The Nobel Prize Winner For Literature

2015 - Svetlana Alexievich

Born: 31 May 1948, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine

Residence at the time of the award: Belarus

Prize motivation: "to trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual through carefully constructed collages of interviews"

Prize share: 1/1

Books Written By Svetlana Alexievich

About Svetlana Alexievich

Born in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislav (since 1962 Ivano-Frankivsk) to a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in Belarus. After finishing school she worked as a reporter in several local newspapers before graduating from Belarusian State University (1972) and becoming a correspondent for the literary magazine Neman in Minsk (1976).

During her career in journalism, Alexievich specialized in crafting narratives based on witness testimonies. In the process, she wrote oral histories of several dramatic events in Soviet history: the Second World War, the Afghan War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Chernobyl disaster. After political persecution by the Lukashenko administration, she left Belarus in 2000.The International Cities of Refuge Network offered her sanctuary and during the following decade she lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin. In 2011, Alexievich moved back to Minsk.

Alexievich's books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet individual through carefully constructed collages of interviews. According to Russian writer and critic Dmitry Bykov, her books owe much to the ideas of Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses. Belarusian poet Uladzimir Nyaklyayew called Adamovich "her literary godfather". He also named the documentary novel I'm from the Burned Village (Belarusian: Я з вогненнай вёскі) by Ales Adamovich, Janka Bryl and Uladzimir Kalesnik, about the villages burned by the German troops during the occupation of Belarus, as the main single book that has influenced Alexievich's attitude to literature. Alexievich has confirmed the influence of Adamovich and Belarusian writer Vasil Bykaŭ, among others. She regards Varlam Shalamov as the best writer of the 20th century.

Her most notable works in English translation include a collection of first-hand accounts from the war in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War) and an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster (Chernobyl Prayer / Voices from Chernobyl).

Her first book, War's Unwomanly Face, came out in 1985. It was repeatedly reprinted and sold more than two million copies. The book was finished in 1983 and published (in short edition) in Oktyabr, a Soviet monthly literary magazine, in February 1984. In 1985, the book was published by several publishers, and the number of printed copies reached 2,000,000 in the next five years. This novel is made up of monologues of women in the war speaking about the aspects of World War II that had never been related before. Another book, The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, describes personal memories of children during wartime. The war seen through women's and children's eyes revealed a new world of feelings. In 1993, she published Enchanted with Death, a book about attempted and completed suicides due to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Many people felt inseparable from the Communist ideology and unable to accept the new order surely and the newly interpreted history.

Her books were not published by Belarusian state-owned publishing houses after 1993, while private publishers in Belarus have only published two of her books: Chernobyl Prayer in 1999 and Second-hand Time in 2013, both translated into Belarusian. As a result, Alexievich has been better known in the rest of world than in Belarus.

She has been described as the first journalist to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.  She herself rejects the notion that she is a journalist, and, in fact, what appears in her books as witnesses, are fiction and are changed between different editions of the same book.


War's Unwomanly Face - Svetlana Alexievich

By Tracy L.

I cried so many times reading this book that I forced myself to stop and not pick it up again the next day multiple times. I am not one to write reviews, but for those of us who were lucky enough to have never seen war, know conceptually that it's a terrible thing, and somehow idealize the heroism of it, this book will set you straight.

I didn't know anything about this book until it was recommended in The Economist. I was curious because I read a lot of books on history and wars, and was baited by the idea of stories from women on the front lines - not at the factories working. It was purely out of intellectual interest - come to think of it, all the books I read on the topic were written by men....

Once I started reading, I could not stop. Between tears and tissues, I kept reading. I read until I was sobbing so hard I couldn't see through my tears. The feelings of fear, pain, courage, grief, hope...of girls half my was heart-wrenching. At their age I was having first world teenager problems of pimples and wanting to be popular. I could not be more embarrassed.

These stories cannot be made up - not something this raw, this brutal, this...human.

I write this review in the hopes to encourage more people to read it. There's no need to convince people that war is bad. This book will show you - straight to your heart.


Zinky Boys - Svetlana Alexievich

By Peter R. Ramsey

Zinky Boys is not a good translation, I think, for the title of this book. Zinky sounds way too jolly for Tsinkovyje Maljchiki. Zinc boys, or even Boys in Zinc, would be better. It refers to the soldered zinc caskets in which the Soviet army returned the bodies of dead soldiers to their families.

This excellent book is very hard to read. Just like our Vietnamese adventure, The Soviet Union organized stupid deaths in a stupid war that accomplished nothing but pain and loss for everyone involved and left the world a worse place afterwards. Except that the Soviets were even more callous, cruel, effed-up, and ineffectual than we were in Vietnam. This book, in the style of Studs Terkel, tells, in their own words, the stories of those from the Soviet Union, both the soldiers and their wives and mothers, who suffered in in that cruel and unnecessary war, and who still bear the scars of it. Svetlana Alexievich is a passionate and compassionate reporter who brings the futile and hubristic stupidity into vivid focus. Anyone who remembers Vietnam will recognize these stories. Many of them could have been ours.

There may be more Boys in zinc ahead for Russia in their adventures in the Donbas and Syria. I note that just recently a Soviet tank commander of Central Asian ethnicity, who defected in Afghanistan and joined the Haqqani network was killed on the Afghani-Pakistan border. The chickens from the Soviet Union's last great adventure are still coming home to roost.