paper trail

Svetlana Alexievich and the politics of oral history

Keith Gessen

Two of Svetlana Alexievich’s translators responded in the Guardian to yesterday’s announcement that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature: Bela Shayevich, who’s at work on an English version of Second-hand Time, her “collection of oral histories from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to the anti-Putin protests of 2012,” quoted from Alexievich’s introduction: “History’s sole concern is the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. . . . But I look at the world as a writer, and not strictly an historian.” And Keith Gessen (who translated Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster in 2004) reflected on the politics of her win: “When a critic of the Russian (as well as, in this case, Belarusian) regime receives a prize, it’s hard not to read it as a rebuke to the Kremlin. . . . But Alexievich’s work is also very much the opposite of most rebukes coming at Russia from the west. The people she talks to, the co-authors of her books, are working people, women and elderly people – precisely those who are left behind when we bring the former USSR our IMF-tailored 'reforms,' our sharp-looking investment bankers, our latest anti-tank weapons. Alexievich’s voices are those of the people no one cares about, but the ones whose lives constitute the vast majority of what history actually is.”

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