An Interview with Śviatłana Aleksiejevič

David Marples and Yulia Shymko

        In 1998, we interviewed Śviatłana Aleksiejevič, at that time best known as one of Belarus’ dissident writers though beginning to achieve prominence. In 2015 she achieved instant world fame by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The interview still contains much of relevance to contemporary Belarus and thus it seemed worthy of reprinting.

Q. Maybe we could begin with current politics? I would like to ask how you see Belarus today and how do you view the present regime? Is it difficult to work here and what are the problems for journalists or the prospects for a free press?

A. First of all I want to say that it has always been difficult to work here. I have been working as a journalist for the past 25 years–30 even. My first book was Ya uezhal iz derevni (I was leaving the village). It was about the people who had to leave their villages because of government policies. The Central Committee did not permit its publication in the literary journal Novyi Mir. My second book, U voyny ne zhenskoe litso (War has no woman’s face), caused much indignation. I was accused of being unpatriotic, pacifistic, a person ignorant of the leading role of the Communist Party, etc. Only when Gorbachev came to power was the book published in the journal Oktyabr in Moscow. The same procedure occurred with the book Poslednie svideteli (The last witnesses) about the children of war.

It is a fact that the intellectual in our society is fated to be at risk. One can say that he exists in two conflicts. On the one hand, there is the conflict with the authorities — the most common subject of discussion — and on the other, the conflict with the mass consciousness, which is much worse. Łukašenka’s regime is possible only because of the existing mass consciousness to which it appeals and on which it can place its foundations.

My third book was Tsinkovye mal’chiki (Tin boys [aka Zinky Boys]) about the war in Afghanistan. I couldn’t publish it for a long time. All organizations — communist, military, patriotic — just exploded with anger. Four years later here in Belarus, which has always been the vanguard of socialism, the authorities organized what was termed a political court action against the book and the author. But, thank God, it was already the Kiebich-Shuskievich period [late 1991-1993]. With the help of the world and literary community the case was stopped.

You cannot circumvent this mass consciousness because it has never been much disturbed, and it doesn’t move forward. That is our biggest problem. Look at our opposition — it has no new ideas, there are no intellectuals there. These people try to resolve the problems of the late 20th century using the methods of 1905 and 1917. That is the tragedy of our nation. In my view, Zianon Pazniak is a man who has brought for our opposition more harm than good. He’s made the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) a kind of sect. Eight years ago the intelligentsia would with great enthusiasm have followed him, but today how many people can the BPF bring into the streets — two or three hundred? Only since Pazniak left the country has the BPF become more tolerant and willing to compromise, and some positive changes have taken place. But it still faces the problem of a leader.

Now, a few words about the war in Chechnya. Only once this war began [Russia’s invasion of December 1994] did people realize that today’s soldier bears little relation to the soldier of 1945. We do not even suspect what a militaristic nation we are. We have never lived without a war — either we were at war or preparing for one. That is why it is really difficult to take away from society this “favorite” toy. You will at once become a perjurer who is detested by all. In fact, my main opponent is not Łukašenka, it is the existing mass consciousness. We know how to fight against the authorities, we even have particular cultural and other traditions of such a struggle, this is not the most complex conflict for us. Though it’s unfortunate that we are losing our sense of historical time. No, the worst thing here is the crowd that hasn’t changed over the past 10-13 years.

It isn’t fair to blame Łukašenka for everything. We should start from the grassroots rather than the upper levels of society. We cannot comprehend our own people. I am alien to my people. Of course, I am not alienated from the best part of society, those teachers who have the courage to talk about my books and the like. But I cannot overcome the ignorance of the mass consciousness. Demythologization is always condemned in such a patriarchal, conservative, and even corrupted society in which no one wishes to think for themselves. This is a very serious topic for discussion and yet it’s quite hard for me to talk about it.

Recently, I was talking with Khadyka [Yuri Khadyka, deputy leader of the Belarusian Popular Front], who invited me to make a speech at a Chernobyl meeting. I asked him if he had read my book because there are a lot of new and interesting materials therein that could be used by the opposition. He hadn’t read it. He intended to make a report about the perfidy of the Russian authorities who had shot down a radioactive cloud over Mahiloŭ (Mahileu). What can I say? We have been discussing this cloud for the past ten years. You just see the absence of elementary analytical skills; the intellectuals have no idea what they should do. Everything has been transformed either into political tourism or the culture of mourners. Suffering is a perfect resort, an excuse for being passive. That is the main sin of our Belarusian intellectuals. Instead of spreading hatred and intolerance among people, we should do our best to try to change mass consciousness.

In the first place we idealize our people, and then at the same time we call them bydlo (the cattle) and sovok (the Sovietized types). Is that fair? And if not, how can we overcome 200 years of an imposed culture and mentality? Today in Russia and Belarus intellectuals realize that they are completely feeble, that is why we must work for the future. We must analyze the mistakes of the past in order to propose new resolutions for society. Quite suddenly we were presented with freedom and independence, but we had no experience and no leaders who were able to take advantage of this turn of events. It was very convenient to blame Russia for everything first of all. Then we began to talk about Europe. Europe doesn’t know what to do with our goods or with us specifically. We do not comprehend that Europe is a highly competitive market.

Let me provide an example. One of my friends, who used to work as a highly qualified scientist in the Academy of Sciences, is now manufacturing iron boxes for medical goods in the Czech Republic. That is our place in Europe. A metaphor. That is why it is so ridiculous to observe this national romanticism.

Ideas are the key to success. If a leader appeared today with new ideas, people would undoubtedly vote for him. Ideas are our main task that is not being fulfilled. But of course this doesn’t mean that I should immediately run to the nearest demonstration shouting out the slogans of the opposition. We have to change our mentality using other tools. We have to overcome the habit: “If I cannot have it, then no one deserves it.”

My eternal question is: who are we? What kind of people are we? What is human nature? Should one just do one’s job in spite of the hatred and contempt of the crowd? Unfortunately, life is too short. People here live in a world of illusions, and if you try to break them they will never forgive you. Recently, prices have started rising again, some products are in short supply, but this situation appears more normal for people than when stores are full. Herein lies the tragedy. Certainly it would be preferable to have Vaclav Havel as president, someone who permits society to progress without provoking its worst features. But, on the other hand, Łukašenka simply reflects the cultural and mental backwardness of our people.

Q. It is like the old Russian populism, when you have the people and the leader and no one in between.

A. Yes, that’s right. Just imagine. In three years one person can construct a different country. There is no civil society here. The person at the top makes all the decisions. Thirteen years ago such mentality allowed Gorbachev to transform the Soviet system. Then Łukašenka became president of Belarus and destroyed everything. Everyone knows that he is a paranoiac, but we are helpless because of the structure of our system in which all decisions are made by 2-3 people at the top. Add to this his ambition for the Kremlin, to become a new Slavic leader, and all his Freudian complexes, and we have what we have. It is a waste of time even discussing it.

Q. So what is to be done?

A. Let’s just do our jobs. We live in a country of semi-professionals. Now I think it is time to become professionals and forget about revolutions. We do not need them, there is always too much blood and violence. All our parties only have one goal: to take power. But afterward, who will build roads and clean the streets?

Q. Do you think that the younger generation thinks the same way?

A. They are our last hope. But we shouldn’t have too much confidence in them; they are taught at the same old schools, by the same teachers and with the same ideological books. It will take a long time to reconstruct society. As far as this younger generation is concerned, most of them are going to leave the country. Don’t expect miracles. Perhaps in 50-70 years time. But I doubt that Belarus will become independent from Russia. We were discussing Europe; Belarus is separated from Europe by Poland and the Poles consider Belarus historically as part of Poland. I think that this historical period was also a tragic one.

First published in Belarusian Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall 1998; pp. 12-14

Yulia Shymko (Shimko) is an Assistant Professor at the Vlerick Business School. Bruges, Belgium

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