HAY-ON-WYE, Wales (AP) — In the view of Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Russia is taking refuge in ideas from its Soviet past, but this nostalgia collides with newer, darker forces.
In an interview with The Associated Press at the Hay Festival of literature, the 68-year-old Alexievich assessed what she has learned from decades of talking with the ordinary people of the Soviet Union and the countries that emerged after its 1991 collapse.
Alexievich books are full of compelling voices that shout angrily, drone in despair and occasionally exult. Alexievich edits her interviews rigorously and crafts their disparate voices into a compelling vision of the human condition.
Her polyphonic reporting on what she calls “Red Civilization” won the 2015 literature prize in something of a departure for the Nobel committee, which usually honors poetry or fiction.
Her latest work, “Second-Hand Time,” recently published in English, describes the years since the Soviet collapse. What emerges from the voices across the post-Soviet world is bitter disappointment in wasted opportunities and broken promises.
“Our shops are full of all sorts of stuff. An abundance. But heaps of salami have nothing to do with happiness. Or glory. We used to be a great nation! Now we are nothing but peddlers and looters …” says Elena, a middle-aged Russian woman in the book.
“What could they turn to, these common people who do not think in terms of strategy as politicians do? What could they recollect? Only their past, they had nothing else,” said Alexievich.
Her open manner and friendly gaze have helped her gain the trust of her subjects. There are intimate accounts of unrequited love, violence, alcoholism, self-immolation, imprisonment, betrayal and regret.
There are also tales of idealism, friendship, long marriages and material success, but these are far fewer.
“I write my books at moments of shock, I meet people in extremis and their stories are highly emotionally charged,” she said. It is crucial to record these moments of raw emotion to get at the truth before protective layers of cynicism and selfishness develop, she said.
Her other books include “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future,” an account of how people adapted to the nuclear disaster and “War’s Unwomanly Face,” about women who fought against Nazi Germany. After that book, her first, she endured repression and periods of exile from her native Belarus.
It’s not just people who lived under Soviet rule who have refashioned memories of a once-glorious nation, making these second-hand ideas their own, said Alexievich, who travelled across Russia to collect interviews for the latest book. She met young and old people who “nearly all spoke about the past, they liked the past and there was nostalgia for the past.”
Dismayed by the failures of democracy and the loss of an empire, people have turned to the blend of patriotism and materialism offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is not the cause but the symptom of the condition she calls the “Red Person,” she said.
“Putin has mobilized and gathered the desires of millions upon millions of people who have been lied to, cheated, who lost out in the new order of things — and in each of these people is a bit of Putin. They have come together to make the image we know as Putin. Putin himself is just the tip of an iceberg,” said Alexievich.
The “Red Person” is resurgent in a society which has found no new ideas to replace Communism, but is not the idealist of early communism. This person is a hybrid who wants the new freedom to travel but also hankers for a time the Soviet Union was a military power, feared and respected around the world.
As one unnamed voice in her book says: “Russia is, has always been, and will always be an empire. We’re not just a big country, we’re the Russian civilization. We have our own path.”
“The Lord sent us Putin,” another says.
“We have this link with religion and here there are dark forces,” Alexievich said. She sees worsening attitudes to LGBT rights as just one aspect of an increasingly primitive conservatism in the post-Soviet world.
“‘Russians have adopted another old idea said Alexeivich: fear as a way of life,” she said.
“The Gulag was a much more shocking fear. Fear today is hidden in the inertia of everyday life,” she said. “There is the fear that you will stand out from the crowd; informing and spy-mania have come back.”
Only in Ukraine does Alexievich see hope for a break with “Red civilization.” With two revolutions in a decade, she sees Ukrainians determined to break out of post-Soviet ways.
For much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, her prognosis is less sanguine.
“Communism has not died. We naively thought in the ’90s we had buried communism but this is not true. It is not dead and it will be coming back,” and this is what keeps her writing, she said.
Post-Soviet society must discuss its past honestly, said Alexievich, but she doubts whether its people have the will and strength to do so.
“I think it is connected with so much blood, so much suffering , human loss and mass graves. People are scared by this, and for this reason they want to turn away, back to their own private lives saying ‘I don’t want to know this,'” she said.