For Svetlana Alexievich, the Soviet Union is a kind of ‘historical Chernobyl that still produces contamination and radiation—psychological, historical, political and cultural,’ notes CU-Boulder professor who is a leading scholar in Russian postmodern literature and culture
For Russian-literature experts like Mark Leiderman, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature to Svetlana Alexievich was no surprise.
Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who writes in Russian and is critical of both the Putin regime and the former Soviet Union.
The award might have surprised readers in the United States, where Alexievich is not well-known. Leiderman welcomes the spotlight that comes with her Nobel Prize and predicts that Alexievich will be studied in more courses here. He says now is a good time for students and the world to learn more about Russia, and the university has already moved to meet that need.
Alexievich writes in Russian, and her work is non-fiction. The Nobel committee cited her for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
Leiderman was born and educated in Russia and is one of the leading scholars in Russian postmodern literature and culture. He also chairs the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at CU-Boulder.
Leiderman was pleased with the award, the first time since 1987 that it has gone to an author who writes in Russian. That year, it was awarded to Joseph Brodsky.
“In the current political climate, (the prize is) very important,” Leiderman says. “Although Alexievich writes in Russian, she identifies herself as a Belarusian writer. At the same time, all her books, they reflect upon the Soviet and post-Soviet catastrophe, anthropological catastrophe.”
“This, in my opinion, is very important, because it is also the subject of my research interests,” Leiderman adds. In general, after perestroika, the 1980s Soviet reform movement, perceptions of Russia have been “fogged, and the attraction that was there back in the early 90s is gone.”
Today, Russia is seen as “another strange, typical authoritarian, capitalist country, and there is nothing interesting about it.”
However, “It is still very, very important, and not only Russia but this entire area.”
Alexievich, who writes about Russia and the Soviet Union in “very particular terms,” is much more broadly known in Europe than in the Americas, partly because she lived for a decade in Europe.
I’m pretty confident that with this ‘rediscovery’ of Alexievich, she will be in many other classes, and I hope even be on Russian-language curriculum.”
Current events in Ukraine—which is locked in a military conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels—make Alexievich an important voice, because she is a “true dissident,” Leiderman says.
Alexievich maintains a “very principled position” regarding Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and she is a strong critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and “his imperialist policy.”
At the same time, “She is not in the least nostalgic for the Soviet Union.” One of her books is about the 1986 meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
“For her, the Soviet Union is some kind of historical Chernobyl that still produces contamination and radiation—psychological, historical, political and cultural.”
Some may debate whether each Nobel Literature Laureate “is indeed setting high standards of literature,” Leiderman notes. Previous winners might seem to be lesser writers than some non-winners, including James Joyce, Franz Kafka or Leo Tolstoy.But the Nobel Prize attracts attention. Before the Alexievich won the prize, only three of her books had been translated into English. Now, more are scheduled to be translated, thus making her important work accessible here.
Before this year, Alexievich was studied in only one of CU-Boulder’s courses, on women’s culture in Russia of the 20th century. “I’m pretty confident that with this ‘rediscovery’ of Alexievich, she will be in many other classes, and I hope even be on Russian-language curriculum.”
Alexievich conducts in-depth interviews with real people and uses their real names. “And the power of these books is exactly in the stories that people tell.”
Alexievich’s “cycle of fire” books include two books about World War II and two about the last years of the Soviet period. All of them focus on catastrophic experiences: war, Chernobyl, Afghanistan, people who killed themselves after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, most recently, “people of my generation who were excited and inspired by perestroika … and then felt deceived and betrayed.”
History is typically written from the winners’ perspective. “But there is another side of history, from the standpoint of losers, those who have been defeated, and that is exactly what Alexievich is doing.”
In this respect, Alexievich’s books resonate with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, his monumental account of the Josef Stalin’s prisons and labor camps (and for which he was convicted of treason and expelled from the Soviet Union). Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, but the Gulag Archipelago was published afterwards, in 1973.
“Nevertheless, there is this association between (Solzhenitsyn’s) non-fiction and Alexievich’s non-fiction,” Leiderman says. The fact that Alexievich won the prize as Russia again “becomes a dangerous state and again spreads aggression and nationalism” is probably not a coincidence, Leiderman says, adding:
“It’s highly laudable. It’s very important.”
The importance of Russia is one reason CU-Boulder has beefed up its program in Russian studies. That program, which includes six faculty members, reflects the fact that that Russian is the official language of 148 million people in the Russian Federation.
“It is also an invaluable tool for anyone interested in the newly independent countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union,” the program’s web site states.
One of the program’s purposes is to improve contemporary knowledge of Russia, which Leiderman argues is lacking. When the Ukrainian crisis erupted, “the political commentaries turned out to be very much inadequate,” he observes.
“Suddenly the formulas from the Cold War had been restored, and they do not work. But there is no other conceptual language to analyze this (situation), and there is no good knowledge of the material that is required for sufficient analysis.”
“We will try to contribute to the resolution of this crisis, because it is a crisis,” Leiderman says, adding, “That is probably what the university has to do, to go against this stereotypical, impoverished world view.”
For more information on the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures and its Russian Program, click here.