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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 18, New Delhi, April 23, 2016

Svetlana Alexievich: A Warrior for Peace

Monday 25 April 2016, by Sagari Chhabra

I must confess that I first heard of Svetlana Alexievich when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. A woman journalist winning a Nobel Prize is in itself newsworthy, but who is this woman and what kind of books does she write?—I wondered. Alexievich is certainly an unfamiliar name to English-speaking readers, so probing into her background revealed that she is a journalist and author who was born on May 31, 1948 in the Ukranian town of Ivano-Frankovsk. Her Belarussian father was an Army serviceman and her mother was Ukranian. When her father was decommissioned from the Army, her parents settled in a village as school teachers. While still at school, she started working on the local paper in the town of Narovl, and went on to a career in journalism after graduating from the Belarussian State University. She has explored conflict and its impact on the psyche of the people for over thirty years and her work is based on gathering thousands of oral testimonies in a quest ‘to get to the closest approximation of real life’. Her writings, based on the Soviet war in Afgha-nistan and the people affected by radioactivity after the Chernobyl disaster, have led to her persecution by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, compelling her to leave Belarus in 2000 and forcing her to live in exile in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin. She was able to return to Minsk only in 2011.

A search on the internet gave me a list of her writings: five books, three plays and over twenty screenplays for documentary films. However, most of her writings was simply not available —even well after the Nobel Prize had been announced. Finally, after considerable effort, I laid my hands on two English translations from the original Russian: Zinky Boys (first published in the Soviet Union in 1990 and translation in English by Julia and Robin Whitby, W.W Norton & Company, 1992) and Voices From Chernobyl (first published in 1997, translation in English by Keith Gessen, Dalkey Archive Press, 2005).

The struggle of memory over forgetting is the struggle of power, as Milan Kundera has so memorably written. Alexievich’s strength lies in gathering oral testimonies of ordinary people —soldiers, firemen, husbands, wives, mothers, children—all of whom are witnesses of war or the nuclear aftermath. Zinky Boys is about stories of Soviet soldiers at war in Afghanistan, many of whom have ended up coming home in zinc coffins. She explains a soldier’s account of being at the dentist with his mouth full of blood, yet still wanting to say something. He says: “Everyone thinks of us like that, mouths full of blood and we still want to talk.” But talk they must because if we forget we perish, if we remember, we survive! Alexievich not only gets them to talk, but also bare their souls and the written account—with pauses, whimsical punc-tuation, ellipses and abrupt stops—is not a history of events but a history of emotions.

Alexievich confesses she had reached her nadir trying to cope with war, and writes: ‘I never want to write another word about war, I [had] told myself.’ After all, she had earlier written ‘War’s Unwomanly Face’, a book containing oral histories of women who had participated in the Second World War, as foot- soldiers, snipers, doctors and nurses. Then two unnerving incidents occurred. She gave ride to a little girl around her hometown. When they reached the girl’s home, she ran to her mama who cried, ‘Oh, my baby. We’ve had a letter. Our Andrei in Afghanistan. Ohhh… They’re sending him home like they did Ivan Fedorinov. A little child needs a little grave … But my Andrei was as big as an oak and over six foot… Oh, why? Why can anyone tell me? Why?’ And then again, Alexievich is at a half-empty bus station when she sees a young boy taking a fork and digging into a potted plant. An officer was escorting the young soldier home who had obviously lost his mental balance. The officer explained that the boy had been digging ever since he left Kabul—with a stick, a pen, a fork or anything he could find. All the while the boy kept muttering: “Got to dig a trench, got to hide… brotherly graves we called them… I’ll dig a nice trench for you all.” She writes: ‘It was the first time I saw pupils as big as the eyes themselves.’ Her witnessing the trauma that both the girl and the young soldier were undergoing, nudges her to go to Afghanistan to research the aftermath of the war.

The oral testimonies are painful, but what comes through is that it is all just the same, whether it’s the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam and Iraq or the Soviet boys in Afghanistan, the impact of war is ugly, brutal and senseless. Alexievich converts the quotidian ordinariness of violence into an extraordinary moving document of loss. The sham heroism of war is exposed in the stories of loss of memory and as an officer, who has had both his limbs amputated, recounts: “Even if I do regain my memory I will have two selves: one what they tell me about and what I see of myself.”

ALEXIEVICH’S tour de force is obviously Voices From Chernobyl which is a blast into the future considering the almost missionary zeal with which the world, including India, has embraced the nuclear technology. On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear reactor malfunctioned. While the Soviet Government claims only 31 people died as a result, the aftermath was horrific and still continues. Over 485 villages are lost and approximately 2.1 million people live on contaminated land. Alexievich spent three years collecting oral testimonies of the survivors. Her motivation to do so is best revealed in her own words:

‘Why repeat the facts—they cover up our feelings. The development of these feelings, the spilling of these feelings past the facts is what fascinates me. I try to find them, collect them, protect them. These people had already seen what for everyone else is unknown[italics mine]. I felt like I was recording the future.’

It is impossible to read this book without being moved. The testimonies are a shroud of suffering, but the shroud speaks to you directly. Here is the account of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of the young fireman, Vasily Ignatenko, who had responded to a ‘routine’ call for duty when the Chernobyl blast occurred.

‘He started to change—every day I met a brand new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks—at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers in white film…The colour of his face… his body… blue… red… gray-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. I loved him! I had no idea how much! We’d just gotten married...’

There are poignant exchanges with the nursing staff.

‘I tell the nurse on duty: “He’s dying.” And she says to me: “What do you expect? He got 1600 roentgen. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You are sitting next to a nuclear reactor.”’ [italics mine]

Lyudmilla shares how she struggled to care for him despite the risk to her own health and that she had wilfully hidden the fact that she was pregnant.
“The last few days in the hospital… pieces of his lung, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs… When he died they had to dress him up for the burial… there was not a whole body to put it on… it was all wounds.”

What happened to the unborn child?—one wonders as one reads on breathlessly. The new life is born and she’s a girl! She names her Natashenka, because as she exults, her father named her Natashenka. She recalls: “The child looked healthy but she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had 28 roentgen. And four hours later they told me she was dead. And again: we won’t give her to you. What do you mean you won’t give her to me? It’s me who won’t give her to you! You want to take for science. I hate your science! I hate it!”

One can almost hear her screaming—for her husband, for her child, for her own life!

Lyudmilla Ignatenko’s story doesn’t quite end here. She gets married again and this time has another baby. He’s a boy and he’s born without a right arm. She says: ’He’s also sick, two weeks in school, two weeks at home with a doctor. That’s how we live. There are so many of us here. A whole street. That’s what it’s called Chernoby-lskya… they have bad diseases, there are invalids… but I was telling you about love.
About my love.’

The testimony reveals the human predicament in the face of the relentless march towards development at all costs, while embracing a technology that has the potential of annihilating mankind. There is a testimony by Pyotr S., a psychologist who says: “I travelled to the Chernobyl Zone. I’ve been there many times now. And understood how powerless I am. I’m falling apart… the future is destroying me, not the past.”

Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, a father, says: “I want to bear witness.” That explains why people who have undergone suffering want to remember, they wish to place their feelings on record. He says: ‘People look at you differently… What did you see? And you know, can you have children? Did your wife leave you? At first we were all turned into animals… we didn’t just lose our town, we lost our whole lives…. My daughter was six years old. I’m putting her to bed and she whispers in my ear: “Daddy, I want to live, I’m still little!” And I had thought she didn’t understand anything… they brought a little coffin. It was small, like a box for a large doll. I want to bear witness: my daughter died from Chernobyl and they want us to forget about it.’

There is another chapter titled “Monologues By Those Who Returned”. Here is a small extract:

‘Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.

‘And what happens to those who lived? Shares Katya P. : “‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid to love. I have a fiancé, we already [sic] registered in the house of deeds. Have you ever heard of Hibakusha of Hiroshima? The ones who survived after the bomb. They can only marry each other. No one writes about it here, no one talks about it, but we exist.The Chernobyl Hibakusha.”’

ALEXIEVICH records how sparrows disappeared from the town in the first year after the accident and were found lying around in the yards and on the asphalt. She mentions that the people were not allowed to burn the leaves but had to bury them as they too were radioactive. What Alexievich has done with commitment, courage and compassion is to rake open the feelings buried under. But in doing so this modern-day Socrates has raised a cup of poison to her lips, she now suffers from an auto-immune disease acquired during the course of her research. About her own work Alexievich has said in an interview: ‘

‘I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotised me, I wanted to capture it on paper. I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions... This is how I see the world —as a chorus of independent voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function...’

To assess Alexievich’s work within the parameters of literature would be to undervalue her monumental contribution. Her work, like the radioactive waves of Chernobyl, goes beyond borders, stretches beyond the present, into the unimaginable future. Its piercing cries of sorrow are a cry for sanity, urging us to place humanity above the craze for an energy-fuelled paradigm of development.

One must read Alexievich’s work to learn of secret stories instead of the official histories and lies that the state tells us. It is imperative to read Voices From Chernobyl to be reminded that the land, air and water are inextricably linked and they enter your very soul; pure or contaminated. We make our future by the collective choices we make today, however quotidian those choices may be.

Svetlana Alexeivich’s work must be read today in the context of India’s aggressive nuclear policy and that the Kakrapar nuclear plant has developed a fault. According to the former chief of India’s nuclear regulator, Dr A. Gopalakrishan, who has sent out an urgent note published on, a loss of coolant accident might be underway in Gujarat’s Kakrapar Nuclear Power Station and that a loss of coolant accident is the most serious accident that can happen and can lead to a nuclear meltdown.

Sagari Chhabra is a poet, playwright, author and an award-winning film-maker. Her latest book, In Search of Freedom—Journeys through India and South-East Asia, has recently won the national Laadli Media Award.

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