Breaking the Silence: A Nobel Laureate’s Study of Emotions

© Photo M. Kabakova

Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy on October 8th 2015. She is the first non-fiction writer in half a century and the first journalist ever to receive such a prestigious award. By interviewing those who have witnessed wars and catastrophes, she collected accounts of human suffering surrounding painful moments in Soviet-Russian history.

Svetlana Alexievich was born on May 31, 1948 in the west Ukrainian town of Stanislaviv and later moved to Belarus. After graduating with a degree in journalism and trying her hand in writing short stories, she chose a literary style in which human voices speak for themselves, tell their stories, and recount the main events of their lives. When asked what is unique about her books, she said: “I’m writing a history of human feelings. What people thought, understood and remembered during an event. What they believed in or mistrusted, what illusions, hopes and fears they experienced”.

For each book, she interviewed around 500 people and then took three to four years to put together a comprehensive collection of voices for particular events in history. Her chronicles range from the memories of women fighting in the Soviet Army during World War II, “The Unwomanly Face of War”, to an oral history of the Chernobyl disaster, “Voices from Chernobyl”. She has also written about the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Second-Hand Time”, through a collection of interviews with witnesses. Alexievich described her entire body of work as a “story of one Soviet-Russian soul”.

“A History of Emotions”

In their announcement of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy praised Alexievich for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, added that “it’s a true achievement not only in material but also in form” and that her work amounts to “a history of emotions — a history of the soul, if you wish”.

The history of emotions comes alive particularly in her first book, “The Unwomanly Face of War” (1985), in which female soldiers serving in the Soviet Army during World War II had their chance to speak up about their experiences. According to Alexievich, her motive for writing this book was to explore a different side of war. In the past, men had plenty of opportunities to tell their stories, focusing mainly on descriptions of decisive battles and the weapons used to achieve victory. In comparison, Alexievich thought that women’s memories were full of intense feelings and pain and thus offered a different perspective.

Fear of Memories

Sadly, female veterans of the Soviet Army have kept silent about their experiences for decades. The reason for this silence was their fear to assert themselves in a patriarchal society. One woman told Alexievich in an interview that she shredded her papers proving that she was a disabled war veteran.

Who would marry me like this?” she said in despair. In fact, many female soldiers could not find husbands after the war. A former member of the Soviet Army explained a possible reason for that: “I can’t imagine my wife as a sniper. I would have gone on a reconnaissance mission with such a woman, but I would never have married her. We are used to seeing women as mothers and brides.”                                                                                              

The Soviet authorities, however, were afraid of the “ugly side” of armed conflicts depicted in “The Unwomanly Face of War”: dirt, rats, diseases, injuries and death. This contradicted the official Soviet propaganda which used patriotic symbols and accounts of the heroic victory over Nazi Germany to bolster support for the regime. Thus, all books or articles were carefully censored to prevent the release of stories of Stalin’s early incompetence, the defeats and the heavy cost of victory.

In the early 1980s, Alexievich fell victim to this policy while trying to get “The Unwomanly Face of War” published. She was forced to meet with a representative of the Soviet censorship body to discuss which interviews had to be excluded. In the latest edition of her book released in 2013, she dedicated an entire chapter to examples of such interviews and what the censor had to say about them:

Everywhere we looked – Germans. We decided: We will try it in the morning. We will die anyway, better it happens in battle. We had three girls with us. During the night, they went to everyone who was still able…


  • You are humiliating women with your primitive naturalism. Heroes. Depose them. Make them into ordinary women. But these women are saints.


Ahead of us: The first German villages. We were young. Strong. Four years without women. In the cellars wine, food. We caught German girls and… Ten men raped one. Today, I can’t understand how I could have ever participated in something like this. The only thing we were afraid of was that our girls would find out. Our nurses. We were ashamed in front of them.


  • This is a lie! You are slandering our soldiers, who liberated half of Europe. We don’t need your version of history, we need the bigger picture. The history of our victory. You don’t love anybody. You don’t love our great ideas. The ideas of Marx and Engels.


Alexievich stood up against Soviet and post-Soviet authorities by focusing on controversial historical events and trying to give people, who have survived terrible tragedies, a platform to freely express their memories and emotions. However, she often had to pay a high price for these efforts. She was fired from her job after accusations of expressing an “anti-communist attitude” had been brought against her. She also had to defend herself in a Belarusian court in 1992 and 1996 for publishing first-hand accounts from the Afghan War in her book, “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War”. Even now, she is not allowed to release or promote her books in Belarus. Despite this harsh treatment from officials in her home country, Alexievich presses on. Currently, she is finishing her book “The Wonderful Deer of the Eternal Hunt”, which will focus on a more cheerful part of human life:  falling in love.

The piece was originally published in the November 2015 edition of 1Line.

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