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Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl and the Nobel Prize

By on Oct 24, 2015 in Book Reviews, Creative Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction, Reviews, Short Story Reviews | 5 comments

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Read a selection taken from Voices from Chenobyl, at the Paris Review. Chapter from Voices From Chernobyl

Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich


Svetlana Alexievich was the author of choice at my Wednesday short story review group. The story was a chapter from Voices from Chernobyl: A History of a Nuclear Disaster, a compilation of the stories of many people tied together by one uncomfortable fact; they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were there when the Chernobyl plant blew. Alexievich’s writing isn’t a short story. It isn’t even fiction. It’s journalism but not the kind of dispassionate factual recitation we expect from journalists. It’s highly emotional and, as I read it, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the action. The voices are many and varied: some are educated, some are not; some are intelligent and some are not; some are aware of a world outside the narrow bounds of Chernobyl and some are not. I kept thinking about what I would have done if I had been there. Immediately I judged. I wouldn’t do that, I thought. I wouldn’t have exposed my baby to radioactive fallout so I could stay with my husband. But I think that only because I have the advantage of looking at what happened in hindsight. What if, like Lyudmilla Ignatenko, I didn’t understand? She thought as her husband thought, that it was only a fire. The dangers were slowly revealed to her by first hand experience. She was not educated about the dangers. She wasn’t uneducated in general nor was she stupid. She hadn’t been informed of the dangers. Her story takes up the first five pages and is dramatically emotional. The quote below brought it home to me.

She says, “The last two days in the hospital—pieces of his lungs, of his liver, were coming out of his mouth. He was choking on his internal organs. I’d wrap my hand in a bandage and put it in his mouth, take out all that stuff. It’s impossible to talk about. It’s impossible to write about. And even to live through.”

Such details can only come from first hand witnesses. I was repulsed. I put down the paper, got up and

Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

walked around before I could go back. I needed to steel myself for it. This is what happened, what actually happened, and no newspaper account could have made it more real.

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel prize for literature this year and she deserves it. The Academy says that the prize was awarded “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” In the past I’ve questioned the Academy’s choice of writers. I didn’t understand their criteria. This year I learned what that criterion is. Alfred Nobel specified in his will that all five prizes were to be awarded to those who, in a given year, “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” The prize for literature is to be awarded to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” [1] It’s not about good writing; it’s about benefiting mankind. Sometimes the two goals intersect in one writer and that’s a great thing. It also doesn’t need to be a writer of fiction. It could be a journalist, an essayist, a poet or a graphic artist. The Nobel committee has a bit of a problem interpreting what Nobel meant by “ideal direction”. It would seem that lately they award a writer who most graphically illuminates human suffering. This year’s award does that admirably as you will see when you read Alexievich’s work. I’m glad to finally get this settled in my mind. I may know what to look for next year.

Chenobyl happened in 1986 and was the biggest disaster of the twentieth century. For such a huge and overreaching calamity, we know very little about it. Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985 and brought in new policies, policies meant to goad the lagging Russian economy to perform better. The policies were glasnost, an open exchange of ideas and goods with the west and pereshtoika which allowed limited market incentives. Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. As Bob Dillon said, “The times they were achanging.” The cold war was ending.

When the Chenobyl disaster occurred, Russia was still very much a socialist society and an oligarchy. Decisions were made at the top. The army was in charge and the people trusted that everything would be okay even as the world as they then knew it dissolved into a monstrous abomination. Nothing made sense. The people in this history cling to what used to be, to yesterday’s world. They didn’t understand nuclear danger. They didn’t leave Chenobyl. The people who lived and worked around or in the plant trusted the government and awareness of the depth of the threat and the extent of the government’s ineptitude in dealing with the crisis crept in slowly as the days ploughed inexorably on. People started dying and the danger finally came home to them. There was no plan; no one in charge had any idea what to do. The plan, the action they took, was to reassure the public and to hide, minimize, and disparage the danger.

The following quote is taken from Svetlana Alexievich’s website. It’s a prayer for the future written in her own words. I suggest that you visit her website. Unlike many author’s websites it does more than advertise her books. Svetlana Alexievich’s website

The Chenobyl Prayer: Chronicles of the Future.

Our vision and nose do not yet sense the new enemy, one that is coming from the future – radiation. Even our words and feelings are not adjusted to what had happened and our whole experience of suffering, underlying our history, is of little use to us now. Our measure of horror is the same – war. Our consciousness does not move deeper than that, it stands still at the threshold. What happened in Chenobyl is much worse than the gulags and the Holocaust.

Chenobyl changed our relationship with time. The words “forever” and “never” filled with a different meaning and assumed material form. All our previous notions about large and small catastrophes turned out to be insufficient – man peered into the chasm of the cosmos. We were deprived of immortality at once. Time stopped still on the dead territory and became what it is [and] has always been – eternity.

Some day, our days, the Chernobyl days, will become a myth. New generations will be looking back at us and wonder how it all happened, what sort of people lived than, what they felt and thought, how they related it all and what they remembered.

Man and event – could they be equal? Events related by one person make up his/her own life, but events related by many people make up history.

The history of Chernobyl is still being written. This is a riddle for the 21st century and a challenge to it.


The statement from the Academy announces that the prize was awarded “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”[2] The secretary, Sara Danius, calls her writing “a new literary genre.”[3] In a sense it is new and in another sense it is a technique that has been around for a long time. It has been used both in fiction, and in journalism to show a collage of voices. Alexievich’s power comes from her ability to edit and combine the voices she hears during first person interviews into a whole that reads well and makes sense as a story. Usually the author has a purpose for writing, an intention, something they want to get across to the reader and they carefully control the information in the text. In this kind of writing there is less of the author’s influence but the voices she chooses to use and the order in which she presents them certainly contribute to the unity of the whole — something like a patchwork quilt. What is polyphony?

Polyphony is a writing technique by which many, often contrasting perspectives tell the story. The resulting novel is “many voiced”, allowing layers of contradiction, similarity and identification that is more nuanced and complex than a narrative with one narrator or an omniscient writer who controls what the reader knows and believes.[4]

I’ve learned a number of words from looking up information on this story. The first was polyphony. Others were dialogism, heteroglossia and derivative words like polyphonic and heteroglossic. Cool. I think so anyway. It makes my day go round. Heteroglossic is from the Greek. Hetero means different and glossa means tongue or language. I could bring these words up almost anywhere and not be understood. Not a good thing. It makes me kind of slaphappy to even think about it.

Svetlana Alexievich herself testifies to being influenced by Ales Adamovich, 1927 to 1994, a fellow Belarusian, who wrote Khatyn. The name, Khatyn, comes from a town in Belarusia and the protagonist, the boy Flyora, tells how he grew up during World War II witnessing genocide and crimes of humanity. The novel is a stage where the dead come to life and tell their stories, true stories based on previously sealed war archives and rare witness records of survivors.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 to 1881) is credited with being the first polyphonic writer. I remember being

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

enthralled with The Idiot, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov from the lonely year I spent in the Yemen Arab Republic where the only books available were from the Russian Propaganda store. They were even free. Thank you Russia. I wouldn’t have made it through that year without them. What I saw in Dostoevsky in general was a tortured guilt-ridden examination of right and wrong. His characters, from the Christ-like to the demon, express a duality of human nature and his genius is his ability to show both sides, the good and the bad, with equal aptitude.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 to 1975) was the first to point out that Fyodor Dostoevsky was “the first truly polyphonic novelist in literary history.”[5] Dostoevsky’s fictional characters “have been endowed with autonomous voices to such an extent that the reader can no longer discern any authorial control over their utterances or actions.”[6] That’s what I said but only half as well.

Mikhail Bakhtin wrote Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetry in 1972. In addition he wrote two other books, The Dialogic Imagination, four essays written in 1970, and Rabelais and His World in 1965.

In a nutshell Bakhtin believed:

1   In the unfinalizability of the individual soul.
2   That Individuals are intertwined.
3   That Dostoevsky was a polyphonist.
4   In “carnival theory”. Distinct voices are heard and flourish and interact together. To me this means that putting on a costume and pretending to be someone else as during Carnival or Halloween. With a classless society, it creates a threshold to a new reality — a new perspective. The clearest explanation I found on Carnivalesque or Carnival theory was in a paper entitled Ruth and Bakhtin’s Theory of Carnival by Nehama Aschkensay.

Ruth and Bakhtin’s Theory of Carnival

Mikhail Bakhtin’s thematization of humor and the comic has made him popular in postmodern critical circles precisely because his studies expand the theory of carnival beyond a single folk event and identify the carnivalesque as a semiotic cultural code,

Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin

signifying more than just texts which focus on the specific popular tradition in medieval Europe. Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, manifest in his discussions of Rabelais and “forbidden laughter” in medieval folk culture, argued that folk celebrations which allowed for rowdy humor and the parody of authority offered the oppressed lower classes relief from the rigidity of the feudal system and the church and an opportunity for expressing nonconformist, even rebellious views. The carnivalesque spirit, therefore, is a form of popular, “low” humor   which celebrates the anarchic and grotesque elements of authority and of humanity in general and encourages the temporary “crossing of boundaries” where the town fool is crowned, the higher classes are mocked, and the differences between people are flattened as their shared humanity, the body, becomes subject of crude humor. Bakhtin saw in carnivalesque humor a social force that allowed a text to enter a sociopolitical discourse, while enjoying impunity, and thus bring about cultural transformation.[7]

This story was not easy. It was full of pain but it was also full of love. And I cannot judge how people in it reacted. That’s the great thing this story taught me.








[7] BakhtinforSBLNov07.pdf

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  1. Ana

    October 26, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Hi Anne: thank you for publishing your review of Svetlana Alexievich’s short story, Voices of Chernobyl . I had the same reaction as you did. It was a powerful account of human suffering , suffering, that in all likelihood, could have been avoided, if not minimized. A difficult, but necessary read.

    • hannahpowers

      October 31, 2015

      Post a Reply

      Thanks Ana. I’ve been very busy lately and didn’t get a change to respond. Thank you for reading. This review is a little more developed than the group review. I had done a lot of research and I thought I might as well use it.

  2. Suzanne Kelly

    October 31, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Dear Anne: Thank you for sharing this powerful review with me. I learned so much from it and especially appreciated your analysis of the criteria used for the selection of Nobel literature. I wanted to read this book and now I will. Thank you!

    • hannahpowers

      October 31, 2015

      Post a Reply

      It’s so great to hear from you. It’s been a long time and you are very generous in your approval. I hope it doesn’t affect you emotionally too much. It will be a difficult read.

  3. Cathy

    November 4, 2015

    Post a Reply

    I’ve been wanting to read this review for awhile and it didn’t disappoint — I very much want to read Alexievich now. I appreciate your thoughtful comments explaining why the Nobel committee makes the decisions they make.

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