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The Historian of Emotions

July 11, 2016
Svetlana Alexievich (Photo: Elke Wetzig, CC licence)

Svetlana Alexievich (Photo: Elke Wetzig, CC licence)

Post 6 in a Series on the 2016 Hay Festival

“It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life is,” says Svetlana Alexievich. “There are an endless number of human truths … History’s sole concern is the facts; emotions are out of its realm of interest. I look at the world as a writer, not strictly as a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

Alexievich, from Belarus, is a journalist  and author who has suffered political persecution for her work. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her non-fiction books telling the stories of people experiencing horrendous events. She has conducted thousands of interviews with women, men and children and told their stories in several books:

  • War’s Unwomanly Face: Russian women who participated in the Second World War as nurses, doctors, soldiers and snipers.
  • Zinky Boys: The Record of a Lost Soviet Generation: the men and women sent to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
  • Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster: Alexievich interviewed firefighters, members of the clean-up team, doctors, politicians and people affected by the fallout. Chernobyl is in Ukraine, but Belarus received 70% of the radionuclides and lost 485 villages and settlements.
  • Secondhand Time is about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

ChernobylSecond-hand Time was the main focus of her session at Hay. The USSR was divided between executioners and victims, she says, but they were the same people. Evil is not just Stalin and Hitler. It’s also the beautiful Auntie you’ve always loved but who, you discover, informed on another family member. Evil is dispersed.

About the Soviet collapse, she says that if you are living in a prison camp, it’s naïve to believe that the country will be different after your release. But there is a difference – once it was trial by concentrations camps, now it is trial by money.

The Guardian website has comprehensive page on Alexievich and her work, including extracts. The extract from Voices From Chernobyl reveals writing that is both gut-wrenching and hypnotic – you recoil from the horror, but must read on because she brings you so close to the people caught up in the disaster.

I felt privileged to spend an hour in the presence of this courageous woman.

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