Early this morning Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, thus becoming both the first Belarusian and first journalist to win the coveted award. Although Alexievich’s literary work is beautiful and moving, it is grounded in interviews with hundreds of real people. The Nobel committee cited “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” as the reason for her honor. In case you’re wondering what that means, here’s a quick guide to some of Alexievich’s most famous journalistic books.
Voices from Chernobyl
Alexievich’s most famous work is an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster, when a fire at a Ukrainian power plant led to nuclear meltdown. Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people who were affected by the meltdown (firefighters, bystanders, workers) to give voice to the human cost of the disaster. You can read an excerpt that was published in the Paris Review here.
Americans don’t have a very acute sense of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan that lasted from 1979-89, but as Alexievich demonstrates here, its psychological impact was akin to the Vietnam War’s on America. Dead Soviet soldiers were sent back in sealed zinc coffins (hence the book’s title) as the government continued to deny the cost of the war. Alexievich’s response, as with Chernobyl, was to talk to hundreds of people involved and get the real story of how the war affected them. It was deemed controversial by the Soviet government, which is a good sign of the book’s worth.
The Last Witnesses
Alexievich’s initial work mostly focused on telling the story of World War II from the perspective of the women and children who were caught up in it. This account of the so-called “Great War” through child’s eyes appears to be out of print in the United States, but an English excerpt is available on Alexievich’s website. As she writes in her author’s note, Alexievich wrote The Last Witnesses not just to tell those children’s stories but also because “even today someone wants widespread war, a universal Hiroshima, in whose atomic fire children would evaporate like drops of water, wither like terrible flowers.”