Thursday, December 24, 2015

Belarusians are Losing Their Sense of Fear, Aleksiyevich Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 24 – There is a still “a conspiracy of silence” about her in Belarus, Nobel laureate Svetlana Aleksiyevich says, but “the feeling of fear” that had characterized many of her countrymen until recently is now “disappearing,” a development that gives hope that there will be positive changes ahead.

            In an interview with the BBC today, Aleksiyevich says that she believes the Nobel Foundation chose her because it recognizes the importance of journalism in a rapidly changing world, that she has enjoyed her celebrity, but that she is eager to get back to work on two new books  (   

            She says that one of the reasons she has returned to Belarus is that there she is enveloped by “a conspiracy of silence,” one in which the official media treats her as if she does not exist.  “But because we do not have a border with Russia, [her] books come out there … and [she] doesn’t feel cut off from her readers.”

            “If in Belarus time has stopped as it were – we still live under conditions of a mix of socialism and an imperial presidency … then in Russia this absolutely pure experiment has been carried out to the end. A red individual remains after the red empire,” someone who is ready to shift to fascism and militarism.” Belarus is only partially in that world.

            Aleksiyevich says that Varlam Shalamov, whom she considers the best writer of the 20th century, brilliantly and presciently observed in his “Kolyma Stories” that “the experience of the camps corrupts both jailer and victim.”  Neither can leave them behind and immediately become free. “Freedom is not Swiss chocolate … it is a state of being, of habits of life which we absolutely do not have.”

            Everyone, east and west, was “naïve in the 1990s” when people thought that if the communists were gone “we would be free. It has turned out that to go to freedom is a path,a long path.”  And that is what Aleksiyevich says she tried to capture in her book, “Second Hand Time.”

            Some countries, like Poland and the Baltic states, “have been able to avoid what is occurring in Belarus and Russia. Clearly, there is a different historical memory and different mental habits. Here that wasn’t so.”

            The West had naïve expectations about the ease of the transition as well, but soon Russia’s history and size began to trouble it and for pragmatic reasons, many began to think once again about defending themselves against it.  A chance to change all this was missed and now the world must again wait for developments.

            But the West must not just wait, she continues. It must help create a civil society in Russia, and “what is the main thing now, it must not give Russia the chance to fight in Ukraine and further unleash a civil war there. Here too the West must conduct itself in a more decisive fashion than it has.”

            Literature can play a role in this transformation, Aleksiyevich says, albeit a “more modest” one than many think. In Soviet times, people read Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago in samizdat, but when they could do so freely, they stopped doing so. Obviously Russia was better off because of what he wrote and what some read, but the world wasn’t transformed.

            Reflecting about her own role, Aleksiyevich says that her goal is not to catalogue the horrors of her time but rather the manifestations of the human spirit because what people need always but especially now is “the courage simply to live.” Idealism can make this possible, and a writer who shines light on these possibilities can help.

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