Belarusan journalist Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday for work that the Swedish Academy described as “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
The Nobel committee rarely chooses nonfiction writers for the literature prize. Alexievich, 67, is the author of, among other books, “Voices From Chernobyl,” about survivors of the nuclear plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986. She has also been a forceful critic of Russian military action and of President Vladimir Putin.
Reacting to the news, Alexievich told the CBT channel, “To become a winner is a huge event. Such an unexpected, almost unsettling feeling. I am thinking now about great Russian writers such as Pasternak.” Alexievich is the sixth winner who writes in Russian.
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, made the announcement in Stockholm. In a televised interview afterward, Danius called Alexievich “an extraordinary writer. . . . She’s actually devised a new genre, a new kind of literary genre.”
“For the past 30 or 40 years, [Alexievich] has been busy mapping the Soviet and post-Soviet individual,” the Nobel secretary said. “But it’s not really about a history of events. It’s a history of emotions. What she’s offering us is really an emotional world.
“So,” Danius added, “these historical events that she’s sort of covering in her various [ways] — the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and so on — these are, in a way, just pretext for exploring the Soviet individual and the post-Soviet individual. She’s conducted thousands and thousands of interviews with children, with women and with men, and in this way she’s offering us a history of a human being about whom we don’t really know that much. . . . And at the same time, she’s offering us a history of emotions, a history of the soul.”
When Alexievich got the call that she had won the Nobel Prize, she reportedly exclaimed, “Fantastic!” The award is worth about $960,000.
Alexievich, who is half-Ukrainian, has decried Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and criticized the Russian president. Earlier this year, she told an interviewer, “Putin is not a politician. Putin is a KGB agent. And whatever he does is provocations, which KGB is usually involved in.”
Such comments have made her unpopular in the official Russian press. On Thursday morning, a reporter with the Kremlin presidential press pool tweeted: “Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, for hating Russia.”
At a news conference Thursday, Alexievich was asked about statements that she hates the Russian people. She replied: “I think that nobody loves the truth. I write what I think. I don’t hate. I love the Russian people. I love the Belarusan people. . . . I love Ukraine very much. And when I was on Maidan, on the square recently, and saw the photos of the Heavenly Hundred, I stood and cried. It’s also my land. So, no. It’s not hate. It’s — how can I say it? — it’s hard to be a truthful person, very hard. And one needn’t fall into this readiness to agree that totalitarian authority always counts on.”
The Belarusan foreign ministry issued a statement saying: “We welcome the decision of the Nobel Committee on awarding the prize in literature for 2015 to our compatriot, Belarusan writer Svetlana Alexievich. This is the first award received by a citizen of our sovereign country, and it will enter the history of formation of the Belarusan nation, society and the state. Our land is rich in talents, and we are sure that the Nobel Prize of Svetlana Alexievich will not be the last high international award for outstanding achievements of Belarusans.”
Dmitry Bykov, a well-known Russian poet, biographer and journalist, told Radio Ekho Moskvy that he is “happy that the Nobel Committee gave an award to the person for her artistic skills, for the truth and her civil position.”
“This award brings pride and the feeling of approval. First of all, because the fifth representative of the Soviet literature got an award — Alexievich started to publish in the Soviet Union,” Bykov said. “And even though the Soviet Union does not exist anymore, the Russian world does, and I mean not the Russian world that we keep hearing about from TV — not the world of aggression, lies and chauvinism — but the world of struggle for truth, world of kindness and humanness. And it is wonderful that the award went to an author who consistently enters the most closed areas, who was the first to tell the truth about female catastrophe in a war, about the price women pay for participation in a war.”
Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusan writer and founder of “Belarusan partisan,” told Ekho Moskvy: “Belarusan authorities will try to get advantage of and use the Nobel award to their benefits, but the writer will not give them an opportunity to use herself for such purposes. The triumph of Alexievich is the victory not only of Belarus but also of Ukraine and Russia. The writer was born in Ukraine, and she always says that her main reader is in Russia and she is a part of Russian culture.”
Danius, the Swedish Academy secretary, said her favorite book by Alexievich is “War’s Unwomanly Face,” about the female soldiers in World War II. It was originally censored in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, but it still sold millions of copies. More recent editions in Russia have restored the omitted passages.
The Nobel Prize in literature can be a boon for publishers throughout the world. Although mostly unknown in the United States, Alexievich’s books are sure to attract intense interest now.
John O’Brien, the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press, bought the rights in the United States to “Voices From Chernobyl” after reading Alexievich’s work in a literary magazine from Moscow. It went on to win the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” O’Brien said Thursday morning from Chicago. He and Alexievich once met at a Lannan Foundation meeting, where they had to converse through an interpreter. “She’s impassioned,” O’Brien said. “That passion, that determination shows up in all her books. She’s always supporting these hopeless causes.”
Dalkey Archive Press sold the paperback rights to Picador, but it plans to reissue a hardback edition of “Voices From Chernobyl” soon, possibly in the next few days.
Meanwhile, Picador will immediately begin printing an additional 20,000 paperback copies of “Voices From Chernobyl,” with more reprintings expected in the following months.
Natasha Abbakumova and Andrew Roth in Moscow contributed to this report.