Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidskiy approves of the granting of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Belarusian Sveltana Alexievich.
Alexievich, the first Russian-speaking winner since Joseph Brodsky in 1987, has long been a favorite for the prize. That said, there’s a clear logic to choosing her now. Born in western Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarussian father, she is the closest thing to a strong Ukrainian author the Nobel committee could find, though she considers herself Belarussian. She is also among the purest and fiercest critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her books document the woeful legacy of the Soviet era, which Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko have tried to repaint in the gaudy colors of imperial glory.
Alexievich joins a very small group of nonfiction writers who have won the prize. Another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose victory told the Communist leadership of the Soviet Union that the world knew the truth, or would like to know it. Alexievich’s selection sends a similar message to Putin’s Kremlin.
She doesn’t see herself as a literary wizard — she has described herself as “an ear, not a pen.” Her works are essentially collections of interviews with hundreds of ordinary people. Reached by the Swedish broadcaster SVT, she said that being honored alongside such great Russian-language writers as Ivan Bunin and Boris Pasternak was “a bit disturbing.” Alexievich’s approach is more journalistic, a style that suits her Belarussian heritage as described in “Chernobyl Prayer,” her stark investigation of the human consequences of the world’s worst nuclear disaster:
We are people of the earth, not of the sky. Our monoculture is potatoes, we dig it, we plant it, and all the time we look down at the earth. Down! And if a person should raise his head, it will be to look no higher than a stork’s nest. Even that is high for him, that is his sky. There is no sky that they call cosmos in our culture. Then we take something from the Russian culture or the Polish one. Now when we get a Tolstoy, a Pushkin, we’ll understand something about ourselves.
Instead, the Belarussians and all the post-Soviet Russian speakers — about 300 million of us — got Alexievich, who finds it hard to lift her eyes from an earth dotted with graves.
Aliaksandr Kudrytski at Bloomberg notes the high stakes in Belarus’ elections.
For an election deemed unnoticeable by international observers, there will be plenty of global attention when Belarus votes for president on Sunday.
Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, 61, is seeking his fifth term against a fractured and weakened opposition, with the country besieged by economic turmoil and an 18-month conflict in neighboring Ukraine. After a campaign international observers called “largely invisible,” a government-sanctioned poll showed Lukashenko’s support at more than 76 percent. The Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in Lithuania found his backing near 46 percent, short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Belarus, wedged between Russia and Poland, is at risk of becoming another geopolitical battleground as the Kremlin wrangles with its former Cold War rivals from Ukraine to Syria. Lukashenko, Europe’s longest-serving leader who’s been in power since 1994, campaigned with the goal of “normalizing” ties with the U.S. and Europe and pushed back against plans by President Vladimir Putin — his closest ally — to set up a military air base in Belarus.
“While toppling Lukashenko would be very difficult for Russia, especially without a plausible alternative candidate waiting in the wings, a rapprochement with Brussels may tip the balance in favor of those advocating regime change in Minsk,” said Daragh McDowell, principal analyst covering Russia and the former Soviet Union at Verisk Maplecroft, a Bath, U.K.-based global risk adviser. “‘Losing’ Belarus so soon after Ukraine would deal a crippling blow to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Europe.”
Window on Eurasia notes the reaction to Alexievich’s selection as signaling Belarusian national identity.
In a commentary today on Grani.ru, 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 (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.244887.html).
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” (echo.msk.ru/blog/minkin/1636924-echo/), as others denounced her for her outspoken opposition to Putin and his authoritarian and imperial rule as “a Solzhenitsyn in skirts” (ruskline.ru/news_rl/2015/10/09/solzhenicyn_v_yubke/).
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: dsnews.ua/society/u-nobelya-antisovetskoe-litso-08102015191000).)
“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.”