The Unwomanly Face of War, Chernobyl Prayer, and Secondhand Time, among Alexievich’s other “documentary novels,” are polyphonic tapestries that bear witness to the horrors unleashed in the Soviet Union — from war and stolen childhoods to nuclear radiation and poverty. They’re also formidable testaments to resilience. For Alexievich, preserving these stories means recognizing and dignifying the experiences of those she has encountered in her work. This is particularly significant at a time when the future seems to be plunging full force into the past, in both Eastern Europe and beyond.
Recently Alexievich visited my course on ecological displacement in Russophone literature, in which we read her Voices from Chernobyl, translated by Keith Gessen. In this conversation, for which Leila Bagenstos, Sophia Cunningham, Cassy Fantini, Isolde Gerosa, Jae Tak Kim, and Grace Sewell developed questions, we considered her writing process, Chornobyl’s legacy, and the ways war has shaped her work.
JAE TAK KIM: Many of the voices in your book make analogies to past or ongoing wars in order to understand Chornobyl. Do you see these analogies as the results of the failure of language itself in trying to directly convey the experiences of Chornobyl?
SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: I think that war is a measure of human horror. It is the biggest kind of horror that humanity can experience. For example, what’s happening in Ukraine today is an incredible force working upon us. In the first months when I started to write my book about Chornobyl, I realized that I was limited within this frame. People began to fear water, to fear sitting on the ground, to fear giving flowers as gifts. They feared everything, but primarily the earth. Death was all around. Death was no longer unfamiliar. Then I understood that all our previous knowledge about horror turned out to be weak, turned out to be from another life. We have already become caught in a transitional moment, a transition from one world to another, to the world of the future, this horrifying future where civilization and progress bring us war.
Of course, the most difficult thing when I was writing this book was finding new words for new feelings about which people told me. What it meant to be afraid of eating apples, for instance. You can’t eat them. It’s even dangerous to pick them up with your hand. What it’s like to be afraid of a loved one who is already radiated and resembles a radioactive object and doctors say you can’t touch them. How do you give a name to that? Describe it? There are no words. The first thing I discovered during this work was the helplessness of our previous culture in which we lived. Now I think in some sense we feel this helplessness in this war in Ukraine, because this is our helplessness when the war even threatens us with the end of the world. Hollywood was just rehearsing such things. This story now plays out before our eyes.
Chornobyl was something even deeper, because it had to do with our connection to nature, with the fact that we’re not commensurate to our technology. We created technology that our morality and our idea of life isn’t equipped for. When I went to the Chornobyl station and looked at the massive hulk that remained of reactor four, I understood that it’s hard for us to understand this, to find the words to describe it. Humanity ended up totally unprepared for this new reality. Radiation is not visible. It has no smell. You can’t touch it. These things were telling us the whole time that we were part of a new catastrophe against which we weren’t even biologically ready. Biologically, we’re not created to understand it: birds, beetles, worms, all hiding deep in the ground, knew something. We didn’t. Our children played football. We went to the May Day demonstration. We were already full of Chornobyl. We breathed it, but we didn’t know it. Those little creatures knew. A lot of philosophical questions were generated in response to this catastrophe.
JTK: You’ve talked about how it’s difficult to find the right words when writing about Chornobyl and wars, especially in artistic representations. In this way, your work is very different from traditional journalism and documentaries. Do you think there’s something missing from the public discourse surrounding Ukraine right now, with regards to the words people are using?
SA: I’m writing up what people are saying now. I meet them, and what they tell me is amazing. There are not enough journalists who can hear that and write it down, and, after enough time has passed, create a book about it. But this book will be written, because suffering is a text as well. Suffering exists in life, and it’s required to make this art. So, it’s a matter of what we can do with it and whether we can gather it out of life. I can hear my book about the war, and I know that it will really touch human hearts in the same way the Chornobyl book has.
ISOLDE GEROSA: Voices from Chernobyl in some ways resembles a work of journalism. Do you think there is importance in distinguishing between novels and journalistic work?
SA: I don’t think distinguishing between them really matters. Times change so quickly today. So, I wondered, how can I represent this complex multilayered time that we have today in an artistic form? And I found a form that works for me: voices. This multivoiced work is not journalism; it would be too simple to say that. It’s a novel of voices. I tried to catch the sound of the way each person thinks, the way each person talks, how they tell the story. We tell stories differently to different people, whether it is to children, grown-ups, friends. Some people don’t know that somebody has lived for 30 or 50 years after an experience, and it’s about recreating the person. It was about weaving this material together from these threads of life, like the way someone thought about love or about death.
JTK: In Voices from Chernobyl, you use a variety of formats for expressing the voices — monologues, multivoiced choirs. How did you choose and arrange these formats to convey the themes you wanted?
SA: The story has a certain idea. It’s a part of an event. It’s a large story. Reading those tiny bits in the book — the chorus of time, the chorus of children, the chorus of soldiers, the chorus of people — is like reading a Greek tragedy. In tragedies, there are the Fates, and then there are the choirs. The choirs can foretell the future. These bits are small pieces in terms of the space that they cover, but they are crucial. I was trying to create an architecture or a symphony of sorts. A kind of temple made of human lives and human voices.
CASSY FANTINI: I was wondering how you decided how to arrange the testimonies, and whether that process was similar or different from the processes for selecting participants for your other works.
SA: That’s a hard question. That’s like asking a composer, “Where do you get these sounds from? Why are they arranged in this specific order?” It’s all intuition. It just feels how it has to be. For me, it’s important that you don’t have an event-based plot but rather thought-based. You look at the events from different points of view. I gather the words of people of different ages, different professions, to see what happened and how people at the time experienced it, to see what we understood. Perhaps, after a lot of time, people will understand things much differently, because we’ll be like savages for them, in terms of understanding what happened. They might view nature more deeply and understand more deeply.
But you’re taking an intuitive path there. You understand that you can’t just shock people with horror, that someone dying of radiation is horrifying. Yes, these things happen. I couldn’t have made a book out of this horror entirely. There is a limit to what we can experience, a limit for humans. Aesthetics play an important role, the music of the text, the tragic, underground music of the text. All of this has its own sound, but without that music, it wouldn’t be art. It wouldn’t be a work of art. It’s not that I’m coming up with my material — there were real people sitting there. That’s what Michelangelo said: “It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” That’s what I do as well. I take a piece of life and take away all superfluous things.
SOPHIA CUNNINGHAM: In your process of editing Voices from Chernobyl since its original publication, what have been your motivations for moving stories around and sometimes changing the names attributed to those stories?
SA: Some time has passed since I wrote the book. Back then, we were still in Soviet times, and people were afraid to say the truth. And then 25 years later, I received a great many letters from my subjects who had read the book and wanted to add something. They found new memories, new bravery. They had seen others talk about it and had new ideas about their own experiences. They wrote to me and invited me to come and talk to them again. And I did, and we talked some more. So, that’s what influenced the new edition.
It’s especially relevant for my war books, because it was a very, very Soviet time. People were very afraid to talk about Stalin, afraid to criticize war generals. People were afraid to talk about love. Even later, they talked very little about love, unfortunately. It was very hard to get to them. I got everything I could get out of them in the new editions. As long as the person is alive, the book is not finished. The voice can still resound; they can still have new ideas. My books are always rewritten by life.
Right now, I’m talking to you, and I’m sitting at this large desk, and I have my new book about the revolution in Belarus. There, we had an attempt at revolution, a peaceful revolution. In the 21st century, we don’t need to have explosions to get rid of a dictatorship. But it didn’t work out, and many people, millions of Belarusians, had to flee, including myself. I am trying to write about it, and I have those things on my desk, but I want to finish the story of what happens to the Red Person, the person of the Red Idea. We thought it was all over, communism was dead, dictatorship was dead, but no, it continues on and on. I thought I was almost finished with the book, and then the war in Ukraine started, and I realized that I have to keep writing because it’s all connected. I need to add what’s happening there.
This Red Person was dreaming of freedom, and it seemed just around the corner. But we didn’t know what long work it was. If you’ve lived all your life in a prison camp, when you are let out, you do not become free. That’s not what freedom is. You’re just in another space. We had our attempt at a peaceful revolution; now we have the war in Ukraine, we have Russian fascism now. That’s what it came to, a new kind of fascism. So the book continues, because life continues. I have the feeling that I have to rewrite the whole book. I have so much material, and I just can’t stop.
JOSÉ VERGARA: I know you wrote some of your other books while in exile as well, but does the experience of talking with people who are away because of the regime impact the work? And has winning the Nobel Prize changed how people speak to you in any way that you’ve observed?
SA: I try not to visit people as a Nobel laureate. I visit them as a friend, a neighbor. I am very thankful — my parents were country teachers. Particularly from my father, I inherited a democratic attitude. I do not see myself as a statue. That’s simply not interesting. What is interesting is to merge into the crowd and to be a completely unknown person, to be a human with life happening around you.
IG: A lot of the survivors you interviewed focus on nature, which I found surprising considering they are discussing a catastrophe that poisons it. They mention the blooming of trees, the forest animals’ eyes, “the bugs, spiders, worms.” When in conversation with your interviewees, what were your impressions of this theme in their words? How, and why, do you think Chornobyl survivors find comfort in the natural world?
SA: I saw dazed, traumatized people everywhere. The liquidators, for example, came to work at the Chornobyl power station to shut down the fire, to close the huge hole in the ground. They came as their old selves, with their old idea of the world, and on the first day they looked on in horror as soldiers came with these machines, these armored vehicles, with machine guns, and I asked them, “Well, what are you going to do with the machine guns? Who are you going to shoot? The radiation?” They were all so lost. Their old world was the only thing that remained.
Farmers were always in contact with nature and always trusted it more than science. They didn’t know science yet. They looked at the moon, the stars. When the first rains fell, they knew a lot of secrets that we have lost. I remember I came to a village, and one old woman was left there; everyone else evacuated. And she told these interesting things about a bird that came and went — she gave it bread. And a hedgehog came — she gave it milk. A wolf came — “I’m not afraid of wolves” she said. “They’re just as lonely as people are.” This discussion with her completely changed my prior conceptions regarding our connections to nature and my belief that humanity understood itself to be the crown of creation. That is not the case. We’d lost that touch, but the farmers still had it. And the liquidators, they were weighed down by this old knowledge, and their comrades, as well. Many of them became sick later, and even died quickly after returning home. Because they didn’t know what to do, how to live. They were told to wear masks, but they didn’t. They thought that it was very hard to work in masks. Just like now: Many don’t want to wear them against the coronavirus; they think breathing is difficult.
We didn’t have any of this understanding at the time. Chornobyl was, in a way, training for Fukushima. People already knew how to behave when Fukushima happened, because Chornobyl was already known. People also already knew how to behave when the coronavirus came; they managed to take a lot out of this Chornobyl experience. Chornobyl was the experience of evil with a new face. Back then, people didn’t understand many things about radiation, so they came to see the station after it had burned. When the rain came, there was this violet light. You had children and their parents who came to see how beautiful it was. They didn’t understand that it was death. Nowadays people wouldn’t do that, and they wouldn’t get sick. But back then they did. It was a time of new knowledge.
GRACE SEWELL: Some of the speakers in Voices from Chernobyl wonder whether it’s possible to convey disaster from a nonhuman perspective — to develop a language capable of representing the experiences of the animals, plants, and objects without imposing a human frame on them. Is this task one that you’re interested in addressing through your own work? Can literature transmit voices from nature in some way, or must it always project a human voice onto literature?
SA: There was a Russian scientist named [Nikolai] Fedorov who had several ideas: he thought that there would come a time when science would be able to resurrect the bodies of everyone who ever lived; his second idea was that people would be able to understand the languages of animals. I don’t know. In my Chornobyl book and others, the voices always talk about the suffering of the animals. Animals cannot tell us anything through words, but I tried to paint pictures of their suffering.
Tolstoy said, “There is time that is alive, and time that is dead.” I experience alive time as time proper — the bee, the bird, the birch, the man. I don’t think that human suffering is higher than the suffering of animals. We stupidly kill people, as is happening now in Ukraine. Meanwhile, we have a universe of young people, scientists, and writers who are trying to conceive of the world deeply.
SC: How do you describe Chornobyl now, compared to before you started the project? Do you think we can ever truly understand Chornobyl, or will there always be an element of mystery to it?
SA: When I heard that Russian planes are now flying over Chornobyl and bombing Ukrainian villages around Chornobyl, and about the fires starting, I imagined the dangers we all face if there is an explosion there. What is happening in Ukraine is terrorism. Chornobyl turned into a huge nuclear bomb, which can go off at any moment — if, for example, there is a fire in the night and it can’t be stopped, or a stray bomb drops where it shouldn’t.
I was in the [Chornobyl Exclusion] Zone recently, before the war. Some old people remained there, but now they’ve died. It’s a dead zone with just animals, and it was a strange feeling, because you walk there, and for example, the wild pigs are around the school. Lots of little piglets. Or deer come out of human houses and schools. It was a very surprising experience to see how quickly the earth forgets humans. It was also a very difficult experience as the space, the memorial of it, bears stamps of the personality cult from Soviet times. For example, Lenin’s head and these human idols that we worshiped so recently.
People left dogs, horses, and cows, or they were shot. That’s one of the most difficult impressions, when we really betrayed animals. Humans were leaving on buses, and they were afraid to look out the windows because around the buses their dogs or cats stood there looking at them. The people were ashamed that they were leaving the animals. Then hunters and soldiers came in and killed the animals, burying them in special protected biotombs, designed so water wouldn’t leak in. [When one drives] through the Zone, especially in the winter, the human cemetery is empty. There are no traces. The village is empty. There are just biotombs where the animals are buried. There are animal tracks, as if they come to visit their ancestors. It’s as if there is an earth with nothing but animals. There are a lot of such metaphysical experiences, very unexpected thoughts.
A few years ago, I participated in the Chernobyl television series for HBO. They used a lot of my material, but it’s not treated as philosophically as the reality was. It’s more political. I wasn’t as interested in this; I’m more interested in the metaphysics of eternity.
LEILA BAGENSTOS: So many of the speakers in Voices from Chernobyl reference generational divides in how people responded to Chornobyl. In your experience, do these generational divides persist today? How do you find that the perspectives of those raised in the aftermath of Chornobyl differ from those who lived through it?
SA: When I was writing the book The Unwomanly Face of War, some doubted me. How could I write this book despite not living through the war? I don’t think you have to have been there, whether you are old or young. You don’t need to have experienced the event. It’s more than age or the culture someone has grown up with. An Indian would experience Chornobyl differently from a European. I think that penetrating the nature of things — a very young person can do that as well. I think, or I hope, that a young director is growing up right now, who will come and make a completely different thing from what I have made out of my text. They will feed from another time, or perhaps from another kind of talent.
The formal things don’t play a large role in life. Sometimes I’m deeply interested in talking to an old woman in a village, who hasn’t read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but who speaks so interestingly. She sees the nature of things that are completely unclear to me. I cannot understand it, and I never thought about it. She did. I sometimes talk to children who are very unusual. They have a different outlook. That depends on something else: how well we live; how talented we are and how experienced in our way of thinking; how seriously we penetrate life; how far we leave banality behind, because most people live and eat banality, and that’s enough. But the thing is, to create your own creature out of yourself, without the perspective of everyone else’s life, to contribute things that have not been said in books, even in good books, to change your outlook, to offer a text that has not been experienced in the human archive — that is a great work, and you must work on it your whole life.
GS: Do you think of your writing as belonging to a particular tradition or literary genealogy, or as a departure from any traditions?
SA: There’s certainly a philosophical influence on my work: Dostoevsky, Herzen. I wasn’t influenced by how others have written about war. I was mostly influenced by philosophical ideas. As for writing on war, I specifically tried to read as little as possible on that so as not to be influenced. For example, when I interviewed a woman whose children died in the war, I tried to stop the flow of banalities. People start talking in the style of what they read. I try to get at what is real and understand what people experienced and really felt in the moment. The most amazing thing was when somebody told me, “I didn’t even know what I knew and felt before [our conversation].” We process the experience together, the interviewee and myself. We think about the world together. The person did not only experience the war, of course, but also had a life in peacetime and after. All these memories influence each other, so it is not just me writing things down.
GS: Earlier, you spoke about the limits of aesthetic representation of events like Chornobyl. Do you think that there are any events that defy artistic representation entirely?
SA: I chose my genre not just because it’s how my ear works, how my eye works, how I see the world. I also chose it because I was disappointed in fiction. The meaning — the conflict between good and evil — is diluted somehow in fiction. This half-documentary genre has a better chance of conveying these unsayable things, and it does so more quickly than a fictional text. You cannot write a good novel quickly. For a great book, you need a lot of time. I like to write in a concentrated fashion.
It seems to me that the central character of literature today is the witness. It’s the witness who sees and experiences an event while it takes place. Later, red fades into pink. Something happens to our memory. It’s not as concentrated. We don’t experience that same shock anymore.
I always wanted to meet my interviewees right at the moment when the event happened. I wrote my war book 40 years after the events, but it was the first chance to speak the truth. People were so shocked that their memories became so vivid. They said much more than they would have told me immediately after the war, during the years of terror, when they didn’t trust anyone and there was no chance of printing anything like that. People ask me why my interviewees talk so beautifully and precisely. We reexperience the most crucial things — death and love — when we are most viscerally shocked. Love, too, is like Chornobyl and war in terms of intensity. In Minsk, at home, I have an unfinished book about love. I wanted to write a book about men and women talking about love, but I have to write about the revolution now.
IG: What do you find yourself wanting to read now, if anything? Which texts do you find yourself avoiding?
SA: More than anything, I want to read books about human nature. I’m rereading Dostoevsky’s Demons right now, and I want to read him to understand humanity. In the ’90s, we were so full of hope; we thought we would have a new life, a new world. Fukuyama spoke of the end of history, and now we have the old evil again: fascism. In the one hour that we’ve been talking, 20 people have died in Ukraine. Every hour, 20 people die. Why is it happening again?
In my book The Unwomanly Face of War, for example, when women learned that the war had ended, they shot all their ammunition in the air. They were asked, “Why did you waste the ammunition?” and they replied, “We’ll never need it again. There will never be a war again. After all that suffering, the people will never start another war.” And now, after 70 years, we have war again. So, I read a lot of scholarly literature, and as for fiction, I keep rereading Dostoevsky, more and more Dostoevsky. I want to pull out from those pages something about the Russian person and, more generally, something about human nature. Why do we have these endless wars?
GS: Do you think that literature and art can or should seek to fulfill a social responsibility — that is, to transform the world? If so, how do you approach this goal in your work? Which kinds of transformation can literature facilitate?
SA: I think that every one of us is responsible for the times, for what happens. You have to understand that we may not achieve much, but if we were silent, it would be even worse.
José Vergara is assistant professor of Russian on the Myra T. Cooley Lectureship in Russian Studies at Bryn Mawr College.