Friday, October 9, 2015

Belarusian Literature – 1; Putin’s ‘Russian World’ – 0

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 9 – Just as was the case with Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Svetlana Aleksiyevich, a Belarusian author and opposition figure who writes in Russian, represents a victory for Belarusian literature and a defeat for the Russian regime now in power in Moscow.

In a commentary today on, Vitaly Portnikov makes this point clear in a survey of the reaction to Aleksiyevich’s award in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and in his assessment of what this says about the state of Belarusian literature and even more important of the Belarusian nation (

In many ways, he suggests, the reactions of people in the three Slavic countries was entirely predictable. In Belarus, the official media treated the event in a very low key manner because Aleksiyevich is an opponent of Alyaksandr Lukashenka even though she is the first Belarusian writer to win this prize.

In Russia, there were some who wanted to claim Aleksiyevich’s prize as “a victory of Russian literature” (, as others denounced her for her outspoken opposition to Putin and his authoritarian and imperial rule as “a Solzhenitsyn in skirts” (

And in Ukraine, as Portnikov notes, some wanted to claim her as a Ukrainian because she was born in Ivano-Frankivsk. (Although he doesn’t mention it, some Ukrainian commentators at the very least wanted to interpret her award as a slap in the face of Russia:

“Beyond any doubt,” Portnikov says, “Svetlana Aleksiyevich is a Belarusian writer. Belarusian to the same degree that Joyce and Yates are Irish writers, Mark Twain and Hemingway are American, Marquez is Columbian and Llosa, Peruvian.”

“In the contemporary world,” he continues, a writer is defined not by his or her language but by “a civilizational choice.” One can call Aleksiyevich a Russian writer “only in the world of Russian swaggering, but in this boring little world of Prokhanovs, Prilepiins and the like … there is in general no place for a genuine literary figure.”

Consequently, “instead of taking pride in a new achievement of Russian culture, it is better to simply and honestly be pleased for Belarus and Aleksiyevich,” Portnikov says.  The award to her reminds the world about ‘the blood lands’ to the west of Russia and about the people who live their lives” there generally out of the view of the world.

That world was and is one where many have not been allowed to choose their language and instead have been forced to use the language of the empires which have controlled it at various points.  But Aleksiyevich has made a self-conscious choice to use Russian and she has good reasons for it, Portnikov says.

Some Belarusian language commentators are already asking why she isn’t writing in Belarusian and “what will happen with this language if even the Nobel Prize committee agrees with the notion that the best in Belarusian culture is being written in another language” than the national one?”

“I assure you,” the Ukrainian commentator continues, “that everything is in order with the Belarusian language and culture and that we are already approaching the moment when the empire finally will weaken its creepy tentacles and leave Belarus in peace.” And Aleksiyevich has made a mighty contribution to the coming of that day.

Belarusian literature has always been deeply rooted in the land rather than in any empire, he argues, because “its main task has been the preservation of Belarus under conditions when the main goal of the empire was to destroy Belarus, to deprive this beautiful peaceful land of its own worldviews, culture, and language.”

The Belarusian writer decided in advance to “lay down a challenge to this empire, a real challenge, the force of which can be felt only with the help of the language which the empire itself uses,” Pornitkov continues.  Might she have done so in Belarusian? “Of course,” but then she would not have had the audience she wanted and has.

Her subject is empire and the evils it has inflicted on the good people of small nations and states. And given that, he asks, how could she write in any other language than in the language of those of the empire responsible?  The same choice should be made by anyone writing about the travails the Belarusian language has suffered and why.

For all these reasons and others besides, Portnikov concludes, it is important to insist that Aleksiyevich is “not the sixth Russian Nobel laureate in literature.” No, she is “the first Nobel laureate from Belarus, a vital and living indication that Belarus exists – and will triumph” in the end.


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