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The Story in History

Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for her documentary narratives of life in the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. An author who has committed her life to channeling the voices of others now assumes the role of speaker in this wide-ranging conversation with Nina L. Khrushcheva.

KYIV – In 2015, the oral historian Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her “documentary novels” showcasing life in Russia and in the Soviet Union before its collapse. Through multi-voice narratives distilled from hundreds of conversations, Alexievich composes a symphony of meaning from what would otherwise be a cacophony of memories. Her work captures not only the emotions of its subjects, but also the very essence of what humans experience, and how they behave, under conditions of unrelenting stress.

An exceedingly private person, Alexievich recently met with Nina L. Khrushcheva in Ukraine, where both were participating in a Holocaust memorial project. Over the course of several afternoons, Alexievich, an author who is more accustomed to listening than speaking, shared her thoughts on politics, literature, and even on the craft of conducting interviews. “You ask really small human questions,” she advises. “That’s how people open up. When you ask a big one, such as, “What do you think of Russian President Vladimir Putin?,” people issue declarations instead of saying what they really think.”

Gulag Psychology

Nina Khrushcheva: I won’t ask what you think of Putin. Instead, I want to ask why Putin is popular in Russia. What are the qualities that make him so?

Svetlana Alexievich: Putin is trying to “raise Russia from its knees” under his renewed brand of Russian nationalism. In the Soviet Union, a person was subordinate to the idea of a great nation. His life had little value outside of the state. Personal life was insignificant compared to the higher ideals of universal communism. The Soviet man was given welfare-state stability, however meager, in exchange for the lack of freedom.

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