist academics and economists. Yet many of today’s geopolitical crises — from the turmoil in Ukraine to the wars in the Middle East — stem indirectly, if not directly, from the dramas and traumas of the first post-communist decade. It’s important to recall that all the countries freed of Moscow’s yoke, including 15 suddenly independent Soviet republics, shared in some measure the same destabilizing experience.
Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich are both recent Nobel laureates in literature from Central and Eastern Europe who have written intimately about this civilizational sundown. Müller uses fiction, while Alexievich is among the handful of winners — including, notably, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Winston Churchill — whose most important contributions are nonfictional. But both writers, each in her own way, capture the experience of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.
Herta Müller was born and raised in a German-speaking family in the small Romanian commune of Nițchidorf in the Banat, a historical region that straddles parts of Romania, Serbia, and Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian Empire resettled Germans in the region after taking it from the Ottoman Turks in 1718. As a displaced minority, the Banat Germans have long had a fraught relationship with the Romanians. During World War I, Romania sided with the Allies, making the Germans a hated enemy within. During World War II, a coup installed a Hitlerite fascist state. The Banat Germans were dragooned into German SS units and some gained notoriety for particular barbarity against Jewish and Serb populations.
Romania had chosen the wrong side. After the collapse of the Nazi regime, the Soviet Union occupied Romania and installed a sympathetic communist government. Romania’s Axis partnership became an inconvenient truth in Moscow, which scrubbed the country’s history of collaboration in favor of a heroic socialist narrative. The Banat Germans became especially inconvenient. In the great upheaval that swept Europe after the war, Soviet occupation forces rounded up all Banat Germans aged 17 to 45 and transferred them to work camps in the Russian interior. The shame of serving Hitler, along with the official communist narrative, virtually eclipsed the horror suffered by these people, most of whom were guilty of nothing more than speaking the wrong language. Müller’s mother was one of these exiles, taken from her home as a teenager.
Müller fictionalizes this moment in one of her novels, published in English as The Hunger Angel (2009, trans. 2012). The story of its 17-year-old protagonist is based heavily on the experience of her mother and of Oskar Pastior, another German-speaking Romanian writer. Pastior died in 2006, before the book was released, and before the full scope of his life’s tragedy was revealed: in the 1960s, before he emigrated to Germany, he had been an informant to Romania’s all-seeing secret police, the Securitate.
The surveillance, harassment, and horror of a backward socialist state is Müller’s primary subject, which she experienced firsthand. Her first collection of stories, published in English as Nadirs, was a clear but dark view of village life among the Banat Germans, which made her few friends at home when it was published in Romania, in a heavily censored version, in 1982. The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, which originally appeared in 1992, is her most recent book to be published in English. In it, she turns her sharp, observant eye on city life and the surveillance state just before the fall of communism.
Svetlana Alexievich is a true Soviet subject, a concept that now makes little sense in our fragmented world. She was born in what is now Ukraine and has long lived in what is now Belarus, both former republics of the USSR. Importantly, she writes in Russian, which remains a lingua franca in many of these nations. Originally a teacher like Müller, she started writing as a journalist and published her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, about the experience of Soviet women in World War II, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost. She later wrote about the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. Secondhand Time, now supplely translated Bela Shayevich, is considered her masterpiece.
The majority of Alexievich’s informants are female. The choice to focus on women’s stories, she argues, offers practical, aesthetic, and political benefits. Men tend to talk about what they did; women talk about what they feel. The latter approach drives a stake through the official Soviet narratives of material accomplishment and a power cable into the heart of history. Joseph Stalin supposedly noted that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. Alexievich has sought out the individual tragedy behind those numbers. She tells the story of a hysterical mother recalling the suicide of her teenage son — not an isolated incident among his group of friends. Another woman lost most of her family in remote Siberia after years of internal exile. A college student talks about detention and abuse following her participation in pro-democracy protests.
In this kaleidoscope of different voices, consistent themes arise: bewilderment, loss, regret, anger, blame, disillusion, violence, and endemic, wretched drunkenness. Alexievich gently disparages the sovok — a derogatory term which denotes the Soviet citizen and connotes that citizen’s indoctrinated mentality. Many of her subjects readily identify themselves as irremediably Soviet. They were not prepared for the change that came like a thunderclap. The academics and engineers, former soldiers and partisans, mothers and sisters and daughters all woke up on the same day to find that the country and the system they were taught to believe in had disappeared. Their jobs vanished and their pensions collapsed with the ruble. Tremendous but unaffordable abundance replaced cheap scarcity. Terrorism and gangsterism supplanted the security state. Communist brotherhood, however cynical, surrendered to bloody nationalism. They left behind global stature for feeble gigantism. There was nothing familiar to any of this. What was left to believe in? Most of Alexievich’s subjects struggle to define their lives in the absence of an overarching narrative.
This is not simply a philosophical problem of Russian identity. Her subjects confronted frighteningly real problems of insecurity, poverty, and exile. All of Alexievich’s stories are heartbreaking, but I have never been made to feel the personal consequences of the collapse of Soviet identity so deeply as when reading her tale of an Azerbaijani Romeo and Juliet. It is recounted by an Armenian woman who fell in love with her Azerbaijani neighbor when both countries were part of the Soviet Union. After the USSR fell, the woman fled the violence washing over Baku as Azerbaijan and Armenia began to bludgeon each other in Nagorno-Karabakh. She settled in Moscow and waited seven years for her husband to join her. Both of their families disowned them for marrying outside their cultures and faiths. Today they live as undocumented refugees, scraping by and fearing deportation.
Alexievich’s subjects argue and rant and contradict themselves: Gulag victims demand the return of Stalin, a patriotic Afghanistan veteran emigrates to Canada, a mother not yet 30 years old excoriates herself for her victimhood at the hands of two husbands and her vindictive, alcoholic mother. No one can believe that a country that defeated Hitler could simply implode on its own. The younger generation cannot understand the older. Neither can figure out what to do next. The only people who appear remotely happy are a woman who abandoned her husband and children to marry a jailed convict whom she had seen in a dream (“Pure literature!” someone remarks), and an unrepentant capitalist who calls her self-imposed loneliness “a kind of freedom.”
It is troubling to learn about the two Nobel laureates’ complicated relationship with literature. Müller finds existing language — even the exotic dialect of her upbringing and the colorful, sensual Romanian she learned as an adult — inadequate to describe her experiences. As a girl tending sheep alone in the countryside, she spent days making up new words for the plants and animals she observed, the sensations she felt. She has adapted this technique in her writing, making up words in German. This makes Müller’s language, especially in The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, jarring to read. She exploits German’s agglutinative word construction, where adjectives, verbs, and nouns collide to fashion new senses and sensibilities. (Volkswagen’s old marketing slogan “Fahrvergnügen” is one example — a mash-up of “driving” and “enjoyment” that became a thing in itself.) The result, carefully rendered by Philip Boehm, requires close attention. Yet this complete lack of clichés is profoundly rewarding: new words and expressions evoke an utterly new, often surreal reality.
The acute attention to detail, and the hidden meaning and menace Müller reveals in commonplace objects and activities, recreates the psychological tension of life in a police state — where everything is threatening, nothing is coincidence, and nobody can be trusted. Remember back to a time when you were caught and reprimanded by your parents or teachers for some vice, how suddenly all the details of life — your clothes, your hair, the furniture in your bedroom — were suddenly, painfully vivid and strange. That is what Müller is doing here.
A similar refrain permeates virtually all of Alexievich’s stories, too: the failure of the written word to describe, explain, or cope with the disasters that befell ordinary people. Many of her subjects describe themselves as “kitchen dissidents,” who held spirited political discussions and shared prohibited samizdat books in their homes during communism. But as the world rapidly changed, they came to see their discussions and literary concerns as virtually meaningless. Solzhenitsyn didn’t end the Gulag, and his books may as well describe another planet than the world in which they and their children live. The dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov doesn’t make their lives any better or safer. Their books do nothing to help them now. In the new era, actions are more important than the word, which has lost its magic to transform their inner lives.
It is easy to think of Alexievich’s narratives as being unique to the Soviet experience. Fortunately, the Nobel Committee saw that her work is far more universal, “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Her intimately documented grief cannot fail to strike a chord with readers everywhere. The extreme human experiences she collects from the last century have their parallels not just in repressive countries today, but also in the increasingly unsettled first world. Müller, for her part, depicts and advocates on behalf of dissidents like herself, who are still trying to transform their repressive regimes. Both demonstrate the difficulty — and necessity — of using words to affect, if not change the world.