“A tenement house is not enough” – an interview with Svetlana Alexievich

– Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.” We are all captives of “men’s” notions and “men’s” sense of war – Svetlana Alexievich wrote. The Belarusan writer decided to change it. Her book “The Unwomanly Face of War” is a shocking testimony to hundreds of women fighting in the ranks of the Red Army during World War II. Alexievich’s book, which was recently published in Poland, has already received wide coverage in Europe. But, most importantly, the author succeeded in what she wanted to achieve above all – “to write a book about war that would make war sickening, and the very thought of it repulsive. Insane. So that even the generals would be sickened”. In this interview, Svetlana Alexievich speaks about the dominance of the male perspective, about hiding behind the husbands’ backs and the lack of a superior idea in the contemporary world.

* The interview was conducted in 2011 in Poznań, directly after the release of the book “The unwomanly face of war” in Poland. In 2015, Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for her many years of documenting life in the Soviet reality.

Eliza Kania: In one of the interviews, you said that there is currently no idea that would be worth someone’s life. Does this mean that it once existed?

Svetlana Alexievich: For the people, I write about in my book “The Unwomanly Face of War” it was a homeland. These women didn’t defend Stalin, they defended their homeland. Later the idea of victory was linked to Stalin who offered his variant of war to the world. The world could not be deceived, but only later did the truth begin to come to light. The truth is only now breaking through, the suffering of these women. For example, a story told in my book – a girl who refused to defame Stalin and gave her life for it. Now that would not be possible. Everyone values their lives, the time of political ideals has passed. Everyone would now be ready to say that Putin is a shit.

So, did it use to be different?

In Soviet schools, no one taught us to live. We were taught how to die. We wrote essays on how we would die for our homeland.

In your statements, the notion of a “compulsory vacuum” appears. Is there anything, any value that can fill it up?

This is a very complex problem that applies to all countries of the post-soviet area. Russia is trying to fill it with religion. In Belarus, it’s impossible, it’s an atheistic society. In Russia, the church is treated as a part of the state power. Similarly military parades: this is the only thing that can justify the Stalinist era. But the issue is that Russians need a superior idea. As Dostoyevsky wrote: “a tenement house is not enough”, the idea is needed. As long as the struggle against communism lasted, people were ready to endure greyness, the asceticism of life. Now we have nothing. As Ilia Kabakov wrote, “we have to live with rats”.

You say that your books describe the “Soviet soul.” What exactly is it?

For 30 years I wrote 5 books. But the thing is, it’s actually one book. I hate, I do not accept the term homosovieticus. There are reluctance and refusal behind it. We give up thinking while we accept this term. The life of a human in the socialist period is too complex to humiliate him or her. That’s why I tend to ask, in Germany, Romania or Poland: can you call your mother by homosovieticus? Homosovieticus is a phenomenon that has many faces.

And how would you describe the current situation in Belarus?

Łukašenka doesn’t think about Belarus, he thinks about his place in history. What’s happening in Russia today is wild capitalism, whereas what’s happening in Belarus I would call imperialist socialism. In the elections, 50/60% vote for Lukashenko. He gives them what they need – to live peacefully. It is said that there are two Polands. In the same way, there are two faces of Belarus. We have never had our own state before, we do not have a national idea. Belarus is a peasant society. We have five big cities, and these small ones live their own lives. This is the problem of political opposition. There won’t be a revolution in our country. The revolutionary program is unrealistic. This is our tragedy. There is no elite in Belarus. Our problem is that we are being wiped all out.

Svetlana Alexievich in Afghanistan

One of the female soldiers described in your book said: “After the war, I hid behind my husband.” What is the situation of women in Belarus now? Do they still have to hide behind men?

Yes, there’s an absolutely male culture here, in which they say a woman must know her place. Just take a look at the president. This is the absolute macho culture. This is evident when you observe the behaviour of men in the parliament where, by the way, are very few women. These are some ritual figures. In Soviet times, women had a more powerful voice than now. It’s not powerful in Belarus today. There are lots of businesswomen in Russia. In Belarus businesses run by women are crumbs at the stall level. Men do not let women go. Recognition for my book came from Russia. It was appreciated in Russia and afterward appeared in Belarus. For some time it was even in the reading list.

As long as the struggle against communism lasted, people were ready to endure greyness, the asceticism of life.

Now Łukašenka has removed it, due to personal relations. Except for the reluctance of power, there is also the reluctance of men. In Russia, my book was warmly welcomed, in Belarus, it was drowned out by men’s objections to a female point of view. Wherever I appear publicly, I repeat that this is not a book about the times of the Second World War. This is a book about how to remain human, how to preserve humanity. This is not a traditional reportage. This is a reportage of feelings. It is a narrative about what history skips. Usually, we are offered facts, numbers, and data. For me, feelings are the most important.

You admitted that if you could write this book again, instead of feelings or the souls of your heroines, you would take a closer look at subconsciousness, a “biological human”. What is this biological human and where do you think the limit of humanity is?

Every document changes, it goes forward. We are also changing and we will be changing. When I started my book I was young, I also had illusions. Today, I disbelieve human nature. I know that man is not made for such overloads. How to withstand it? How will the physical part of a person behave? Man is also an animal. Today my book would be much crueler. But I also think, although many of my heroines died, that I would like to ask them about love. It was a taboo subject, and now I would like to know.

Fot. Eliza Kania
Imaginaries of homosovieticus. Socrealist relievo in Budapest memento-park. Fot. Eliza Kania

Do you think that they would be happy to answer these questions?

A German director who made a film about my heroines asked them about it. They did not want to tell her anything. She had a hysteria attack. She said she came to them as a friend, as a sister, and they treat her as a German girl. After fifteen years, when I added some threads to my book, they said a little more, but yet not as much as I would like. When these women got old, love turned into a delusion. They are no longer young, they are no longer beautiful. However it may have been, they see it differently. They are not afraid of anything anymore, but still, they are often ashamed. One of them even got angry: “write about me as a soldier, not like I was a prostitute!”

Why is this happening?

Everyone is related to the time they live in and the consequences of this time, which is why it is so complex.

Aren’t love and war contradictory?

There’s a story by a Japanese writer about two young people in the XXII century. The man moves to the twentieth century. In the mailbox, there is a call to the army. He wonders how it’s possible. He can’t understand who dares to violate his happiness? This shows that it’s possible that one day love will be the most important thing. Maybe these future people will be surprised that people once went to war, just as we are surprised that people once ate each other.

You call the narrative method you chose the “epic refrain”, the “chorus of voices”. Why did you decide on this way of presenting your heroines’ stories?

It takes me a long time to write my books, from 7 to 10 years. In the case of “Unwoman face of war,” I added some statements after many years. I’m meeting with hundreds of people. I tend to call my genre variously: a “novel of voices”, a “collective novel”.

In Soviet schools, no one taught us to live. We were taught how to die. We wrote essays on how we would die for our homeland.

So, how is it possible that despite you rarely literary add your own voice to your stories, you are always present somehow?

When we look at a church building, there is no master’s visiting card. It’s effect and design that count. You have to die with each of these heroes and heroines to be resurrected again. I try to merge with this flow of life so that the book becomes an understanding, a cognition of life. It’s a difficult job. I am present as a philosophy, as a point of view. This is not an ordinary document. This is a living thing. I am present in every passage I put it together. My books are about small people, small stories. People want to read about themselves.

I read on your website that your next book will be about love. Is it true?

Yes, with the book “Second-hand time” I end the cycle about the Soviet man. After closing this cycle, a book about love will appear. The next one will concern old age. I wonder if a ninety-year-old man knows more about life. Perhaps the cult of old age will prevail in the future.

Women are often smarter, better educated. They do not sit in the kitchen, but in public they always let men go first. I do not know why.

You pay a lot of attention to the issue of memory about women. You say that in post-Soviet countries it’s neglected, destroyed. You live in Germany, you lived in Sweden. Can we learn from them to care for memory about women?

In Germany, books about stenographers and secretaries of Hitler are the most popular. Why? Because they showed fascism from a more human side. I think that the voice of defeat still dominates there. Besides, I think they are ashamed of this time. There are no books about women and war. The exception is “Aimee & Jaguar” and a film based on this book. I met women fighting on the German front. They came to me after the meetings. One of them said: “It’s a pity we do not have a book about German women on the front”. Later she asked: “but do we have the right to such a book?”

And what about a “Slavic ground”?

Women are often smarter, better educated. They do not sit in the kitchen, but in public they always let men go first. I do not know why. Maybe because it is not approved to show women. A Russian general, when he read in a newspaper that in one of the Scandinavian countries, a woman is the minister of national defense, he said: “I can not imagine that a woman is a military commander.” Indeed, the perspective is certainly changing.

Thank you for this conversation.

Many thanks to Ms. Agnieszka Hrynyk, without whom this conversation would probably be impossible.