Staunton, November 1 – Russians will at some point in the future come to view the period of Vladimir Putin’s rule in their country with the same horror and distaste that Germans now view Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany, according to Svetlana Aleksiyevich, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
Aleksiyevich made that observation and many others in the course of an interview with Poland’s Onet.pl portal (wiadomosci.onet.pl/tylko-w-onecie/swietlana-aleksijewicz-przyjdzie-taki-czas-ze-rosjanom-bedzie-wstyd/p1xlw8; a Russian translation of her words is available at charter97.org/ru/news/2015/10/30/176080/).
She began by saying that Belarusians were extremely pleased by her receipt of the Nobel Prize, something that she says was for her “a shock.” The reaction of many Russians was horrifying but hardly unexpected given her criticism of Putin for his war against Ukraine and the way in which Moscow has greeted most of its writers who have won the Nobel.
But other Russians were pleased and welcomed the decision of the Nobel committee, a reflection, Aleksiyevich says, of the fact that today “Russia is a divided country. There is not one Russia but two, and they are struggling with each other.”
She notes that the Nobel committee gave her the prize “as a Belarusian writer,” but she points out that “I write in Russian and I am the sixth writer with a Nobel who writes in this language.” Like four of the five others, she has been vilified by officials. Only Mikhail Sholokhov who was loyal to Stalin escaped that fate.
But Aleksiyevich continues, “”a time will come when the Russian people will be ashamed of what [Putin] is doing, and it will think about ‘the Putin period’ as an eclipse of the mind just as today Germans remains the 1930s” when Hitler and the Nazis ruled in their country and unleashed wars on others.
At the moment, that may seem improbable, just as it once seemed likely that “Stalin would live forever,” she says. But eventually “time passed and we have been able to assess him.” No one should forget that “dictators – large or small – are temporary figures. Where are Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin now?”
But the people who lived under them remained, and they are the subject of Aleksiyevich’s work. “They even say this about themselves: ‘the Soviet Union doesn’t exist, but we (its citizens) remain.’” And it has been very difficult for them to part company with the myths of the Soviet past.
“I think this is connected with the fact that we democrats didn’t use our chance,” Aleksiyevich adds.
“If you leave the big city for the village or the town, you see horrifying pictures,” she continues. “In Russia, a young generation is growing up whose parents are simple people who do not have anything and cannot educate their children.” They thus “begin to remember times when it wasn’t necessary to have money to study in universities or to be treated by a doctor.”
These people live in a world of myths, and Aleksiyevich says that she sees her task as exposing and dissolving such myths. Her book about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “Zinky Boys,” undermined the claims that Russians are “great and just and everywhere seek to establish peace.”
In fact, “in Afghanistan, Russians were called ‘Soviet Hitlerites.” But many Russians prefer the comfortable myths to the bitter truths and are angry at her and others who try to speak the truth. These people are “hostages” of the regime’s ideology. Russians are “not idiots” but they are constantly bombarded with government propaganda and come to accept it.
A change in the regime in Moscow could dispel these myths or make the situation even worse, Aleksiyevich says. It could happen that “fascists who would be even worse than Putin could come to power,” and they would be “significantly more extremist than Putin. Much more horrible.”
The Nobel laureate says she finds none of this surprising or signaling any final stage in history. That is because she and her friends have read about how Germany appeared when Hitler came to power and how Russia looked when the Bolsheviks did. “We see that all this is the same. Then too no one believed” that either of these marginal groups would come to power.
The same thing was true of Putin’s rise to power. Only a few years ago, he and those who think like him were viewed as marginal as well. People laughed at them, “and no one listened to them. But now they decide everything.” But equally, with time, the other dictators have passed away, and so will he.
Aleksiyevich concludes her interview by saying that she once had a chance to look Putin in the eye, in Paris at a cultural meeting organized by the French government. He “used sweet phrases,” but it was obvious that “this is not a personality of the size of Vaclav Havel, which would be what we would need. In this phase, there was no sign of intellectual heft.”